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Sean Lee: A True Competitor and Leader Throughout His Remarkable Career

Former Penn State linebacker Sean Lee this week announced his retirement after an 11-year Pro Bowl and All-Pro caliber NFL career. It concludes an incredible run, but one that 17 years ago was far from a certainty. 

As a high school senior, Sean Lee was not considered among the most highly-regarded, can’t-miss prospects. I know because I was among those who weren’t sure he’d ever get big enough to play linebacker at Penn State. Much of the prevailing wisdom was that he was a “tweener” — not big enough to play linebacker and not fast enough to play safety. 

Notably, in a recruiting class that saw us sign two of the top 10 recruits in the country, both Sean Lee and quarterback Daryll Clark were seemingly afterthoughts, guys that cut against the conventional wisdom. But in 2009 they were co-captains of an 11-2 team that finished in the top 10 after a bowl win over LSU.

So much for conventional wisdom…

But all those years ago, Sean Lee had a few important people in his corner. Upper Saint Clair High School coach Jim Render swore by him and told us we’d make a mistake if we passed him up. Over the years, Jim’s honest assessment of players in Western PA gave him a lot of credibility with us.

That track record led to a second group of men who were in Sean’s corner. 

Tom Bradley and Joe Paterno had also known Jim Render for decades, building the kind of rapport and mutual respect that grows between a program and high school coaches when there is staff and program continuity. That relationship was also forged working camps together and by Tom Bradley visiting Upper Saint Clair High School even in years when they didn’t seem to have a player for us.

Today, recruiting is not as focused on that kind of network building with high school programs. Sometimes a recruit’s rankings supersede beating the bushes to find under-the-radar players like Sean Lee or Allen Robinson or even Anthony “Spice” Adams.

What Tom Bradley and Ron Vanderlinden saw in Sean Lee were the same things Jim Render saw in him. He possessed tremendous instincts, a nose for the ball and an ability to get where he was going a step faster than other players.

Sean’s biggest strength was translation. That covers two main areas. Everyone times the 40-yard dash in shorts and t-shirts. But the game is played with pads and some guys lose several steps of speed when you add the equipment weight. Sean was like Bobby Engram, Ki-Jana Carter or Saquon Barkley, guys who never lost a step in full pads.

The other element of translation was football sense. Sean studied tape, had incredible vision and could anticipate or process plays and possibilities based on alignment and tendencies stored in his brain. Penn State safety Michael Zordich and quarterback Michael Robinson were two guys that had that same ability.

But above all, Sean was an incredible competitor. It did not matter what it was, Sean had a drive to win that was unreal. It never turned off. He was simply fierce on a football field, but off the field was just the nicest guy you would ever want to meet.

Sean never failed to talk to kids who were around, never hesitated to take a moment to be kind to any fans. He appreciated everyone. I can’t tell you the number of times I overheard him thank our equipment managers, or workers in the dining hall. For all that he was well-loved, and rightfully so.

But get him on a field and watch out. He wasn’t afraid to lead by example, even confronting teammates who were lagging in offseason summer workouts. That type of leadership is rare and as such has tremendous value.

One practice play stands out as capturing his essence. We were running a third-down passing scrimmage against our top defense. In those scrimmages, Joe Paterno always wanted us to throw in a run play to keep defensive players from just playing pass. On one of those run plays, Sean was blitzing and was a step late seeing the run play unfold. He just missed making the tackle.

I said aloud “Dang Sean, I thought you had him.”

Sean wheeled around and snapped “You guys are cheating running a draw play. You’re supposed to pass!”

But within a second, he looked back and said “I’m sorry coach, I didn’t mean that.”

I laughed because we all admired that intense focus, even if it made for some really tough practice competition.

As Sean steps away from the game, all of us will miss watching him play. He was one of those guys, that when the Cowboys were on, you stopped what you were doing and just watched him play the game. His instincts and drive were as good as anyone I’ve ever seen.

The same drive that Tom Bradley saw in him on a basketball court as a high school junior carried him through an incredible playing career. And it is even more likely to carry him in good stead as he begins the next phase of his life.