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Memory Lane: Cowboys LB Sean Lee tears ACL on first day of OTAs

The Dallas Cowboys were a good team in 2014 but a fateful day in May six years ago might have doomed them from the start when Sean Lee went down with a knee injury
Credit: AP
Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee sits on the sideline during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins in Arlington, Texas, Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019. Dallas beat Miami 31-6. (AP Photo/Roger Steinman)

DALLAS —

Sean Lee just had the worst luck with injuries through the first part of his career.

The former 2010 second-round linebacker from Penn State missed two games during his rookie year with a hamstring injury. It wasn't exactly a good look for a player who suffered a torn ACL in 2008, his second to last year with the Nittany Lions. However, he missed just one game in 2011 with a wrist issue after smacking his fist on a helmet in a 34-7 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 30. 

Maybe Lee was building durability the more he played in the NFL.

In 2012, Lee's season was over after Week 7 with a severe turf toe injury. The following season saw Lee play 11 games, but only in spurts as he battled another hamstring injury and neck problems from blindside blocks. For a player who loved the game, who ought to have been a Pro Bowler by this point, Lee was saddled with a different label: injury prone.

The 2014 Dallas defense was going to look radically different, and there were serious questions about leadership and talent. Defensive end DeMarcus Ware was asked to take a pay cut, and the franchise leader in sacks decided that he would rather play elsewhere. Defensive tackle Jason Hatcher, who was out of contract, earned his first career Pro Bowl in 2013 and led the team with a career high 11.0 sacks. Ware ended up playing in Denver and Hatcher in Washington in 2014.

At least the Cowboys had Lee, who was expected to take the mantle of leadership along with cornerback Orlando Scandrick.

On the first day of organized team activities, May 27, 2014, rookie guard Zack Martin finished a block and drove Lee into the ground. On the way, Lee tore his ACL.

In the previous seasons, Lee would at least play a few games on the schedule before sustaining an injury or having his season pulled out from under him. Now, the 27-year-old wouldn't have a season at all, what would have been his fifth in the NFL.

Lee probably knew from the pain that he tore his ACL, having done it once before in college. As the linebacker hobbled his way off the practice field to inside the facilities at Valley Ranch, Lee barked at the TV cameras to stop filming him. Even if they didn't capture Lee's nadir, fans reading that Lee tore his ACL on the first day of OTAs would have stunned them.

The 2014 Cowboys ended up having a last hurrah of sorts for Tony Romo as they went 12-4 and were only felled when Dez Bryant’s catch was ruled incomplete in the divisional round of the playoffs in Green Bay. 

Rolando McClain ably filled in at middle linebacker but he was replacing a burgeoning talent in Lee who had secured five turnovers (four INTs, one fumble recovery) the previous season. Lee was forced onto the sidelines for the entire run in what had become a special year for Dallas without him.

After a year of rehab, Lee returned to the Cowboys and made two straight Pro Bowls and picked up a first-team All-Pro in 2016 as he recorded 145 tackles.

Lee will be 34 on July 22 as he enters his 11th season in the NFL, and he may have shaken the "injury prone" label after all. In 2019, Lee played 16 games for the first time in his career, starting in 13 of them. Lee may have had his low point in 2014, but he bounced back and has continued to give Dallas his best.

What are your favorite Sean Lee memories from the last ten years? Share ‘em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.

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