As soon as linebacker Sean Lee pulled up gimpy early in the second half Monday night, the gasps of exasperation and melancholy could be felt at AT&T Stadium.
The Dallas Cowboys captain’s career, especially the past two seasons, has been beset with injuries. He missed five games in 2017 and is likely to miss at least eight games this season with hamstring issues. He’s expected to be out the next four to six weeks, beginning Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles. He missed three games earlier this season and returned Oct. 21 against the Redskins.
“It’s brutal. I know what it means to him,” Cowboys’ defensive coordinator Rod Mainrelli said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a guy who prepares harder, is more locked in every single day and how much it means to him. This thing means everything to him. Some guys just play and it’s a career. It’s more than that for him so that’s what hurts.”
Jaylon Smith echoed Marinelli’s thoughts and said Lee’s dedication to the game is an inspiration.
“It’s tough because we all understand the work he puts in. No one studies like him. His love for the game is effortless,” Smith said. “The adversity he’s going through is just a testament to who he is, to continue to bounce back.”
Neither is ready to write Lee off. When he’s healthy, he’s still one of the best linebackers in the game, Smith said.
“When Sean is healthy he’s still got it. He is guy I believe in. and learned so much from,” he said. “Yes, it’s transitioning to being my defense and it’s something I’m ready for, but Sean still has a lot left and I believe in him.”
Marinelli said the game is in Lee’s blood and compared his dedication to a coaches.
“He’s back in the office staying up at night watching stuff and helping guys, giving pointers,” Marinelli said. “Out on the field talking to guys. I hope all of you realize you’re around something really special. Not just a special player, that’s a special man. That’s how the game should be.”
Lee has continued to help lead the defense even while sidelined. Smith said Lee never stops helping his teammates.
“Even when he’s playing he’s a second coach, first coach, third coach. All of that,” he said. “He’s a special talent.”
Could coaching be in Lee’s future?
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m still counting on him playing a lot of football,” Marinelli said. “He could do anything he wants. With his mindset he could go to Wall Street and make a billion. He’s got that work ethic and that mindset. It’s not the talent, it’s the work habits. He could do anything he wants in this country and be elite at it. No doubt in my mind.”
Marinelli has coached similar players, he said, including Brian Urlacher, Warren Sapp and DeMarcus Ware and even DeMarcus Lawrence, but Lee seems to own a special spot in Marinelli’s heart.
“They just loved it,” he said. “Sean is really, really unique. It’s in his blood. He’s like the coaches. He can’t live without this stuff. I admire him so much how he never is Mr. Doom and Gloom. It’s always, ‘What can I do to help the team win?’ It’s rare. He’s still leading this defense without being on the field. We’re all fortunate to be around it to see what real pro football looks like.”