Linebacker Sean Lee was a scratch for the Dallas Cowboys’ third annual Home Run Derby for obvious reasons. His 2014 football season ended before it started Tuesday during the first day of the team’s organized team activities.
Coach Jason Garrett declined to confirm that Lee tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee with a slight tear in his meniscus, saying only the team was going through a “thorough evaluation.”
But players at the Reliant-sponsored charity event, which raised $50,000 for The Salvation Army on Wednesday at Globe Life Park, talked about an immediate future without the quarterback of their defense.
“The way it went down you can’t help but be a little bit upset about it, there’s no question,” tight end Jason Witten said. “That’s the game we play, and everybody has those injuries, and the teams that are able to fill those voids and step up, that’s what you have to do. You don’t have any choice. This team is pretty resilient, and I think we’ll find a way to do that.”
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The Cowboys weren’t even two hours into their first off-season practice when Lee lost his footing while trying to change direction and crumpled under the block of rookie right guard Zack Martin. Video of the play shows teammates’ frustration as trainers attend to Lee.
“I kind of knew right away,” said safety Barry Church, who won the Derby with $8,400 worth of hits. “He went down pretty fast. I was right behind him when it happened. That’s one of my best friends on the team. It feels awful. But we have his back no matter what. That’s tough right there.”
Lee never has played a full season, missing 18 games in his career. A strained hamstring and a sprained neck kept him out of five games last season. The Cowboys started three players at middle linebacker in Lee’s absences last season — Ernie Sims, Justin Durant and DeVonte Holloman.
“Obviously, it’s a huge loss to our team, especially our defense, but at the same time, guys have to step up,” weakside linebacker Bruce Carter said. “It’s kind of bad to say, but we’ve been in this situation before. Guys have got to step up and just play their role.”
Church and Brandon Carr expect to fill Lee’s leadership role, but Carr said all 11 players need to contribute.
“That’s what happens when your main dog goes down,” Carr said. “Everybody has to carry the load now. Not only my shoulders, but the other guys around the locker room, veteran guys, on that side of the ball.”
Lee returned to Valley Ranch on Wednesday to tutor the young players expected to play middle linebacker this season. The Cowboys drafted Iowa’s Anthony Hitchens to serve as Lee’s backup, and Hitchens took all the first-team reps Wednesday. Garrett also mentioned Holloman and Durant as possible fill-ins at the position.
“I’m trying to get better every day,” Hitchens said Wednesday while watching the Home Run Derby. “I can’t worry about the spotlight. I’ve got a long way before I’m where I need to be. I’m just here to get better and help this team the best way I can.”
Players live by a “next-man-up” mantra in the NFL, knowing injuries are an inevitable part of the game, but the Cowboys concede they will miss Lee. Receiver Dez Bryant said he will write Lee’s No. 50 somewhere on his equipment before every game.
“[Lee] has dealt with some injuries throughout his career, and he always handles it the right way,” Garrett said. “He always comes back stronger. …Knowing Sean Lee the way I know him, he will come back stronger than ever.”