Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 24, 2016.
When it comes to Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, you know about the talent, the play-making ability. Here are 10 things you might not know about him:
1. Lee, Lee, Lee, Lee & Lee?
Fortunately for Cowboys fans, Lee didn’t enter into the family business. Lee comes from a family of lawyers, including his grandfather, Donald J. Lee, a former federal judge in Western Pennsylvania who was given a lifetime appointment by President George H. W. Bush. Lee’s father, Craig, and uncles Christopher and Kevin were also lawyers.
“Maybe as a kid I thought about becoming a lawyer, but then I got good at [football] and it became my focus,” Lee told SportsDay.
His family’s lessons transferred to the field.
“I have a passion for the game,” Lee said. “I want to be on the field no matter what… When I was young I’d go fishing with [my grandfather] The Judge, and he would always preach about how to work hard and what it might bring.
“That’s what I do.”
2. Tenacious Lee
Though the Lees preferred suits and ties to shoulder pads, that doesn’t mean the family lacked in athletic talent. Sean’s older brother, Conor, was a kicker at the University of Pittsburgh and graduated as the Big East’s all-time leader in field goal percentage at 83.3%. He also never missed an extra point in his collegiate career, making a school-record 113 in a row. In fact, the Lee family patriarch, Craig, said Conor was the better natural athlete, but that Sean’s work ethic is what made him successful.
“Sean was always more tenacious,” Craig Lee said. “You’d tell him to shoot 100 free throws a day, and he’d shoot 200.”
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett echoes the sentiments. His praise for Lee ranges from “outstanding” and “instinctive” to a “physical leader,” “committed” with “intensity.”
Lee “plays the right way,” Garrett said.
Not a bad batch of praise from the robotic head coach.
3. NFL Man of the Year nominee
Lee’s long been a leader on the defense, the player who other defenders say they play for. But he’s also a man of high character. Lee was the Cowboys’ nominee for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year in 2016.
“Guys look to him, not only for the practical part of communication but just the example that he sets each and every day,” Garrett said. “He does that in our building. He does that out in the community. He’s a special guy to have on your team. He’s certainly one of the cornerstone players in this organization.”
Among Lee’s community service endeavors, he teamed with JCPenney to take kids from the local Y on a special holiday shopping experience at the Stonebriar Centre JCPenney store. In addition to a meet-and-greet opportunity, Lee helped the kids select gifts for their families.
He also partners with the Dreambuilders Foundation on programs that serve children and families in need in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
4. Safety first
Though Lee’s now bulked up to 238 pounds to play linebacker in the NFL, he wasn’t always so big. In fact, Lee played safety in high school, weighing in at just over 200 pounds. He made 95 tackles and had four interceptions as a senior at Upper St. Clair high, and he also ran for 1,240 yards and 21 touchdowns on 187 carries as a running back.
In 2016, he led the Cowboys defense with 145 tackles, a pass deflection and a fumble recovery. No Cowboys defender comes within 50 tackles of Lee. Does the NFL recognize it? He wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl in 2016 but was recognized as one of five All-Pro Cowboys during wild card weekend.
“It’s an unbelievable honor because there’s so many great players and so many great linebackers who play this game,” Lee said of the recognition. But the award wasn’t his end goal for 2016.
5. Hoops star
Football wasn’t Lee’s only standout sport. He was a three-year starter in basketball in high school, averaging 21.2 points and 9.1 rebounds per game as a senior. He also played AAU basketball, and Lee’s coach kept him in the game for so long, his father had to ask to reduce his playing time. The strangest part? The coach said no.
“He plays so hard, the other kids know they have to play that way to stay in the game,” the coach responded. “I can’t take him out.”
Lee is one a select few players who have been selected to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Fabulous 22 football team and the Fabulous Five basketball team.
Despite a decorated high school career and an impressive academic resume (he had a 3.78 GPA and scored an 1110 on the SAT), Lee wasn’t an especially sought-after recruit. Both Rivals.com and Scout.com ranked Lee as a three-star prospect coming out of high school, and he was overlooked by many of the Big Ten’s biggest programs (like Michigan and Ohio State). He did receive offers from three Big Ten schools — Iowa, Northwestern and Penn State — and he accepted a scholarship from the Nittany Lions to play football 140 miles from his hometown of Pittsburgh.
7. Quick start before tear
Lee didn’t take long to make an impression in Happy Valley. He didn’t start as a freshman but raised a few eyebrows when he beat Paul Posluszny, Penn State’s team captain, in the team’s daily post-practice sprint. Posluszny was known for never losing. In typical Lee fashion, he won’t admit to the win.
“We don’t talk about that,” Lee said.
And Lee ascended the ranks quickly. Despite his lack of hype coming out of high school, Lee cracked Penn State’s starting lineup as a true sophomore, racking up 228 tackles over the next two seasons. Lee became such a fixture of the Penn State team that even after he tore his ACL in spring practice prior to his senior year, his teammates voted him team captain anyway and the Penn State staff named Lee an undergraduate coach. While he sat the season out as a redshirt, Lee helped the Nittany Lions by relaying signals and offering in-game suggestions to his defensive teammates.
8. Through ACL tears, he ‘kept the fight alive’
Lee’s college injury kept him out of Penn State’s 2009 Rose Bowl. His second torn ACL sidelined him for the Cowboys’ 12-4 season and subsequent playoff run in 2014. But he won’t let it stop him. Lee constantly talks about how grateful he is to be healthy. He recently detailed his journey in a Cowboys mini-documentary.
“Tearing an ACL can be devastating,” Lee said. “The darkness that accompanies it is an uncommon challenge for anyone who experiences it. But darkness can only hold you down as long as you let it. … I chose to keep the fight alive.”
Now, he and the Cowboys’ “no-name” defense keep the fight alive, Lee said.
“It doesn’t matter if the world says we have no name. Our identity isn’t in our name anyway. The star of the defense is the defense.”
9. Picking off Peyton – twice
In a draft class loaded with defensive talent, Lee lasted until midway through the second round, when the Cowboys snatched him up at No. 55 and made him the fourth linebacker selected in the 2010 NFL Draft. Lee was in awe initially, even bringing a camera with him on his first day of rookie camp to snap a few pictures. But Lee didn’t evade the spotlight for long, eventually intercepting future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning twice in a December game that the Cowboys won in overtime. It served as Lee’s coming out party in the NFL.
“By the end of that game he had everyone’s attention,” ESPN analyst Tom Jackson said.
10. Lee and Lee Roy
Lee broke a 45-year-old Cowboys record in the Cowboys’ 10-7 loss at the Giants in December 2016. He also received the highest grade ever in Rod Marinelli’s system for the performance, which featured 17 solo tackles.
Lee Roy Jordan, a longtime Cowboys linebacker in the ’60s and ’70s, held the earlier 21-tackle mark in 1971 during a 42-7 trouncing of the Philadelphia Eagles. Lee tied that mark in 2012 before breaking it altogether in 2016.
“He’s been remarkably good,” head coach Jason Garrett said after the game. “He’s a great football player. We all know that.
Bonus: Last year in Dallas?
The 2018 season was another challenging year for Lee injury wise. Lee only played in seven games due to a hamstring injury, and while he was injured he lost his starting weak side linebacker spot to emerging rookie Leighton Vander Esch.
Lee is under contract for the 2019 season, but there is a strong chance the team could release him to save some money and move forward with Vander Esch at weak side linebacker.
The 32-year-old has 698 career tackles all with the Cowboys.
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