Chuck Greenberg remembers one player standing out more than the rest when he coached Little League baseball years ago in the Pittsburgh area.
That kid’s name? Sean Lee.
“The most intense youth athlete I ever saw,” said Greenberg, the former Texas Rangers chief executive officer who is now CEO of the Frisco RoughRiders. “He was 11 or 12 and happened to strike out. He was so upset he pounded himself on the head with a bat and I was afraid he knocked himself out.
“But he was a great athlete, great player. A very nice and polite kid, too, with off-the-charts intensity.”
That intensity hasn’t left.
Lee is among the most passionate players on the Dallas Cowboys and is ready to return to his hometown Sunday and take on his childhood team, the Steelers.
Lee takes pride in being a Western Pennsylvania guy, growing up in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, a region that molded him into the type of player and person he is today. And, boy, did he love his hometown team.
Lee used to start “Here we go, Steelers” chants at recess. In third grade, he cried after his beloved team lost to the Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX. He wore a Jerome Bettis jersey, and hung a “Steel Curtain” poster in his Penn State dorm room.
But all that changed on April 23, 2010.
Becoming a Cowboy
Lee gathered with more than a hundred friends at his family’s home and a Hollywood-esque script appeared ready to play out. The Steelers had the 52nd overall pick, needed a linebacker and had brought Lee in for a pre-draft visit.
Lee was available.
“They announce the pick — the Steelers take Jason Worilds, linebacker, Virginia Tech, and my house emptied. Everybody was deflated,” said Sean’s father, Craig Lee. “Sean was upset. You want to go in the second round and it starts getting late. Sean walks out with his brother Conor and I, and we say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be OK. Who else needs a linebacker?’
“Sean says, ‘Maybe Dallas.’ I ran upstairs real quickly to change clothes and I hear all this commotion downstairs. Jerry Jones was on the phone with Sean, and he was grinning ear to ear. Sean was elated. It was a great day. You go from being disappointed one second to being real happy.”
55th Overall pick the Cowboys used to select linebacker Sean Lee in the 2010 NFL Draft. His hometown Steelers took linebacker Jason Worilds with the 52nd pick.
The Cowboys used the 55th overall pick on Lee and both have benefited.
“I thought I had a shot to go [to Pittsburgh], but there was obviously huge question marks and risks taking me because I had a partially torn ACL [on my left knee], I was coming off a torn ACL on my right knee,” Sean Lee said. “There was a big risk in taking me, and that’s why I’m so grateful to the Cowboys because they did take a big risk on me.
“They told me, ‘Hey, if you tear this knee, we’re going to fix it and you’re going to come back.’ They’ve really stuck with me through a lot.”
Yes, Lee has battled multiple injuries throughout his career, but is in the midst of his best season. He went to the Pro Bowl in 2015 and is now having what defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli called an “All-Pro” season.
“You watch from the stands and, man, who’s that guy? It’s that obvious. He’s having a terrific year,” Marinelli said.
Lee is leading the Cowboys with 79 tackles, and also has five tackles for loss and two pass breakups. He might be the only recognizable name on a defense that has exceeded outside expectations.
“Sean is a very instinctive player. He was probably the leading tackler on his Pop Warner team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s one of those guys who has a nose for the ball.
One, he wants to help this defense win and two, be a great player. It’s awesome.
Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, on Sean Lee
“But his preparation is off-the-charts. He’s here early. He stays late. He’s always asking questions and you see him in meetings, in walk-throughs always trying to get things squared away and right.”
An example of that came earlier this season after the Green Bay game. Lee dropped a potential interception and was frustrated by it.
Whom did he talk to? Wide receivers coach Derek Dooley.
Lee wanted to know how he could have made that catch and where his hands should have been.
Marinelli smiled when told that, saying: “He’s looking for any edge he can get. One, he wants to help this defense win, and two, be a great player. It’s awesome.”
It comes from his Pittsburgh roots.
That city is known for its blue-collar, hard-working union town ways. Not to mention the football talent it produces, ranging from George Blanda to Joe Montana to Dan Marino to Tony Dorsett.
Western Pennsylvania and North Texas are similar in regard to their passion for football, and there is great pride in being a “Pittsburgh guy.”
“There was a certain way we were taught to play from a young age and that’s hard-nosed, that’s blue-collar, that’s playing the right way: physical, tough, playing with a certain amount of intensity,” Lee said. “That’s something that when I was young, 9 years old, that was the only thing my dad talked about. He didn’t really care about the outcome. He cared about how I played the game, whether I was playing the right way or not.”
Lee certainly played the right way when he starred on both sides of the ball at Upper St. Clair High School. Lee played running back and free safety.
His high school coach, Jim Render, recalled a game in which Lee carried about eight defenders with him for a first down that essentially ended the game.
“It’s a play a lot of people still talk about,” Render said.
In another game, Lee rushed 31 times for two touchdowns and more than 200 yards. He also intercepted a pass. On that night, he received offers from Penn State and Pitt.
He’s a great source of pride of all of us, and he’s still basically the same guy — very respectful, still fun to be around.
Jim Render, Sean Lee’s high school football coach
“His junior and senior year, he was never off the field,” Render said. “And it’s great to see what he’s doing now for the Cowboys. We’re all very proud. He’s a great source of pride for all of us, and he’s still basically the same guy — very respectful, still fun to be around. And he’s always been a great leader, whether in high school, college or the NFL.”
There is no question Lee has developed into the leader of the Cowboys defense.
As linebacker Damien Wilson said, “Sean is the type of leader you dream of. He teaches mainly by example, but the guy is so in tune with football. It’s like he’s a coach you can talk to and also a peer, so it’s easier to talk to him. Anything about the playbook, you can ask him.”
Added linebacker Justin Durant: “He’s focused. He’s smart. He works hard. He plays with passion. He’s everything you would want in a teammate and as a leader. I can’t say enough about him.”
Lee is returning to the place it all started and hoping to hand his childhood team a loss.
His dad, Craig, said the city almost has a depressed feeling on Mondays if the Steelers lose on Sunday. That’s how important the team is to that city, and the Cowboys certainly rank among their least favorite opponents.
Sure, the Steelers won two Super Bowls over the Cowboys in the 1970s, but lost the one in the ’90s that brought tears to a young Sean Lee’s eyes.
Growing up here, the team you respected the most and hated the most were the Dallas Cowboys.
Craig Lee, Sean Lee’s father
“My dad was a federal judge and I’m from a family of seven. On draft night, he looks at me when the Cowboys drafted Sean and says, ‘This serves you right. You were a pain in the ass and the team you hated the most is the team that Sean ended up with,’ ” Craig said, laughing. “Growing up here, the team you respected the most and hated the most was the Dallas Cowboys.”
It’s an old-school rivalry that will be alive and well on Sunday, although the Lees have switched allegiances.
“I am 100 percent a Dallas Cowboys fan,” Craig said. “I can’t tell you how happy Sean is in Dallas. The Jones family has treated Sean and our family so well, he couldn’t be in a better place. Our whole family is excited for this game.”
Lee acknowledges his excitement to return home, too, but is quick to remind people of the talented Steelers offense led by Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
What else would you expect from a guy who prepares like a quarterback?
“It’ll be a lot of fun. I know my family is excited about it,” Lee said. “At the same point for me, my focus is trying to stop this unbelievable offense that they have that is loaded with talent starting with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Unbelievable running back, great receiving corps … got a great offensive line.
“For me, it’s a game where we’re going to have an extreme challenge.”
Cowboys at Steelers
3:25 p.m. Sunday, KDFW/4