Finally, Michael Lemon had arrived.
In the closing seconds against Maryland on Nov. 7, the North Carolina State University junior defensive end sacked quarterback Jamarr Robinson. On the game’s final play he hit Robinson again, causing a desperation pass to flutter to the turf, preserving a 38-31 win.
N.C. State fans howled. A happy teammate tackled Lemon, holding him so tightly that he couldn’t breathe.
Lemon has been a vital part of the defense, alternating with senior Shea McKeen all season. Head coach Tom O’Brien said it’s possible Lemon, a junior from Stratford, could play in the NFL if he continues to improve.
But rather than the NFL, Lemon is focused on something else that O’Brien has offered him: a second chance.
Lemon is haunted by tragedies that claimed two of the people he loved most and later by trouble he caused for himself. He was arrested twice and eventually dismissed from the Georgia football team.
“I was taking everything for granted, just living and not thinking about my actions,” Lemon said.
But even the people he harmed or disappointed saw something in Lemon. The fellow Georgia student he assaulted agreed to a deal for leniency in Lemon’s sentencing. The coach who dismissed him gave Lemon a recommendation.
“I love Michael Lemon,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He’s a young man that’s been through so much, it’s unbelievable. If you know the whole story. He’s been through a whole bunch. Probably more than anybody even knows.”
Losing a friend
Lemon knew something was wrong when he drove over the crest of a hill and didn’t see taillights in front of him in February 2004 on Eisenhower Parkway heading into Macon.
He said he and his younger brother Marquez were following a group of friends to a bowling alley. Lemon, then 16, lost sight of the friends’ car after it went over the hill.
He found the car in a ditch. His best friend, Cory Johnson, was hurt badly in the wreck.
From kindergarten to sixth grade, the two had been inseparable. Although Lemon attended Stratford and Johnson went to Rutland, they attended each other’s athletic contests, and Lemon enjoyed watching Johnson emerge as a standout baseball player.
At the accident scene, Johnson told Lemon he couldn’t breathe.
Lemon called 911 and Johnson’s mother. After paramedics arrived, Johnson struggled and tried to knock the oxygen mask off his face. Lemon held the mask over his friend’s face and reassured him, and Johnson relaxed.
Lemon remembers Johnson being placed in the ambulance, talking and appearing stable. But when Lemon arrived at the hospital, he was told the doctors couldn’t save his friend.
“What happened to my best friend kind of shook me,” Lemon said. “It let me know that you have to expect the unexpected.”
A violent end
Three years later, in February 2007, Lemon’s cell phone wouldn’t stop vibrating during a tutorial session in his freshman year at Georgia.
After the phone had buzzed about five times, Lemon excused himself to see what was so urgent.
He was told there had been a fire at his home in Lizella. Marquez had escaped, but the boys’ mother, Phaba LaDon Hollingshed Lemon, had been killed.
Lemon later learned the terrible details of her death. Bibb County assistant district attorney Elizabeth Bobbitt said Phaba Lemon’s boyfriend beat her to death in her mobile home before setting it ablaze with her body and Marquez Lemon inside. She was 39.
As if losing their mother wasn’t enough, the boys also lost virtually every tangible thing that reminded them of her and their childhood. Bobbitt sifted through the rubble and found a Boy Scout belt and some Valentine’s Day cards that hadn’t been ruined and put them in a box for the boys.
A football helmet with stickers on it denoting Michael Lemon’s accomplishments lay melted in the ashes.
“It was the saddest thing,” Bobbitt said. “I just thought, ‘Why? Why did he have to do this?’ ”
Herbert Hart Jr. later pleaded guilty to malice murder, first-degree arson and criminal attempt to commit murder and received a life sentence, Bobbitt said.
Phaba Lemon taught her sons practical lessons, like how to change the oil and tires on a car and how to balance a checkbook. She said she did it because she might not be around later to show them how to do it, Michael Lemon remembers. He said he and Marquez Lemon hated when she said that.
