FRISCO, Texas – This has been a privilege, all of ours.
To watch Sean Lee play football for the Dallas Cowboys all these 11 years.
Just to watch how he plays.
Just to witness how he prepares.
Just to see his dedication, his passion.
Just to realize he's one helluva player-coach without any such title.
Had Bill Parcells still been around, Sean Lee also would have been classified as a football-playing dude, just as he described Dat Nguyen. Just this football gift that's kept on giving.
Funny, for a guy who has been here since selected in the second round of the 2010 draft, the two-time Pro Bowl linebacker hasn't become known to us on a first-name basis. You know, like Dak or Zeke or Troy or Michael or Dez. He really doesn't have a nickname, not like Tank or Chido or Woody. And somehow referring to him by just his last name, Lee, seems hollow, you know, like saying, "Man, that Lee, he's something else."
So seems when we do refer to the Pittsburgh native, it's like a run-on name, SeanLee, fittingly unique to him. Never just Sean, never just Lee.
Now, Sunday at AT&T Stadium, with the Cowboys in a must win situation to keep their 2020 playoff hopes alive, kicking off at 3:25 p.m. against NFC East mate Philadelphia, the 5-9 Cowboys needing a win and a 6-8 Washington loss to keep hope alive, this could be a special day for SeanLee.
Could be his final home game with the Dallas Cowboys.
Of course, we aren't sure, are we? Heck, he says he's not even sure, but then SeanLee wouldn't have it any other way.
"I really don't think about it just because the game is so tough. I've always tried to prepare a certain way where your focus is purely on your opponent and how to make plays on the field and almost trying to be obsessed with that, going over it, rehearsing it constantly throughout the week so when you get into the game, you feel so comfortable," SeanLee says when asked about the possibility the end is near. "So, for me, I'm just going through the process to win another game."
That right there is so SeanLee.
But there is some writing on the wall, and with the Cowboys guaranteed only two more games this 2020 season, just why he's being asked about the sun potentially setting on his NFL career with Christmas on the horizon.
Realize, his 11th season is coming to a close.
He will turn 35 by the start of training camp in 2021, and by linebacker standards, that is getting a tad long in the tooth.
He currently is playing on a one-year contract, with $2 million of a potential $4.5 million guaranteed. A steal for a man of his talent and previous contributions. But that, too, is an indication of how madly in love he is with the game. Knowing him, he probably considers that a steal just to get to play another season.
Realize this has been a tough year for SeanLee, having undergone another surgery, this time to repair a sports hernia he tried so hard just to rehab, all causing him to miss the first seven games of the season. He has played sparingly ever since returning, just an even 100 of the possible 476 snaps over the past seven games (21 percent). No starts, and that for a guy who has started 90 of the 116 games he's played in his career.
So come Sunday, if you happen to be one of the maybe 30,000 at AT&T, or for the rest of you watching on TV, just pay attention to the start of the game, to even the national anthem if shown. My guess is that head coach Mike McCarthy, a Pittsburgh guy himself who treasures the history of this game, seemingly would name SeanLee the game's defensive captain, sort of as he did with L.P. Ladouceur for the San Francisco game as the special teams captain, knowing the veteran deep snapper was going to set a record for most NFL games played by a Canadian-born player that day.
L.P. also was the captain chosen to walk out for the coin toss.
Be a nice time for those paying attention at AT&T to give SeanLee a standing ovation for surely he will go out there for the coin toss, too. I will in the press box, sans the clapping. You should, too, in front of the TV. Clap your hearts out, and don't fill silly since for the past nine months that's what we've been doing, right, virtually expressing our affection and respect.
Because who knows if you'll get another chance.
"Any time you get older I think that creeps into your mind as you get older in your career," SeanLee says of retirement creeping into your vocabulary. "But, to me, you have to push that out of your head because it is so hard to be successful in this league, and if you have any other distractions, which really that is a distraction, it can affect you on the football field."
Hey, the baller has another game to play. Talk later.
Who knows? SeanLee might even start in this game, a potential first of the season. Jaylon Smith (14), Leighton Vander Esch (10) and Joe Thomas (four) have accounted for all the linebacker starts this season. But with Vander Esch out, seems the other linebacker snaps will be divvied up between Lee and Thomas, just as they were in the San Francisco game after Vander Esch departed with the high ankle sprain.
