IRVING, Texas -- Every week, Sean Lee's helmet takes a beating. Scrapes, gouges and paint smears cover the front of it after each game.
If you look at pictures of Lee Roy Jordan, you see the same types of scrapes, gouges and -- on the color photos, anyway -- paint smears on his helmet when he played middle linebacker for the Cowboys. His uniform was covered in mud and grass stains. His fingers and hands were -- and are -- beat up.
The somewhat hermetically sealed game of today played on artificial turf has changed some of the look, but not the feel that links Lee to Jordan, the Cowboys' Ring of Honor linebacker.
As Jordan watches Lee, he likes what he sees but isn't so sure about the similarities.
"Well, I'd like to say I do, but he's bigger, stronger and faster than me," Jordan laughed. "But otherwise, I see a lot of me in him."
When the Cowboys play the Chicago Bears on Monday at Cowboys Stadium, they will welcome the NFL's greatest chain of inside linebackers from Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher. The first three are in the Hall of Fame and Urlacher should be there when he is done playing.
The Cowboys' chain is not linked so generationally, but from 1960 to '84 three players handled the role of dominant inside linebacker: Jerry Tubbs, Jordan and Bob Breunig. Lee is in the process of connecting with the past in a way predecessors Bradie James, Dat Nguyen, Robert Jones and Ken Norton, among others, did not.
Jordan was a five-time Pro Bowler and a two-time All-Pro. He was a Hall of Fame finalist in 1988 and was added to the Cowboys' Ring of Honor in 1989.
Lee is only 32 games into his career but is viewed already as a star in the making. Two weeks ago at Seattle he was credited with 21 tackles, tying Jordan's team record set on Sept. 26. 1971.
"I do love watching him," Jordan said. "He's got a motor that's really going full speed all the time. He knows where he's going. He knows the angles to take. He is an outstanding player. If he can stay healthy for a number of years, he'll be one of the great linebackers in the league."
Lee talked with Jordan and Bruenig at training camp this summer. He has heard stories about Jordan but has yet to go through the old game film to see him in action. One day soon, he hopes.
In Lee, Jordan sees a player who could succeed in any era.
"Obviously you take pride in that," Lee said, "because all the eras have something special to them. It just shows you can play football and play the game. It means a lot to me when it comes to playing the right way, playing hard and playing physical."
The NFL's greatest middle linebackers seem to share an intensity that burns deeply. Think of Singletary's eyes as he peered across the line of scrimmage. Think of Butkus' intimidation. Think of Ray Lewis' tenacity.
It's too soon to put Lee in that category because of what those players accomplished over a long career, but that intensity is there.
"Sean is focused," coach Jason Garrett said. "He communicates really well the defensive schemes, but his intensity is so obvious to everyone around him. I say this truthfully, but it's not always on the field. It's everywhere. You see him in a meeting room at 7:30 in the morning and he just ready to go. It's like the old-time Mike linebackers, some of those great names in NFL history; you almost feel like they have a little bit of a screw loose they're so intense. That's a really good thing."
Lee doesn't think he has a screw loose, but he admits to being intense. He wants to win. He wants to be great.
He wants to be like Jordan.
"Every time you look at the Ring of Honor," Lee said, "you see the success those guys had and see how they won Super Bowls and see not only how they played but how they carried themselves. It's a role model for us but also an inspiration."