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The first college football game I covered as a sports writer for The Daily Collegian, the independent student newspaper at Penn State, was the 1994 Citrus Bowl between the Nittany Lions and Tennessee.
Sixteen years later, I will cover Penn State against Louisiana State in the same event – now known as the Capital One Bowl – on New Year’s Day in Orlando. Which inspired today’s column on Sean Lee, a fifth-year senior linebacker from Upper St. Clair who is playing with a sprained left knee.
Lee’s story hit close to home, and not just because I covered him in high school and his brother, Conor, as an All-Big East kicker at Pitt.
Actually, it runs much deeper.
While at Upper St. Clair, Lee reminded me of Brian Gelzheiser, who was a year ahead of me at Baldwin and would go on to star at Penn State. Both were oversized safeties who grew into linebackers. Both were talented athletes who could have been Division I athletes in another sport, Gelzheiser as a pitcher in baseball and Lee as a point guard in basketball.
And both injured their knee their senior season at Penn State but played through the pain. Gelzheiser was the middle linebacker on the Lions’ 1994 team that went undefeated and won the Rose Bowl, and finished as the second-leading tackler in school history. I had the unforgettable experience of being The Collegian’s football beat writer that season.
So it was only natural to call Gelzheiser to discuss Lee, who moved one spot ahead of Gelzheiser and into fourth place in the school’s leading tacklers.
“I’ve met Sean several times. He’s cut out of the same mold. When I first got hurt they told me I’d be out six-to-eight weeks. There was no such thing as, ‘What do you do?’” said Gelzheiser, a sixth-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts in ’95. “I thought about going pro my redshirt (junior) year and talked to Paterno and (Tom) Bradley about what to do and they said, ‘If you stay, you should get drafted higher.’
“I know how down-to-earth Sean is. He played with great linebackers and was overshadowed. It was his time to finally shine and – just like me – something freak happens. I’m sure it was devastating. I’m sure they told him the same thing, six-to-eight weeks. Third-degree sprain of your MCL, it’s torn at that point. There’s nothing left to it.”
Gelzheiser’s injury happened during two-a-days in the second week of training camp. He got a deep thigh bruise in the morning session, but was told to play through it in the afternoon session. Gelzheiser intercepted a Kerry Collins pass, but intended receiver Phil Collins – Gelzheiser’s freshman roommate – crashed into his knee. Gelzheiser missed the season opener against Minnesota, which cost him a shot at breaking Greg Buttle’s tackles record, but had the same mentality as Lee:
“I’m going to get back as fast as I can,” Gelzheiser said. “I can remember being up in Holuba Hall with Joe (Paterno), Jerry Sandusky and Dr. (Wayne) Sebastianelli. They said, ‘If you can run, we’ll let you play.’ It hurt like crazy, but they’re not going to keep me out. It was my senior year. I wasn’t going to miss six or eight games.”
Gelzheiser talked in depth about playing while wearing a knee brace and the thought process that Lee was probably going through. As expected, Lee expressed frustration with how the injury has affected him.
“I really felt the first three games this year I was a better player than I was as a junior,” Lee said. “Then when I got injured and had to wear the brace, I still had pain in the leg the first few games I was back. The brace definitely takes some agility away from you, takes a step away.”
But Lee hasn’t let the injury affect his attitude, even though his projection has dropped to second-round status in most mock drafts and the history of knee injuries could cause teams to red-flag him. As far as Lee is concerned, it beats having to sit out another season, like he did with a torn ACL in ’08.
“When you’re injured, just being off the field was tough to swallow,” Lee said. “The numbers don’t matter. The motivation is to be out there and help the team to win. I put all this work in and wanted to have a full season.
“You’ve got to put that stuff away as quick as possible because anything like that is going to be extra negative to keep you down. You have to take full advantage of your situation. I tried to do the best I could, even though some of me wasn’t the best on the field.”
Bradley, Penn State’s defensive coordinator, believes Lee is able to overcome his physical limitations because of his football smarts. Bradley said he’s “never seen anybody read (formations) as well as him.”
“I was worried that they let him suit up for games because I was afraid he’d run in when he wasn’t supposed to,” Bradley said. “He’s got so much guts and moxie about himself that even not letting him play for a week was tough. I don’t think he was back to normal until the last game of the year. He was worried about that thing, tweaking it or something.”
Lee has used the injury as motivation, and believes that should overshadow any concerns about his knees for NFL talent evaluators.
“A lot of guys are going to face injuries,” Lee said. “I’m going to be better off for it because I know how to come back and play injured.”



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