Strange how coincidences line some of our careers. The reason SeanLee was available to the Cowboys in the second round of the draft was injury related. He missed his entire 2008 season at Penn State after suffering a torn ACL in the spring. Yet, he powered forward, taking a medical redshirt so he could play in 2009 when he started eight of 10 games.
Injuries continued to plague him once he came to the Cowboys. You name it, SeanLee hurt it. Torn ACL. Hamstring. Neck. Toe. And now the sports hernia. Worse, that torn ACL, which the Cowboys knew could go out at any time, occurred the first day of OTAs in 2014, and it was so SeanLee. In the non-contact, non-pad drill, he would not give up on a run play when the ball carrier changed directions. SeanLee planted. By golly he was going to make that virtual tackle. And with that one step, there went the ACL … and that season.
A lesser man might have thrown in the towel. Repeated injuries can wear on a man's soul, especially when you have missed heading into Sunday 58 of a potential 174 games.
"After (the torn ACL) for a while I was frustrated. I was bitter about all the injuries," SeanLee says. "And going into 2015, I probably was not in the right place mentally, and finally my wife and my family started to pull me out of it and say, 'Listen you have such a great opportunity ahead of you. Don't allow how frustrated you are right now to ruin that opportunity.'
"And luckily, with the trainers and everybody, I was able to come out and have a good 2015 and have the best year of my career in 2016. But I really think had I not had that mental adjustment, I don't know that I would have had those two years. They were special."
He speaks of his two Pro Bowl seasons, 2015 and 2016. Especially 2016 when he led the Cowboys with 174 tackles and 12 tackles for loss, earning All-Pro honors, too, starting all but the season-finale (coach's decision). In fact, the 2016 and 2019 seasons were his only two in which injury did not cost him a game.
Why, after 14 games this season, SeanLee has totaled 984 career tackles and 14 interceptions. His 22 tackles against the Giants in 2016 is the franchise single-game record, and he's also tied for the second (21) and third most (20), accomplishing each twice. His 120 solo tackles in 2016 rank third for a single season and he holds the single-game record with the 17 solos against the Giants in 2016.
We could go on and on.
The first indicator of his greatness came that 2010 rookie season against Indianapolis, recording nine tackles, three pass breakups and picking off Peyton Manning twice , the first returning for a touchdown and the second in overtime to set up the Cowboys' game-winning field goal, just one of six wins that season. Hey, this guy's going to be special.
Well the other day, this, too, might define SeanLee's career. The Cowboys were indoors practicing at Ford Center. Specials teams drills were taking place. SeanLee and Jaylon Smith were the only linebackers off to the side doing linebacker stuff. Someone yelled, needing an extra guy for the scout team on a punt drill. There went SeanLee, scooting over to help out before someone beat him to the punch.
Or the other week, when he was still on injured reserve, pointing out placement advice to Smith and Vander Esch during basically a skeleton drill.
There is part of me that hopes he decides to stay. And as Troy Aikman once said, giving advice to a player contemplating retirement, play as long as you want or can because once you retire you can't play anymore football. This isn't like golf, able to retire onto the Senior's Tour. Or tennis, able to play some exhibition matches. Or retire and play three-on-three basketball.
That is why this will become an agonizing decision for SeanLee. To play or not to play?
"You kind of go back and forth on things at times as you get older," SeanLee says. "But the problem is, any time I go on the field and I get to play, and you make a couple of plays, you're like, 'Wow, I like this so much.' And that is my problem, I love this game too much. I love this organization a lot, and I love playing. I love playing the position, linebacker. I joke to my wife that I'm addicted to it at times, being able to run and hit, to practice every day.
"I think physically at times, well, you've been through a lot and any time I get out there and I feel great and I'm able to help, that pushes me to come back a lot of times, and last year that won out."
So we'll see what wins out after this season.
If you're coming back SeanLee, great.
If not, here's to balling out on Sunday. You deserve it, but either way, many thanks for all the yesterdays.
Merry Christmas, Happy New Year.
And hopefully there's a real handshake coming in the not too distant future.
The Cowboys will take on the Philadelphia Eagles in their last home game of the regular season on Sunday, Dec. 27 at 3:25 p.m. A limited number of tickets are on sale now. Get yours now before they sell out!
Details on all of the health and safety procedures you can expect at AT&T Stadium can be viewed at www.DallasCowboys.com/safestadium.