FRISCO, Texas — Sean Lee is 33. The yellow, purple and red bruising on his left arm is the product of a partially torn pectoral muscle suffered around the midway point of the Dallas Cowboys‘ season. A thigh injury makes it difficult for him to walk.
Yet he fights on.
He is in the final year of his contract, and nobody knows how much longer he wants to play — or can — but moments such as this Sunday, when the Cowboys play the Philadelphia Eagles in a de facto NFC East championship game (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), are why he endures.
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“I came back because I love this organization. I love that my teammates have stuck with me through a lot of tough times, through a lot of injuries and through a lot of missed games,” Lee said. “Coming back, my goal was to help in any way I can.”
As a player starts to see the end of a career, moments mean more. In last week’s win against the Los Angeles Rams, Lee had just five tackles and a pass deflection, but he had his first full sack in a game since 2015. His biggest play was a second-quarter interception, his first since 2017, of a Jared Goff pass that the Cowboys turned into a touchdown for a 28-7 halftime lead.
“When he intercepted that ball and ran it down there, everybody else around me was going wild, and I was, too,” said Jim Render, Lee’s high school coach. “Except I had tears running down my cheeks. I was so caught up in the emotion of the things. I’m so proud of him. I had a premonition that he was going to get an interception, and then it happened.”
Render, who coached at Upper St. Clair High School, retired after last season following a 40-year career at the school. He’s the all-time winningest coach in Western Pennsylvania, finishing 406-141-6 with five WPIAL titles and two state championships. He was with a group of 20 or so of Lee’s friends from high school and college who made it to the midfield star at AT&T Stadium more than two hours after the game. Two of them danced. A couple others had a race.
They all had smiles, perhaps none bigger than Lee’s.
Over the past four or five years, Lee has invited his high school friends from Pittsburgh and college friends from Penn State to the Cowboys’ first home game in December. They make a weekend of it and watch the game from a suite.
“Some of them I’ve known since elementary school,” Lee said. “But high school dudes, my college roommate, it’s a good time.”
As much as Lee’s friends celebrated the interception, so did his teammates. Perhaps only Lee’s wife, Megan, knows more of what he has persevered through over the years.
“For an old man like Sean to come out and give us the boost, you can be looking for anybody to come out and give us a boost like that — 25, 24, 21 [years old], it really doesn’t matter,” DeMarcus Lawrence said. “But for Sean to come out and have that energy, get that pick, to be the leader he is, it’s very exciting.”
Jason Witten has been Lee’s teammate since 2010, and they’ve developed a bond as close as any the tight end has had in his 16-year career.
“I was happy as hell for Sean,” said Witten, who made a one-handed catch for a touchdown in the first quarter. “He needed a game like that. He’s one of the good guys. He deserves it.”
After the game, Lee was the last player to leave the locker room. He had to get treatment for cuts on his arms and legs that left his uniform a bloody mess. He answered the media’s questions and did a quick radio interview before heading up to the suite to see his friends.
“Not to get sentimental now, but seeing the guys run on the field after I had that pick is something very special to me,” Lee said. “That’s something I’ll remember for a long time.”
Even though Lee has played every game, this has been one of the most trying seasons of his career.
According to the coaches’ count, he is third on the team in tackles with 86, but the ascensions of Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch pushed Lee to strongside linebacker at the start of the season. With Vander Esch dealing with a neck injury, Lee has moved back to the weak side, but he has not been an every-down player, as he was earlier in his career.
Although still viewed as a leader, Lee was not voted a captain this season, a role that went to Smith and Lawrence. He has had to play and lead in a different way.
“We haven’t always played the way we wanted to play,” Lee said. “Luckily, we have an opportunity ahead of us. The frustrations from the year, you can’t focus on that. You have to focus on the opportunities ahead of you. It’s been an unbelievable year, being around the guys, being around the organization. It’s been tough, too, with the transition and change in roles, but it’s been everything I wanted.”