Gorman: Lee leaves legacy at Linebacker U
What amazes Tom Bradley most about Sean Lee isn't that the Penn State linebacker ranks among the top three in nearly every defensive statistical category this season, despite playing on an injured knee.
Nope, it's this:
"He doesn't think he's any good," Penn State's defensive coordinator said. "That's just the way he is. He thinks he's just a guy ."
Bradley could talk forever about what he will miss about Lee, a fifth-year senior from Upper St. Clair who will play his final game for Penn State on Friday against LSU in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando.
Another of the school's linebacker greats, Brian Gelzheiser, places Lee atop Penn State's players at that position in this decade. Never mind that Paul Posluszny won the Butkus Award in 2005 or that Dan Connor finished his career as the school's all-time leading tackler.
"Out of all those guys in his era, he's the best," said Gelzheiser, who starred on Penn State's undefeated 1994 team. "You're talking about three great linebackers, but he has the mean streak in him. He's playing a position that's a lot harder to make tackles at than middle linebacker."
Of course, there is one dissenting voice to that claim.
"I would disagree with that," Lee said. "I feel I can play close to the level of those guys, but to say I'm better is not true."
Yet, as an outside linebacker, Lee has 319 career tackles and is poised to finish as the fourth-leading tackler in school history, behind only Connor (419), Posluszny (372) and Greg Buttle (343) and ahead of Gelzheiser (315).
Just imagine if Lee hadn't lost last season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, or if he hadn't suffered a sprained MCL in his left knee in the third game year that caused him to miss three games and parts of others.
"If he would've stayed healthy, he would've been the all-time leading tackler in Penn State history," Bradley said. "To me, that record is something that's very, very meaningful because of all the great linebackers we've had."
It's no surprise Lee has deep respect for Posluszny and Connor, considering they share a common trait in never being satisfied.
"They're working to play the perfect game, and I've adopted that attitude," Lee said. "I think about games that we lost that I wish I would have made more plays, especially this year. They eat at me, motivate me. It's the losses you regret."
Lee could catalog the tackles he didn't make, but Bradley prefers to remember those that Lee did. That Bradley had no reservations about inserting the freshman for the injured Posluszny in the 2006 Orange Bowl, and that Lee made a stop against Texas A&M in the Alamo Bowl because he recognized the polecat formation he practiced against once in August.
What impresses Gelzheiser is how Lee has played since injuring his good knee against Temple, similar to one Gelzheiser suffered before his final season at Penn State. Lee has 80 tackles, including 10.5 for losses, seven pass breakups and eight passes defended, all while playing in pain.
"Once you go out and play, you can tell yourself all you want that you're not favoring that leg, but you are," Gelzheiser said. "And you're wearing a knee brace, which makes your calf tight, hamstring tight and your leg tired. I hated playing with that thing on. In the back of your mind, unconsciously, you're like, 'I'm going to keep my leg out of the way so I don't get hurt again.' You lift that leg up every time you're near a pile, so if it gets hit when it's not planted it's not going to hurt. That good leg is vulnerable."
Lee admits he's nowhere near 100 percent — even if he did have 43 tackles in his final four games, including 14 against Ohio State — and doesn't dwell on the millions the injury could cost him as a potential first-round pick.
"What's frustrating is to know you can play better, but at this point you're not physically able to," Lee said. "You prepare harder, find ways to be more effective. You have to be that much smarter, that much more precise."
Instead, Lee is bracing for his final game at Penn State.
"It's slowly starting to set in that I'm not going to be playing here anymore," he said. "Some of me is I'm ready to move on because I'm one of the older guys, but some of me is wishing I could stay here forever. It was a dream come true for me, and it's tough to leave."
Lee can take pride in knowing he will leave a legacy as not just a guy but one of the best ever to play at Linebacker U.