OXNARD, Calif. – When Jason Witten abruptly announced his retirement from the NFL, ending his illustrious 15-year career, there was no question who the new leader of this Dallas Cowboys would be.
The coaches knew it. The players knew it. The fans even knew it as well.
Most importantly, Sean Lee not only knew it was time for him to take on that role as team spokesman, but he fully embraced it.
What he didn't know, was how early into training camp he would be tested.
Sure enough, on the second day of practice here in California, Lee found himself swarmed by cameras, having to address comments made by former teammate Dez Bryant, who referred to him as a "snake" on Twitter. The obviously-frustrated and still unemployed Bryant pointed the finger to veterans such as Lee for possibly influencing the Cowboys front office to cut ties with the franchise's leader in TD catches.
In his first chance to show his teammates, the media, and even himself, how he'd handle being the new team leader, Lee walked right into the fray and didn't hold back.
He admitted he had butted heads with Dez and wanted him to be more accountable. He also reiterated how much he loved and respected Bryant, who was in the same draft class as Lee back in 2010. But ultimately, he told us all that Dez Bryant needed to look in the mirror and figure out how to be more accountable.
With that, the interview was over. Lee walked away and it was rather clear, that the torch had been passed down appropriately.
"The one thing Jason (Witten) did was he always faced everything head on, he always led by example," Lee said. "He was a role model for me. He said when you face something, you face it
Lee certainly faced this situation in that manner, but it wasn't unscripted as it might have seen. More than anything, Lee was prepared for situations like this, having watched Witten for years.
"When he left he said listen, he felt like we had a lot of guys ready to step into these roles," Lee said. "I've always said he's been training us from Day One. On the football field he was gracious enough to teach us football, but along the way he also taught us leadership in any situation that came up, we huddled tight together, but he was really teaching us how to lead and do it the right way."
While Lee is now the most experienced position player, and second on the team in years played only to snapper L.P. Ladouceur, who joined the team in 2005. But he's not alone in his leadership "council" as he calls it, stating that youngsters such as Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott have also assumed more leadership responsibilities.
"It's huge and they've embraced it head on," Lee said of Zeke and Dak. "They have the personality and the skill set to do it. They're both incredible guys with great personalities and unbelievable football players. Both of them, since they got here, guys have rallied around them. Every year you can see them take more and more control. They're ready to be in this role and they're doing an unbelievable job."
But just like Zeke and Dak might be assuming the secondary leadership role that Lee had the last few years, the Cowboys' star linebacker knows he will be at the forefront, something he doesn't take lightly.
"Well, you just feel grateful and blessed. Grateful that you have that opportunity to play especially with a lot of injuries I've had, just to be able to play for this organization," Lee said. "And then to have the guys who I've played with, who really showed me the way, was a blessing. Now you feel there's a responsibility to step up. It's not something you want to – it's something you have to step up because it's that big of a responsibility. I feel like I owe it to the guys I've played with, I feel like I owe it to my teammates to step up. That's something I care about greatly – being a leader and helping this team."
For the first weeks here in camp, a lot of Lee's leadership will be from either the sidelines or the meeting room. With his injury history, Lee isn't getting thrown into the fire right away here in camp as the team has formulated a plan to keep him out of the padded practices, at least early in camp.
"We've had a great offseason. Now when we get into camp and let's just work aggressively every day to make sure we're improving weekly," Lee said of the training staff. "They have an unbelievable plan for that."
Time will tell if that plan works. But his other plan – to be the new team leader of his team – has already proven to be successful.