OXNARD, Calif. -- For the first time in this preseason the hitting was live, and five or so thousand fans at last Tuesday's afternoon practice for the Dallas Cowboys were into it. During one especially spirited seven-on-seven period in the third hour of the session, quarterback Tony Romo lofted a pass into the seam, in the direction of wideout Miles Austin. But the ball was batted down by a defensive back running stride for stride with the speedy Austin, 35 yards down the field.
Except that, once the players untangled themselves, the defender turned out to be ... not a DB. It was middle linebacker Sean Lee, gliding around like a safety, down at least 10 pounds from his 2012 playing weight of 245. Lee, a fourth-year player out of Penn State, has his football roots in pass coverage; he first got on the field as a cornerback at perennial powerhouse Upper St. Clair High, just south of Pittsburgh. He later moved to safety, before making the switch to linebacker at Penn State.
When practice was over, no Cowboy was in better spirits than Lee, who spent at least 10 minutes lingering along the fence-line, smiling and chatting with fans, signing footballs and jerseys, including the back of one with a five-year-old boy still in it: the pressure of the Sharpie tickled the boy, whose father was more giddy than his son.
Asked by a television reporter how it felt to be hitting for the first time since last December, the 27-year-old Lee corrected him. His 2012 season actually ended in October. "So yeah, it's nice to put the pads on again."
Lee was not quite halfway through what was looking very much like a Pro Bowl season when that season was abruptly terminated. On Oct. 24, at the end of a play in the third quarter of a 19-14 win at Carolina, Dallas end DeMarcus Ware tossed an off-balance Panther in the direction of Lee, who was face down on the ground. With his big right toe pointing directly into the turf, the toe had nowhere to go: it ended up in contact with his shin, tearing the plantar plate, plus medial and lateral ligaments in his foot. He had season-ending surgery a few days later.
So, of course, he was excited to be back in the mix -- though it's a different mix. Out is former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He was replaced by the 73-year-old Monte Kiffin, whose tried and true Tampa 2 defense is simpler and more streamlined than Ryan's multiple, personnel-scrambling, mad scientist approach. After firing Ryan, team owner Jerry Jones spoke of how "too many schemes" can overwhelm players, particularly in a day and age of high roster turnover.
The question can fairly be asked: does Monte still have it? His most recent employer, the University of Southern California, was not exactly a satisfied customer. Despite his close relationship with the Trojans head coach -- Lane Kiffin is his son -- Monte had little choice but to resign after USC finished the season 60th in total defense, 69th in rushing defense, and surrendered 730 yards of offense and 62 points in a non-overtime loss to Oregon.
Kiffin's schemes aren't stale, the Cowboys insist; he couldn't get the college kids to execute them. They're limited to spending 20 hours a week on football, you see. Now that he's back among professionals, goes the argument, Kiffin will return once again to his former eminence. That, at least, is the fervent hope of Jones and Dallas head coach Jason Garrett.
The success of the Dallas defense will be determined, in part, by Lee, who moves to the "Mike" or middle linebacker spot in Kiffin's 4-3 scheme. From that integral spot, he'll call defenses, and be called upon to stuff the run and cover tight ends. It's an ideal role for Lee, whose position coach at Penn State, Ron Vanderlinden, calls him "the most complete linebacker I've ever coached ... he had it all."
It's also a role for which he's been groomed, it seems, since he was a boy growing up outside Pittsburgh.
"From a young age, I've always had a sense of urgency to get better, to improve myself," said Lee. "A lot of that was from my Dad." Was Craig Lee a coach?
"No, he was a lawyer," said Lee. "His father was a lawyer. Two of my uncles were lawyers. It's like the line in My Cousin Vinny, where Marisa Tomei is talking about how she comes from a family of mechanics. Except I come from a family of lawyers."
When Sean was just 2, his grandfather, Donald Lee, was nominated for a federal judgeship by President George H.W. Bush. Craig and his wife, Geralyn, took the two boys, Conor and Sean, to Washington, D.C., for the confirmation. (Their third child, Alexandra, had not yet been born). Two-year-old Sean fell asleep during the hearing. When he woke up, kindly Herb Kohl, a Senator from Wisconsin, asked the toddler if he'd enjoyed his nap.
"I'm not your friend, leave me alone," replied Sean, in a burst of churlishness that seems out of character to anyone who has met the polite, genial Lee.
