Sean Lee remembered the anniversary last week. The Dallas Cowboys linebacker marked the occasion by continuing to work his way back to the lineup, refusing even to pause in acknowledgement of how far he’s come in the past year.
“It’s one of those deals [that] it’s hard to forget that,” Lee said Wednesday. “But I’ve been through a lot of OTAs in the past. I’ve been through a ton of practices in the past where everything has gone fine. You can’t really focus on getting injured. You have to go out, work hard, trust it and play.”
The six-year veteran knew it was a matter of time.
He played five-plus seasons on a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament, but his left knee finally gave out.
Lee’s 2014 season ended in the first two hours of the team’s first organized team activity when he lost his footing while changing direction and crumpled under the block of rookie right guard Zack Martin.
“When I came back for that fifth year at Penn State, the third game in, I partially tore it,” Lee said. “I took off about three games, and then played with it. It would shift every once in a while. The further I got away from the injury, the less it would shift. It happened maybe a couple a times a season to maybe once or twice a season. I thought it would be fine, and then when I slipped last year, the knee went on me. It was a matter of time.”
Lee has been here, rehabbed that.
His draft stock fell because of his injury history at Penn State. He missed the entire 2008 season with a torn right ACL and three more games in 2009 with the partially torn ACL in his left knee, dropping him into the second round of the 2010 draft.
Lee last played a full season in 2007.
In his five-year NFL career, Lee has played 46 games and missed 34. He missed two games in 2010 with a hamstring injury, one game in 2011 with a wrist injury, 10 games in 2012 with a toe injury that required surgery, five games in 2013 with hamstring and neck injuries and all 16 in 2014.
“The injuries and all of that stuff, hopefully that’s in the past,” Lee said. “That’s something you can’t focus on. You just have to focus on getting better.”
No player was more excited for the start of the off-season program than Lee. The Cowboys allow him to participate in individual drills but are holding him out of team work.
“He’s excited,” linebackers coach Matt Eberflus said. “He’s champing at the bit to get back in there. We’re just kind of holding him back a little bit right now.”
Lee said his knee has healed fully, with Dr. Dan Cooper having cleared him. Lee doesn’t wear a knee brace and expects to be a full participant at training camp.
The Cowboys can’t wait to get him back.
“You know him, boy,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “He’s on every screw. He’s tightening every screw up.”
The Cowboys have helped their defense this off-season with the additions of several players, including Byron Jones, Randy Gregory and Greg Hardy. They also are counting on the return of Lee, who has made 376 tackles, 11 interceptions and 18 pass breakups in his career.
Lee will move to weakside linebacker, the most important linebacking position in the Tampa 2. He had started at middle linebacker.
“He’s just a hell of a football player,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s a good fit really anywhere. Probably his greatest strengths are his instincts and his ability to read and recognize what’s going on on the other side of the ball. He’s just one of those guys who just sees things so quickly. He processes the play and gets to where he needs to get really instantaneously. He does that in the run game. He does that in the passing game. It’s a tribute to him.
“I’ll bet if you watched him play Pop Warner football when he was 7 years old, he was the guy making all the plays. So I think he has that as part of his DNA, but he works very hard at the game.”
Charean Williams, 817-390-7760
Linebacker has been one of the most active positions this off-season for the Dallas Cowboys:
Justin Durant: Signed with Atlanta.
Bruce Carter: Signed with Tampa Bay.
Damien Wilson: 4th-rd draft pick
Mark Nzeocha: 7th-rd draft pick
Kyle Knox: 3-year veteran
Keith Rivers: 6-year veteran
Jasper Brinkley: 7-year veteran
Andrew Gachkar: 5-year veteran
Donnie Baggs: Undrafted rookie free agent
Sean Lee: 6th season in Dallas
Rolando McClain: 5-year veteran
Anthony Hitchens: 2nd season
Cameron Lawrence: 3rd season
Kyle Wilber: 4th season