IRVING, Texas -- Football isn’t fair.
If it were, there is no way Sean Lee would go down on the first day of Dallas Cowboys’ OTAs, reportedly suffering a torn ACL in his left knee that will sideline him for the 2014 season.
Few players in the NFL put as much time, energy and effort into attempting to prevent injuries by training and treating their body. Unfortunately, few players get hurt as often as Lee, an elite middle linebacker when he’s fortunate enough to be on the field.
No wonder Lee, typically as mild mannered off the field as he is intense on it, unleashed a stream of expletives as he was helped into the Valley Ranch trainers’ room Tuesday afternoon.
“He’s a guy that’s worked really hard ever since he got here,” said tight end Jason Witten, who has missed only one game during his 11-season career, in part because he has a work ethic similar to Lee’s. “One of the hardest-working guys on the team, great approach to the game. He’s passionate, he’s smart, he’s tough. I mean, anytime that guy, you see an injury, you always feel bad for him.”
Folks feel bad a lot for Lee, who quarterback Tony Romo calls the “epitome of what you want in a football player.”
Just think of the last few times we’ve seen Lee on a football field. He limped off the Superdome turf after suffering a strained hamstring on Nov. 10. After rehabbing around the clock, he returned earlier than expected, only to suffer a season-ending neck injury in his first game back on Dec. 9. Then his left knee gives out in the first official team practice of the offseason, a freak play that had nothing to do with the contact by rookie guard Zack Martin.
Add those injuries to a way-too-long list for Lee. He missed the last 10 games of the 2012 season when he needed toe surgery. He only missed one game in 2011, but he played most of the season with a cast to protect his dislocated wrist. He missed a couple of games as a rookie with a hamstring injury.
Of course, the Cowboys knew Lee came with durability risks when they drafted him. That is why they were able to get such a talent late in the second round. He missed the 2008 season at Penn State after tearing his right ACL, then missed a few games in 2009 with a sprained left ACL.
The Cowboys had experienced the downside of those risks when they gave Lee a six-year extension with a $10 million signing bonus last summer. That is why the deal, which has a base value of $42 million, includes $9 million in incentives tied to playing time.
But finances have nothing to do with Lee’s frustration. Fate has denied him the chance to fulfill his burning desire to compete in 2014, just as it did while the Cowboys were fighting for a playoff spot in each of the past two seasons.
Lee has done everything possible to prepare to be one of the NFL’s best defensive players. Instead, he’ll spend this season as a sympathetic figure.