IRVING -- Sean Lee had been on the field for what must have seemed like the whole game.
On defense and special teams.
Making an interception and tackle after tackle.
"I was gassed," the second-year Cowboys linebacker said, thinking back to last week's game against the New York Jets in which he recorded a team-high 11 tackles (upgraded to 15 after the film session), plus a pass breakup. "There were certain times I was gassed."
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But the last thing he wanted to do was leave the game. And the Cowboys didn't want to take him out.
"I did a lot during the game," he said. "But it was one of those things. The atmosphere was so much fun. The game was so close. I wasn't going to come out."
That won't surprise anybody at Valley Ranch. Lee's enjoyment for the game is one reason the Cowboys think they might have something special on their hands in their second-round pick from 2010.
"He loves the game," coach Jason Garrett said. "Watch him in walk-through. Watch him in meetings. Watch him watching tape by himself when everybody else has left the building. He loves the game. He shows that in his play."
Lee is the football version of a gym rat. He smiles when he's told Garrett thinks about him that way.
"I'm here a lot," he said. "I just know how much it takes me to get ready for a game. And it takes me a lot. It takes a lot of work. So I'm always here, trying to get better, trying to get ready. I enjoy it, though. I love my job. I love playing football for the Cowboys.
"So it's not too painful to be here a lot."
The Cowboys are not hiding their faith in Lee. He played the whole game against the Jets at one of the inside linebacker spots while veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking -- who combined have more than 10 times the experience of Lee -- split time at the other spot.
"I've said all along the sky's the limit for Sean," said Brooking, a 14-year veteran who can sense Lee's rise. "He had a great training camp. I guess they felt like that was the way to move forward. And he deserves his chance. He's proved that he can do it."
Sunday was not the first time Lee has left his mark on a game.
Last year in Indianapolis, he intercepted Colts quarterback Peyton Manning twice, returning one of the picks for a touchdown. He also had nine tackles in that game.
Lee missed two games last year because of injury, but his first 15 games have yielded 56 tackles, three interceptions, three pass breakups and a forced fumble. His three interceptions are one more than James has in his nine-year career. (Brooking has 13).
"You said it. He's got a knack," Garrett said of Lee's interceptions. "He's got a great feel for coverage. He has a good understanding of football in general, but he also just seems to understand where the quarterback wants to throw. He does a good job of reading quarterbacks' eyes and understanding route combinations."
Now the Cowboys want to see him do it again.
"One of the things that we believe is if they've done it once, they're capable of doing it over and over and over again," Garrett said. "We're obviously looking for that consistency."
Brooking expects he'll see that consistency. And more good games.
"He's a very sharp kid, very intelligent guy, and he picks up the game," Brooking said. "The game comes easy for him. It's just him getting his opportunities and staying healthy. It didn't surprise me at all."