IRVING Now in his 14th season in the NFL, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking is having a strange week. He stood alone at his locker Thursday afternoon and watched a group of 30-35 reporters huddle around second-year linebacker Sean Lee.
"From the outhouse to the penthouse," joked Lee, who was somewhat of a disappointment his rookie season.
Lee had 15 tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception that he returned 37 yards to the Jets' goal line in Sunday's 27-24 loss. It was the first start of his career, and barring injury, he's there to stay. At age 35, Brooking wasn't nave to the fact that Lee was selected in the second round as his hand-picked replacement.
"They've been drafting players at my position for 14 years," he said. "This isn't catching anyone by surprise."
But that didn't keep Brooking from teaching Lee everything he knew about playing his position. That's what 33-year-old Atlanta Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle did for him when he entered the league in 1998 as the 12th overall pick out of Georgia Tech. Tuggle started every game that season, but he made sure Brooking was prepared to start in '99. The two started together that season, and then Tuggle retired following the 2000 campaign.
"He was very approachable," Brooking said of Tuggle. "I just watched what he did on a daily basis and he was probably the hardest working guy I've ever been around."
Brooking spent last season trying to convince Lee that he couldn't make every single tackle. At Penn State, Lee made plays from sideline to sideline and it was against his nature to let the game to come to him.
He showed flashes last season two interceptions against the Indianapolis Colts but had trouble shedding blocks and overrunning plays. Lee admits he probably put too much pressure on himself to make the best of his limited opportunities. That's no longer a problem when you consider he was on the field for 55 snaps, including his special teams work, against the Jets.
During training camp in San Antonio, one high-ranking member of the Cowboys' front office told me Lee would be a "core player" for years to come. The Cowboys had given him a first-round grade in 2010, but they were able to take him in the second round because of the ACL injury that caused him to miss his junior season at Penn State. There's not a franchise in the league more smitten with injured players in the draft than the Cowboys, but it appears Lee was worth the risk.
When college players suffer season-ending injuries, they rarely travel with the team. But the Penn State coaches had so much respect for Lee's leadership and knowledge of the game, they basically turned him into an assistant. That story resonated with the Cowboys, who had Lee as high as No. 16 on their draft board.
Basically, the scouts believed they had a much younger version of Brooking in Lee. And there have also been comparisons to former Texas A&M and Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen in terms of his instincts for the game.
It's obvious Lee has hung on Brooking's every word. He credits him for being the "pinnacle" of professionalism. Apparently Lee was taking good notes because he was one of the only players on the team who didn't catch the bus back to the hotel between training camp sessions in San Antonio. He took his meals in the locker room while trying to digest Rob Ryan's complicated playbook. Even head coach Jason Garrett, the NFL's leading book worm, marvels at Lee's work ethic.
"He loves the game," said Garrett on Thursday. "Watch him in walk-through. Watch him in meetings. Watch him watching tape by himself when everybody else has left the building. He loves the game. He shows that in his play."
Asked what time he arrives and departs Valley Ranch each day, Lee said 6:40 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Based on those numbers, he's probably spending 2-3 hours longer than most of his teammates. But it's not like he's trying to publicize his work ethic.
"I'm here a lot," he said. "I just know how much it takes me to get ready for a game. And it takes me a lot. It takes a lot of work. So I'm always here, trying to get better, trying to get ready. I enjoy it, though. I love my job. I love playing football for the Cowboys."
That's one of the reasons Ryan never wavered in his belief in this defense when it was being gashed by the run in the preseason. He and linebackers coach Matt Eberflus believe that Lee can be a catalytic player, to borrow a word from the Parcells era.
For Brooking, this is a bittersweet time. The young player he's spent hours counseling has marginalized his impact on the team. But then, Lee will continue to pay homage to his mentor.
When a reporter asked Lee if he thought the Jets were asking themselves last Sunday night, 'Who is this guy?' he had the perfect response.
"They just thought Brooking had changed his number," he joked.