'Addicted’ to football, former Penn State star Sean Lee says he’ll consider coaching later

CLARENCE E. HILL JR.
Forth Worth Star-Telegram (TNS)
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee (50) looks on against the San Francisco 49ers in an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Everyone assumes that Sean Lee’s future includes becoming a football coach.

The Dallas Cowboys aging linebacker spends as much time at the facility as a coach.

The former Penn State standout plans and preps like a coach. And he breaks down film like a coach.

Around this time of year, certainly for the last couple of years as he has battled injuries and transitioned from starter to sub, the 11-year veteran finds himself fielding questions about his future and whether he’s ready to switch from wearing a helmet to wearing a whistle.

So as the Cowboys approach the twilight of another season, the 34-year-old Lee found himself in that familiar territory of speaking with reporters this week leading about what might come up after 2020.

He anticipated the question like a screen pass and blew it up upon arrival.

“I really don’t think about it just because the game is so tough,” Lee said of his future and the possibility of coaching. “And I’ve always tried to prepare a certain way to where your focus is purely on your opponent, on 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 that when you get into the game you feel so comfortable.”

And for a player who could quite possibly be playing the last home game of his career, he is solely focused on prepping for Sunday’s contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which he will likely earn his first start of the season since Leighton Vander Esch is out with a high ankle sprain.

Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Sean Lee (50) defends during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. Dallas won 41-33. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

“So for me, I’m just trying to go through the process of preparing to win another game, obviously against a great opponent, a rival. Every game I’ve played in, I feel blessed to have the opportunity. An opportunity to play is all I focus on because of how lucky I am.”

It’s a process that is even more precious to Lee in 2020 because he missed all of training camp and first seven games of the season because of hernia surgery.

It’s the continuation of what has been a star-crossed, injury-plagued Cowboys career for the two-time Pro Bowl player, who has led the team in tackles five times and is one of only eight players with more than 900 tackles in the 60-year history of the storied franchise.

But he also has missed 58 games in his career due to a variety of injuries, including to the knee, back, hamstring, toe and the hernia.

It has taken its toll over the years.

Lee admits he considered walking away after last season before changing his mind and signing a one-year deal to return.

“You kind of go back and forth on things at times as you get older,’’ Lee said. “But the problem is anytime I go on the field and I get to play, and you make a couple of plays, you’re like, ‘Well, I like this too much.’

“And that is my problem. I love this game too much. I love this organization a lot. And I love playing and I love playing the position, linebacker.”

Lee admittedly drives his wife crazy with his yearly process of contemplating his future about a game he just can’t quit.

“I joke to my wife that I’m addicted to it,’’ Lee said. “I think physically at times you’re like, ‘Well you’ve been through a lot.’ And then I get out there and I feel great and I’m able to help and that pushes me to come back a lot of times. Last year that won out.’’

And so here we are again with two games left in the season.

Lee is not thinking about the next because he is so focused on the now. But his coaching future is something that has been broached by Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy in one of their many talks that have covered their shared upbringing in Pittsburgh and the differences of the neighborhoods they grew up in.

“I think I mentioned if he is dumb enough to get into coaching we should definitely talk,” McCarthy said. “He would be a great coach. He would be an excellent prospect. Gosh, how can you not love Sean Lee.”

McCarthy said Lee approaches the game like a coach. He puts in the extra work. He is an excellent communicator. And he commands respect from his teammates, but most importantly, McCarthy said, “he is all football.”

So don’t probe him for what might be the start of his next chapter.

“As for coaching, I don’t know yet,’’ Lee said. “I love playing. Like I said, I’m addicted to playing the game, to being a linebacker, to running and hitting.

“I respect that profession 1/8 coaching3/8  so much, how much they work. It takes a lot of work to go from a player to a coach and right now I’m a player through and through. That’s my focus.’’

Lee, who has just 14 tackles in 100 snaps in minimal play through seven games, said this is good as he’s felt in a long time. And he plans to leave it all on the field in the last two games, starting Sunday against Eagles.

As this is why he came back: To help the Cowboys in any way possible and fill in when necessary, and they certainly need him now.

“I’m proud of how I’ve fought and how I’ve gotten better throughout the season and how I’ve tried to help in different ways, whether on the field or off the field,” Lee said. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to fight back and help, so in some ways, it’s been special to be able to get back and be around these guys that I love and play a game that I absolutely love, especially down the stretch.”

His coaching future can wait.