IRVING, Texas – So here comes Sean Lee, on the outside perimeter of the locker room, heading toward the linebackers meeting room, on crutches, his left knee and lower part of the leg encased in extensive beige elastic wrap.
He briefly looked up, made eye contact, as if inviting a conversation. Great.
But what do you say? What do you say to a guy who had just torn another ACL yesterday, this time in his left knee? What do you say to a guy who had spent the entire offseason rehabbing from a torn ligament in his neck that violated nerves up there, too, causing him to miss the final five games last season?
And all this after missing the final10 games of the previous season to that after suffering a severely sprained big toe? Plus, not to pile on, but to a guy who had torn the right ACL in his knee in a non-contact spring drill while at Penn State one year and spraining his left ACL the next?
"Hey, man," stumbled awkwardly out of my mouth, "really sorry that this happened."
He acknowledged the condolences, took a couple more steps with the aid of his crutches and sorta stopped.
Now what *else *do you say?
"You sore?" sort of a stupid thing, right, but again, a loss for words is somewhat reasonable isn't it when the guy's season comes crashing to an end the previous day, the first of NFL sanctioned Organized Team Activities for the Dallas Cowboys, not more than 1 hour, 26 minutes into that practice, one in helmets, jersey and shorts. No pads. No tackling. Limited contact.
"Yeah, the bone is pretty sore," Lee said. "Knee is a little swollen. Probably have surgery in a couple of weeks. They like to wait until the swelling goes down. Makes for an easier surgery and faster recovery."
Lee, the Cowboys fifth-year linebacker then broke into a little play-by-play of the unfortunate mishap, explaining how he immediately read the screen pass going to his left, and how his responsibility was to immediately sprint out to the left to cut off the wide receiver over there, then try to work back inside to his right where the pass had gone into the slot to DeMarco Murray.
He said his right foot slipped out from under him when he tried to stop and cut back, causing all his weight to end up on his left leg – more weight than his left knee could handle, crumbling to the ground as first-round draft choice, guard Zack Martin, couldn't stop his 308-pound momentum intending to block him, crashing down on top.
"I knew it right away," Lee said of the tear before even going down under Martin's weight.
So did I, even if peering in from more than 50 yards away. No need for replay. The awkward fall made the impending damage that obvious, thinking to yourself, you gotta be (kidding) me, while knowing what he had gone through rehabbing the past five months and what this team had gone through all of last year.
Sean Lee being Sean Lee said he immediately told Martin not your fault, and even after that reiterated the point to the rookie who was taking some media heat for being far too physical on the play. Lee even admitted he's had a little something going on with that knee before any of this occurred.
Suddenly, the heart and soul of the Cowboys defense had been ripped right out, losing the only guy in the projected front-seven at this point anyone was absolutely sure of being a productive contributor to what had been the worst defense is the NFL last year – but a cruel reminder of the slew of injuries the Cowboys defense had just gone through, to the point of having to start 20 different defensive linemen over the course of the 2013 season.
Now this, already.
Occurred to me what makes Lee great is also what makes him so vulnerable. He's so competitive, wanting so badly to be and play his best at all times, he doesn't know how to gear down, and just maybe that inability causes his body to breakdown.
It was like, darn it Sean, it's only May 27. You're not going to make the Pro Bowl today by coming back to get in Murray's way. Heck, you weren't even going to tackle him, at best just get in his way. That's all. Why couldn't you just pull up, and let the guy go? This was not a win or lose situation. It's practice for cryin' out loud.
He listened to my probably pretty lame reasoning before saying, "I was just trying to work back to make a play."
What can you say? That's Sean Lee.
Sure hate this for him after he worked so hard in the offseason rehabbing from the neck injury to get back on the field for even the first OTA practice. Every time you'd see Sean here at The Ranch in the offseason and ask how it was going, he'd basically say right on schedule, doing everything, be back with the guys for the first OTA practice.
He was fired up.
Me, I probably in a quiet moment that Tuesday night would have broken a bone in my hand taking out my frustration on the nearest wall, and I sure as heck wouldn't have stopped to talk to anyone I really didn't need to talk with later that next day.
But Lee …
"I'm thinking maybe I get all these injuries now and then I'll have like five really good years," he says, optimism still glimmering at a time like this. "Just get them all out of the way.
"I'll just come back and have a solid year next year."
He was well aware of the bind the Cowboys have fallen in, not only losing their most proven defensive player heading into the 2014 season, but losing their leader on and off the field, the pain of it all felt by many.
"Broke me down," said Dez Bryant of his immediate emotions. "I was very emotional."
"Your heart hurts for him," Jason Witten said.
"It sucks to see him go down," Brandon Carr said.
A perfectly chosen verb. [embedded_ad]
I'm sure Lee appreciates the sympathy, but you can bet he won't stand for anyone's pity, nor, at least outwardly, feel sorry for himself. He's well aware of the work cut out for him once he begins the rehab – again. This ain't you or me going to the therapist a couple times a week. Rehabbing a reconstructed ACL with the goal of playing professional football again is grueling, something others take for granted since the surgery and its success has become so commonplace.
What we don't see is the commitment and hard work that goes on behind the scenes to get there, and remember, he knows. He's already rehabbed one of these torn ACLs. This now will become his fulltime job.
"Well, good luck with it, man," another goofy, hollow thing to say.
But, I mean, what can you say?
And off Sean went, not toward the door leading to the player parking lot, but into the meeting room where a whole bunch of the young linebackers had congregated to watch film of the day's work, to try to figure out what they did right and what they did wrong that second day of OTAs.
He did not go in there to say hey, or anything. Not Sean Lee. He went in to help those guys out, to coach 'em up, a group that quite possibly included the guy who eventually must take his place this season, maybe a DeVonte Holloman or rookie Anthony Hitchens, who admitted later in the day he was absorbing anything and everything Lee was offering.
Man, now really, what can you say? That's just Sean Lee.