Craig and Geralyn stressed manners, discipline and accountability to all three of their children. Throughout his youth, Sean recalled with a smile, Craig wasn't bashful about letting him know if he thought the boy wasn't giving his all. "He was on top of me all the time," said Sean. "The best part about finally getting to high school was that the crowds were louder, so I couldn't hear him.
"I have memories from high school of him telling me at halftime, 'You're tackling like you're sister.'" To which Sean would rejoin, "She can tackle pretty well."
But Sean wants to make this clear: his old man cared, deeply, but wasn't a jerk about it. Craig was "straightforward, but always loving. He always put us in the position to succeed."
"We all want to prevent our kids from making the mistakes we made," said Craig, who added that, yes, whether the arena was academic or athletic, "you'd better give me everything you've got."
For a guy who's already being described as potentially one of the best linebackers in Cowboys history, Lee was rather lightly recruited coming out of Upper St. Clair. One of the first schools to offer him a full ride was Duke, after which Craig wanted him to shut down the recruiting process. "You've gotta go to Duke," he would tell his son.
Craig knew his son would get a world-class education at Duke, and, truth be told, he wasn't sure if Sean had the physical wherewithal to succeed in Division I. His doubts persisted even after Penn State offered Sean a scholarship, somewhat late in the process.
Starting at linebacker for the Nittany Lions in Lee's freshman season were Dan Connor, Paul Posluszny and Tim Ward -- all now in the NFL. "We had quality starters," recalled Vanderlinden, but felt the unit needed more depth. "So we brought Sean up from the practice squad."
Within a week, he had earned two nicknames. "Fast Forward" and "Waterboy."
"He was just killing guys out there," said Vanderlinden. "After a couple days I had to tell him, 'Sean, I love your intensity, but you're going to hurt someone.'"
When Posluszny was injured in the fourth quarter of the 2006 Orange Bowl against Florida State, Lee came on in relief. He ended up playing 43 snaps in Penn State's triple-overtime victory. "He helped us win that game," says Vanderlinden. "We really needed him."
Walking across the parking lot at 2:30 in the morning after the game, Craig remembers his wife asking him, "Are you finally done with the Duke idea?"
Almost as impressive as his feats on the field was Lee's approach to his rehab after blowing out his ACL in the spring before his senior season. He turned himself into an assistant coach. "He was so valuable in that role," said Vanderlinden. "It was really interesting for me, standing five yards away, to make a coaching point to the linebackers. Oftentimes he'd say it differently than I would've, and sometimes I'd think, 'Man, he's communicating it better than I would have.'"
During games, with Vanderlinden in the press box, Lee would man the sidelines, wearing headphones, passing on the coach's instructions to his players and often adding his own tips. Lee has said that being forced to study defense that season, if not actually play it, made him a smarter player.
After missing three games the next season with a sprained knee, he fell to the 55th pick of the draft -- "right about where I deserved to go," he said, "with the injuries I'd had at Penn State." After a fitful start to his rookie season (more nagging injuries), Lee started to find his mojo. With Keith Brookings nicked up going into a December game against the Colts, Lee saw more action than in any previous game. All he did was pick off Peyton Manning ... twice. He returned the first interception 21 yards for a touchdown. His second, in overtime, set up the game-winning field goal.
"Just one of those days," he says. "The ball just came my way."
It kept coming his way. Lee had four more picks in his second season, plus a pair of fumble recoveries, and a team-leading 105 tackles, 10 of those for a loss. His steady improvement continued through the first six games of last season: 12 tackles in the opener against the Giants; 14 against Seattle in Week 2; 14 more against the Bears two weeks later. He was on fire, and then his season was over.
Ten months later he was back in full pads, still full of bounce and vigor after a 90 minute-walk through and a nearly three-hour afternoon session. If Lee can stay healthy, he could, quite simply, blow up this season. Kiffin's 4-3 is set up for him, frankly, to star -- if the defensive linemen in front of him ever stop succumbing to their own injuries. At this rate D-line coach Leon Lett will soon be asked to come out of retirement.
Asked if he felt poised to reach the next level of his game, Lee turns serious, almost grave. Raising his voice to be heard above the shrieks of fans ("Sean Lee! Can you sign this for my daughter?" "Sean Lee, can I get a picture?") he gives a reply that must be sweet music to the ears of Jones, Garrett and Kiffin:
"I feel like I have a ton to improve in all areas. When I watch the film, I see more of the negative than the positive. Seriously, when I look back at some of my old film, it makes me cringe, because there's so much I can improve. In the run game I can cover more ground. I can blitz a ton better. I'm just going to keep studying, keep grinding. That's what's great about this game, you always have something to work on."