FRISCO, Texas – The scope of Sean Lee's ultra-competitive streak began 11 miles south of Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, in Upper St. Clair, Pa.
Not just in football, where one day he'd become a defensive captain for the old-school rival Dallas Cowboys. Not just in basketball, where he proudly averaged 21 points and 9 rebounds for the Western Pennsylvania district AAAA champions.
Mud volleyball, too.
"We had a Community Day here in Upper St. Clair," says Jim Render, Lee's high school football coach. "And on Community Day they always had a mud volleyball game between the juniors and the seniors. And of course the seniors always won. Until Sean came along.
"Sean gathers up these juniors, you know, and the competitiveness kicks in. He says, 'By God, we're going to win. We're going to practice and we're going to beat the seniors.'
"The first time the juniors ever beat the seniors in a mud volleyball game, Sean was the backbone of this thing."
Render has been at Upper St. Clair since 1979. He likes that particular story about Lee, the best player he's ever coached, because it highlights Lee's rare commitment to preparation, and competing, and winning. Even then at 17 years old.
"That's just way he is," Render says. "If somebody says, 'Hey we're going to compete,' … 'OK, if we're going to compete, let's win.'"
For the first time in his career, Lee is returning home to Pittsburgh this weekend to play the team he worshipped growing up. As a kid, he waved a Terrible Towel. He hung a poster of the great "Steel Curtain" defense. He wore a Jerome Bettis jersey. He dreamed of sacking quarterbacks in the black-and-gold jersey like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene did in the '90s.
He even played a WPIAL (Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic League) high school championship game at Heinz Field.
Lee's a Cowboy now. He loves the city of Dallas.
But he has applied a Pittsburgh-tough mentality to his NFL career.
"There was a certain way we were taught to play from a young age, and that's hard-nosed, that's blue-collar, that's playing the right way: physical, tough, playing with a certain amount of intensity," Lee says. "That's something that when I was young and nine years old that was the only thing my dad talked about. He didn't really care about the outcome. He cared about how I played the game, whether it was I was playing the right way or not.
"I've had unbelievable coaches from when I was nine, 10 years old, some of the dads, all the way through high school and college. And Coach Render was one of those coaches who really set the tone for my career: how to practice, how important football should be to you, and how you need to work to really play the right way."
Lee played running back and safety, not linebacker, at Upper St. Clair. Render wanted his most talented and instinctive defender in the middle of the secondary where he could see and react to everything the opposing offense did.
The results over three years were usually good: USC lost only four games with him in the starting lineup.
"If he read run, I mean, he was coming like a freight train," Render says. "So in that regard we had nine in the box. Now, if he read pass, he was back there where he was supposed to be. But he made a lot of plays coming forward."
By the end of his high school career, Lee was an all-state selection and a top prospect. He stayed close to home at Penn State, where he became an All-Big Ten linebacker.
Cowboys defensive lineman Jack Crawford, a three-year starter at Penn State, watched Lee become a leader on campus and then transition to captain within the confines of the Cowboys' new world headquarters, The Star in Frisco.
"He's the same guy," Crawford says. "It's great to see someone like him come in here and how much of a leader he is, it's no different than college. I think in college he had a little bit less input just from the standpoint that he got hurt."
Lee took a medical redshirt as a senior in 2008 after tearing his ACL in spring drills. He returned for a successful fifth college season, but his injury history might have affected his draft stock in 2010.
Render was with Lee and his family on draft weekend back in Upper St. Clair when the Steelers went on the clock in the second round at No. 52 overall.
"It was Pittsburgh's turn and there was a lot of people that thought Pittsburgh was going to pull the trigger and take him," Render says.
Instead, the Steelers selected another linebacker: Jason Worilds out of Virginia Tech.
"Everything got kind of quiet around the house – we were all at his house – and he walked outside," Render says. "And then he came in shortly thereafter and he had just gotten a call from Mr. (Jerry) Jones and said that, 'you're going to be a Cowboy.'
"And as a coach, I think that was the best thing that could have happened to him. If he'd have been at Pittsburgh people would have badgered him incessantly for appearances or whatever. And he went to Dallas and he could just be hard-working Sean."
Before the draft, Lee fully understood there was a chance he'd have to go outside his home state to play football for the first time in his life.
"I took a visit there (Steelers) and I thought I had a shot to go there, but for me there was obviously huge question marks and risks taking me because I had a partially torn ACL, I was coming off a torn ACL on my right knee and I had a partially torn ACL on my left knee," he says. "So I knew that I could drop on some people's boards and there was a big risk in taking me. And that's why I'm so grateful to the Cowboys because they did take a big risk on me.
"They told me, 'Hey, if you tear this knee we're going to fix it and you're going to come back.' They've really stuck with me through a lot."
The 55th pick in the 2010 draft is now a seven-year veteran, a perennial defensive captain and most recently, a first-time Pro Bowler back in January – one year after fully tearing the ACL in his left knee that he partially tore in college.
It's that kind of perseverance and dedication – whether it's football or mud volleyball – that has won the respect of his peers at every level.
"He's here early, he stays late and studies the game," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says. "He's always asking questions and you see him in meetings, in walkthroughs always trying to get things squared away and right."
Lee has embraced Dallas, an NFL rival city to Pittsburgh since the legendary Cowboys-Steelers Super Bowl games in the '70s and '90s. "I want to try to win a Super Bowl here, do everything we can to do that," he says.
But he hasn't forgotten where it all started for him: western Pennsylvania, where football is king. Just like in Texas.
Render was sitting in his office this past spring when his phone rang. It was Lee, driving home from a workout.
"Now he had some time to kill in the car," Render laughs. "That particular day he called because he said he had a Pro Bowl jersey that he wanted me to have.
"I said, 'Do you mean me, or did you want me to give it to the boosters club for a raffle?' He said, 'No, no, I want you to have it.'"
Some 30 friends and family will be in attendance Sunday at Heinz Field. Lee jokes that they'll have Steelers gear underneath No. 50 Cowboys jerseys.
"It'll be a lot of fun," he says. "I know my family is excited about it. At the same point for me, my focus is trying to stop this unbelievable offense that they have that is loaded with talent, starting with a Hall of Fame quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger), unbelievable running back (Le'Veon Bell), great receiving corps -- one of the best players in the game, Antonio Brown. They've got a great offensive line.
"So for me, it's a game where we're going to have an extreme challenge."
Homecoming aside, Sunday is still a business trip for Sean Lee.
There's no other way he'd approach it.