Ask Sean Lee about his commitment to giving back, and he’ll tell you about his wedding, interestingly enough.
Lee married his wife, Megan, in the spring of 2014, and rather than ask for gifts, the couple insisted on donations. Lee’s childhood friend, Jeff Roche, had a daughter named Emma, who suffered from tuberous sclerosis – a rare genetic that causes benign tumors to grown in the brain and other organs.
Foregoing the traditional wedding presents, Sean and Megan opted instead to help Emma.
“I don’t know exactly how it came up, or maybe Sean had just caught up with Jeff recently,” Megan Lee said. “We just kind of talked it out together and decided that we would put together a fund for her.”
The idea proved plenty successful, and an idea was born. The Lees were already active in the Dallas community, as they contributed frequently to help childhood literacy with local chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs.
Soon enough, they’d been in contact with PMR Charity – a local organization that sought to help people in need pay their medical bills.
“PMR is helping people who have medical bills – especially underprivileged kids who have rare diseases,” Sean said. “Sometimes the families deal with medical bills that they really can’t pay or have issues paying. So we kind of step in and try to help them.”
It’s just a small glimpse into why Lee is being considered for one of the NFL’s most prestigious honors – the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award. Established in 1970, the award seeks to honor excellence on and off the field, as each NFL club nominates a player who has had a positive impact in the community.
Finalists will be announced in January, and the winner will be named at NFL Honors on Feb. 4 – the night before Super Bowl LI. The winner will receive $1 million donated in his name — $500,000 to a charity of his choice, and another $500,000 supporting the expansion of the league’s Character Playbook across all 32 markets.
Lee’s football acumen has been undisputed since he was drafted back in 2010. Although injuries hampered the early going of his career, the ability that intrigued the Cowboys has shined through in recent years. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2015, and he is second in the NFL in tackles this season with 140 – providing the backbone for a dogged Dallas defense.
“You can’t ask for anything better than that, man,” said fellow linebacker Justin Durant. “Somebody who comes to work every day, got the drive like I’ve never seen before, works harder than everybody and has the skill, too.”
Again, for a guy with 552 career tackles and 12 career interceptions, that’s to be expected.
The rest of it doesn’t get the same level of publicity. Lee started working with the Boys & Girls Clubs to help underprivileged kids soon after he arrived in Dallas as a rookie. He holds an annual Christmas shopping spree for local kids. That helped blossom into his involvement with PMR Charity.
But Lee’s involvement goes all the way back to college, when he was a key figure in the Penn State community. Sean and Megan began dating in college, and they both cited their involvement with Thon – the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, which raises funds and awareness to fight childhood cancer.
“Coming from Penn State, I think anybody would be proud of what they did with Thon,” Sean said. “And then when I got to the Cowboys, there’s a history of the Cowboys helping in the community. That’s really what started it with me, with the Cowboys when I was a rookie.”
The Cowboys’ commitment to community service is evident all over their facility, as the hallways are adorned with murals of their other three Man of the Year winners – Roger Staubach, Troy Aikman and Jason Witten. The organization works intimately with The Salvation Army and sets a high standard in community service.
Going back to his college career, that’s something Lee says he’s always embraced.
“We get so much support, we have to find a way to give support back to the community,” he said. “That’s something that I think started at Penn State, but it really has grown even more since being with the Cowboys.”
Having been in Dallas with him these last seven years, Lee directs plenty of credit in his wife’s direction. Given the incessant demand of playing at a Pro Bowl caliber in the NFL, he credited her with helping him keep everything else organized – not to mention pushing him to further increase his activity going forward.
“Every year we feel more and more connected to the city and the causes that we’re working toward,” she said. “And I think that we’re hoping to continue to expand into different causes, as well, at some point. I don’t think we can say enough about how great we think Dallas is.”
Showcasing that activism seems like the perfect complement to what has been a dream season for Lee to this point. The Cowboys have successfully won the NFC East, and they’ll be the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC when the playoff start next month.
On top of that, the Pro Bowl linebacker is contributing. He’s got 168 total tackles and 12 tackles for loss so far this season. Most importantly for a guy who missed the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL – he has yet to miss a game.
“I thought that I’ve missed out on some opportunities to play on some great teams,” he said. “That’s really been my dream is to be able to play on these teams that play the right way, love playing football and have each other’s back. That’s something we have this year, and it’s been a dream for me and hopefully it continues.”
It certainly feels like a dream season, and being able to play a part in it has lived up to Lee’s expectations – though he knows there’s work left to do.
But for all accolades he might accumulate on the field, it’s become quite clear how much work he puts in off it, as well.
“We want to play a certain way on the field, but we also want to handle ourselves a certain way off the field,” he said. “There’s a responsibility in the community to help.”