IRVING, Texas – The punishing rehab. The odd hours away from the team. His leadership restricted to words and no action.
Sean Lee's past all of that frustration. In some ways, he's still in hurry-up-and-wait mode as the Cowboys remain smart with his practice reps in these non-contact OTAs.
But, 372 days removed from the torn left ACL that ended his 2014 season before it really began, the team's defensive captain is just thankful to be back on the field with this teammates, old and new.
"I think I'm ready to go, full go," Lee said Wednesday following the team's fifth voluntary OTA of the offseason. "If I'm out there doing a drill or any part of practice, I feel completely comfortable. I feel like I could play again tomorrow if need be.
"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."
For now, the Cowboys are limiting Lee to individual drills in the early portion of practice. He may progress to team drills in the coming weeks, certainly by training camp in late July and August. He's practicing without a knee brace – an indication, he says, that the surgically-repaired knee is stable and strong following a successful rehab with the team's medical and athletic training staff.
When Lee does jump into the more competitive portions of practice, he's expected to shift from middle linebacker to the weak side, or "Will," position. Rolando McClain, Lee's injury replacement last season at the middle "Mike" spot, is not practicing due to rehab from a recent knee scope. It might be training camp before both are on the field together for team work.
The Cowboys are optimistic the position switch will help protect Lee since he won't be taking on as many blockers in the middle. And the Will spot has typically been a high-production position in Rod Marinelli's defense.
"That position's built on instincts," Marinelli said. "You've got to have movement, speed and all those things. But it's (about) awareness and I think he's really got good instincts to play. He's covered up so there's always somebody in front of him. Now I think he can really use his speed."
It's been a star-crossed start to Lee's career. A second-round pick in 2010, he's been a potential All-Pro player when healthy. But he's missed 34 of a possible 80 regular-season games due to injury. The torn left ACL was all-too familiar – in college he tore his right ACL and partially tore his left ACL, the same one he admits was at less than full strength the first four years of his NFL career before he fully tore it last spring.
"It's good to get it (the surgery) over with it and to have a stable knee and be ready to play," he said.
The most difficult part for Lee came immediately after the injury. Realization set in that no matter how hard he worked, he would still need eight or nine months to fully recover.
But he attacked the rehab with the same visible enthusiasm that has won over coaches, teammates and fans on the field. He continued to participate in meetings during the season and tried to pitch in as a player-coach of sorts.
"His spirit was incredible after he had the injury," head coach Jason Garrett said. "And his teammates and his coaches have seen him work very hard to get back to this point. He's still working his way into drills. He's done some individual stuff. He's involved in the walkthroughs. We're keeping him as limited in practice just because we want to be slow with him – veteran player, knows what we want. So, we're really trying to be deliberate with him as he comes back."
When he does return to full-time work, Lee feels he has something to prove.
"Obviously I have to go out there and play at a high level. Obviously I have to go out there and stay healthy," he said. "There's definitely things that I have to come back and show. I think physically I'll be able to come out and play and be able to make plays. But that's one of those things obviously you have go out and show that."
Lee's ready to, finally.