The author of "America's Team: The Official History of the Dallas Cowboys," Sullivan also writes a new column in each issue of Dallas Cowboys Star Magazine. For subscription information, please click here.
There were questions and speculation aplenty, like they seemingly always are nowadays. No matter that the season opener was just 103 days away, who would replace Sean Lee at middle linebacker? This absolutely, positively was a must to answer 10, 15 seconds after everyone's worst fears were confirmed: The ACL in Lee's left knee was torn and he would miss the entire season.
Who was to blame? That is always priority Numero Uno. We as a football-viewing society cannot, will not exist without assessing blame when something goes array. Last-second Hail Mary pass goes for a touchdown, someone screwed up. Can't just be a magical play, praise cannot be granted. Blame must be assessed.
If a player is injured, someone must be at fault. In this case, the immediate blame fell to first-round pick Zack Martin. The "Curse of Johnny Football" was declared off and running. Amazingly, some people actually believe in that sort of thing.
Not worth delving into extensively because folks believe what they want to believe rather than reality and truth, but Lee's knee had buckled before Martin made contact with him. It was fluky and unfortunate. It's also football. Was there a little too much physicality for the first day of OTAs without pads? Perhaps, but Lee was also running full speed at DeMarco Murray, and it was just one of those things. There is no blame. Two guys hustling their behinds off, loving to play football. It just happens.
Next up on the agenda was immediately asking everyone within 20 miles of Valley Ranch who was going to replace Lee. DeVonte Holloman (my choice), Justin Durant, rookie Anthony Hitchens were common answers. Some speculation about signing a veteran, maybe Jonathan Vilma as some suggested on Twitter.
Then there were those wondering if Lee should retire, or if the Cowboys should just cut him altogether and be done with him.
And through all the written and verbal words, the tweets and the talking heads on the radio, there was almost not a word mentioned of Lee himself. The misery and despair he must be feeling. How cruel this game can be, how blindly unfair? So many throw around injury prone as if certain players can't play through the pain. That certain players just aren't tough enough. That is hogwash of the highest level. Lee's injuries have been a combination of bad luck and his inability to play at anything less than 100 percent on every snap. Be it Sundays in October or Tuesdays in May on the Valley Ranch practice field.
So let everyone else focus on the blame and his replacement. For the moment, I'd rather talk about Lee.
In an era where many athletes have no interest in being a role model, Lee is from another time and place. With the possible exception of Jason Witten, no Cowboys player has done more charity and outreach work these past five years than Lee. He's also been an elegant spokesman for the team, always willing to talk with the media no matter the situation. Lee was the first one last season to say publically that if Jay Ratliff didn't want to be part of the team then the Cowboys didn't want him. And no one spends more time studying film and the playbook than Lee. He's probably the most dedicated athlete I've ever covered.
Personally, there have been many dealings with Lee, including an hour-long phone call in September 2011 after he was named NFC Player of the Month. Among other topics, we talked about his childhood, growing up in a family of lawyers just outside of Pittsburgh and his decision to focus on football rather than basketball after playing against Darrelle Revis in an AAU game.
There is one story in particular, though, that leaps to mind when trying to capture what Lee is all about. This was the first week of training camp last summer, in Oxnard, Calif.
I was working on a story about Monte Kiffin and the Tampa 2 defense and figured there would be no one better to interview from a player's standpoint than Lee. He agreed to talk after practice. Again, this was literally a goal-line drill the second or third day of camp, on a makeshift soccer field. So there's a pass to tight end Gavin Escobar in the back of the end zone with Lee in coverage. Despite coming down with the ball, Escobar stepped out of the back of the end zone before returning in-bounds, and secondly, his second foot came down on the line. Lee jumped up and starting wildly crossing his arms to indicate no catch, which was the correct call. The intensity was surprising, even from Lee, given the situation.
So practice ends and players starting walking off the field, signing autographs for fans, talking with media, whatnot. Lee remains on the field, going through a few extra reps with coaches and it's clear he's frustrated, angry even. Finally, he starts to walk off, his agitation only increasing by the second. This isn't going to be an enjoyable interview.
Lee can't help himself, though, and stops to sign a few autographs, even managing a smile for a quick photo. I'm waiting for him in front of the locker room and when he finally arrives, he says, "Can you wait a few minutes? I want to lift real quick, burn off some frustration."
Sure. And with that Lee heads to the makeshift tennis courts/weight room area. About 15, 20 minutes later he returns. Still agitated, perhaps even more so.
After a few questions about the Tampa 2, I asked him if he's OK, if maybe he wanted to talk later in the week. Without hesitating, he said, "No, no, let's do it now. I'm sorry. I just had such a terrible practice, I'm frustrated. That was … that was just, I'm just not focusing well. I can't stop thinking about that practice."
We finished the interview, shook hands and he headed for the locker room. Most of his teammates had already showered and left, it was nearly an hour since the practice actually ended. Thing is, I'd be willing to bet he was watching film within 10 minutes of showering. If that. His drive and passion for football, for the Dallas Cowboys, for winning, for the fans, is on that level we would like to think all professional athletes possess. Reality is that so few do. Lee is one of those guys. He's the one fathers can feel safe telling their sons, "See that Sean Lee, watch how he's doing it." As both a football player and more importantly, a human being.
Next time we see Lee playing in an NFL game he'll be 29 years old and will have missed 34 of his 80 NFL games. He'll be trying to overcome a plethora of injuries that have ended many a career. None of us know whether he'll return at the Pro Bowl level he has played – when healthy, of course – the past three seasons.
All we do know is Sean Lee deserves better, and that football, like life, can be cruel.
Follow Jeff Sullivan on Twitter, @SullyBaldHead, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.