IRVING, Texas -- When Sean Lee arrived as the Dallas Cowboys' second-round pick in 2010, he was told his left anterior cruciate ligament was 80 percent torn after injuring the knee in his senior year at Penn State.
“I always knew it was a matter of time before that thing probably went,” Lee said.
It went last spring in the first week of Cowboys’ organized team activities, 53 weeks ago. Lee’s torn ACL cost him the 2014 season and forced him to endure a second ACL rehab in six years. He tore his right ACL in spring drills in 2008 at Penn State.
“I played on pretty torn ACL for a couple of years,” Lee said. “That’s what the main injury was with me coming in. The right [knee] was fine. But when I came back for that fifth year at Penn State, the third game in, I partially tore it. 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 of 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.”
But think about what Lee was able to accomplish with only 20 percent of his ACL intact for the first four years of his career. He missed 18 games with hamstring, wrist, toe and neck injuries in his first four seasons but he was able to record two 100-tackle seasons, come up with 18 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback pressures, 18 pass breakups, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 11 interceptions, returning two for touchdowns.
“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,” coach Jason Garrett said. “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.”
Lee is hoping the game he loves, loves him back in 2015 by allowing him to play all 16 games for the first time in his career. He will play the weakside linebacker spot this season after playing middle linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme in 2013.
The position switch isn’t too great. He played a similar role when the Cowboys used a 3-4 scheme in his first three seasons.
“But I think there are going to be new situations and new scenarios I’m going to have to really work on,” Lee said. “It’s a position where you have a chance to make a lot of plays if you can play fast and read well and that’s what I’ve been working on now.”
Lee wants to be able to do all of it right now, but the athletic trainers and coaches are keeping him on a somewhat strict practice diet for the time being. He hopes to maybe do more in the final two weeks of the offseason program and will be full go for the start of training camp on July 30 in Oxnard, California.
“You know him,” defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “Boy, he’s on every screw. He’s tightening every screw.”
The misery of the rehab process has been replaced by anxiousness now that he is so close to being on the field again.
“It’s one of those things in the past you know you’ve just got to focus on your exercises and can’t be out there,” Lee said. “Now, because I feel good, I’m like, ‘Oh, let me get out there, let me try this, let me see how I feel.’ And they’re kind of reigning me back a little bit, which is a good thing. I think anytime with an injury, you never want to skip a step in the progression. You always want to progress properly and that’s what they’re doing for me.”