- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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OXNARD, Calif. -- Sean Lee is Penn State.
Actually, Sean Lee is what Penn State is supposed to be.
Lee, the Dallas Cowboys' defensive quarterback, epitomizes everything Joe Paterno's program represented before the sickening Jerry Sandusky scandal put a permanent stain on a reputation that had been sterling for decades.
Lee is a phenomenal football player. He's also the kind of man you'd be proud to have your daughter marry. That was evident by his firm, level-headed recent comments emphasizing the importance of supporting Sandusky's victims and the people who are still part of the Penn State football program, as well as expressing disappointment that such a horrible situation was allowed to happen at a place known as Happy Valley.
"All the people from Penn State take pride in the university," Lee said Friday morning. "We always tried to do it the right way -- tried to go to class, tried to make an impact in the community. We all are trying to move on. It's a tough deal obviously that went on up there, but I think everybody is trying to represent and do what they did in the past."
Penn State couldn't ask for a better representative than Lee, a model alum of Linebacker U.
"He's just the kind of guy you want playing that position," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said.
He's the kind of guy the Cowboys need, a playmaker who can be a foundation piece as they attempt to build a championship team.
There is a lot to love about Lee's character and intelligence. Let's not overlook the fact that he's also an elite athlete.
There aren't many linebackers in the league with Lee's combination of quickness, explosiveness and ball skills. He was an outstanding running back and safety at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh, where he also averaged more than 20 points per game for the basketball team.
Lee also has been blessed with a lot of intelligence. He was a three-time academic All-Big Ten selection as a finance major. His football smarts are off the charts, allowing him to master schemes quickly, recognize opponents' tendencies and play instinctively.
Lee's athleticism and intelligence give him the potential to join Lee Roy Jordan as the lone linebackers in the Cowboys' Ring of Honor. Lee's intangibles make that kind of career likely for him, as long as he can stay healthy.
Lee already has fought back from a devastating knee injury that caused him to miss the 2008 season at Penn State and led to his slide to near the bottom of the second round in the draft. He was such a positive example for his Penn State teammates that Paterno made Lee a student assistant coach that season.
The Cowboys recognized Lee's rare leadership ability and made him the defensive signal-caller in his second NFL season, his first as a starter. They took it the next step by appointing Lee, who is determined to be more vocal with veterans Bradie James and Keith Brooking gone, as a captain entering his third season.
"He deserves the respect," said defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who compares Lee's presence to that of Tedy Bruschi, an inside linebacker Ryan coached on Super Bowl championship teams with the New England Patriots. "He's earned the respect from everybody."
Lee earns that respect with his approach as much as his performance.
Coaches and teammates appreciate the work Lee puts in. It's well known that he's typically one of the first players to arrive at Valley Ranch and one of the last players to leave. It's also obvious that Lee never relaxes for a practice rep.
It's a personality Garrett says is infectious.
"He has such determination in everything he does every day," Garrett said. "Just watch him. Watch him in meetings if you ever get a chance to do that. This guy is locked in and focused. It's really, really important to him. He cares about it. He cares about getting better. He cares about our football team. It's one thing to care about it. It's another thing to show that care, and he does that in everything he does."
Sadly, after the Sandusky scandal, the "Grand Experiment" is no longer the first line in JoePa's legacy. However, Lee is a running, hitting, studying model of the kind of player and person Paterno took pride in producing at Penn State.
"He's a leader, he's competitive, he's a great athlete and he can make plays," said Dan Connor, the inside linebacker who is reuniting with his Penn State teammate after signing with the Cowboys in free agency. "That's pretty much all you want in a linebacker."
Lee is also pretty much all Penn State could want as a representative.