“It’s ironic that it came to pass that it would be that way,” Michael Lemon said. “So now we can pretty much take care of ourselves.”
She has been gone more than two years, but her example and her words continue to inspire her sons.
“We were taught at a young age that you never roll over,” Lemon said. “You keep fighting until you can’t fight.”
Losing his way
It was a fight that got Lemon dismissed from the football team at Georgia.
According to an Athens-Clarke County police incident report, Lemon started it, pummeling fellow student Demarius Jackson on June 28, 2008, at a barbecue at the community pool.
Jackson was taken to the hospital to be treated for a severe injury to his left eye. Lemon was charged with aggravated battery — a felony — and misdemeanor battery.
Both men declined to talk for this story about the details of the fight. But Jackson said he had a discussion with prosecutors about getting the charges reduced to a misdemeanor, which would increase Lemon’s chances of playing football again.
Jackson, who said he believes in forgiveness, agreed to the reduced charges on the condition that Lemon would be required to get anger management counseling.
“It happened, and it was a terrible incident, but I’ve moved on with my life,” Jackson said. “And with him having a felony count and not having a chance to get his act together and maybe complete his college career and do something he loves doing again, it’s more important that he get back on the right track.”
Lemon pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of battery, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, according to court records. He was sentenced to three years of probation, 240 hours of community service and court-mandated counseling.
Lemon said the anger management classes taught him to think first about his future instead of acting on impulse. But he didn’t turn things around immediately.
He was charged with underage alcohol possession barely one month after the assault of Jackson. Lemon understands that Richt couldn’t take him back after that.
Richt was disappointed that he had to dismiss Lemon. He directed Lemon to Georgia Military College in hopes that the discipline there would help him.
Later, when Lemon emerged as a candidate to play for N.C. State, Richt wrote a letter recommending Lemon to O’Brien, becoming one of many voices of support that swayed O’Brien to give Lemon another chance.
“I had to make a decision that he had done enough to where he didn’t deserve to be a Bulldog anymore,” Richt said. “But even so, I believe in the young man.”
Life at Georgia Military College is harsh and regimented.
First call is at 5:30 a.m. All but 30 to 60 minutes of their day is structured. Mandatory study halls last more then two hours in the evening, and lights out is 11 p.m.
School officials were aware of Lemon’s arrests and watched to see if his temper would flare.
“We never had a second’s problem at all with him,” GMC head coach Bert Williams said. “He was very focused. He had a great attitude. A great demeanor. He exhibited some good leadership out there for some of our younger guys.”
GMC is a regular recruiting stop for N.C. State linebackers coach Andy McCollom. The GMC coaches told McCollom he should think about recruiting Lemon.
McCollom recommended Lemon to O’Brien, who performed an exhaustive background check before offering a scholarship. O’Brien was overwhelmed by the letters of recommendation written on Lemon’s behalf.
Richt wrote O’Brien. So did GMC’s dean of students, Col. Patrick Beer, as well as supporters at Lemon’s high school and from the Macon community.
O’Brien obliged them by giving Lemon a second chance.
It came with a warning that there would be no special treatment for Lemon. He would be treated like everyone else on the team.
“I’m not big on third chances,” O’Brien said.
“He’s been a joy”
O’Brien said some people wondered whether Lemon would be able to succeed at N.C. State after all he’d been through. But Lemon has performed better than anybody expected in the classroom and on the field.
“He’s been a joy to work with,” O’Brien said. “He’s been a joy to have around our football team and has fit right in.”
In N.C. State’s opener against South Carolina, Lemon dropped back into coverage for a leaping interception of Stephen Garcia that led to a Wolfpack field goal. Lemon has 22 tackles, including four behind the line of scrimmage, and five passes broken up in nine games.
He appreciates what O’Brien has done for him.
“That says a lot that he was willing to stick his neck out there for me,” Lemon said. “It probably wasn’t easy for him to do that. People might have been in his ear telling him not to do it. Or he might have been apprehensive himself about it, but he did it, and now my main focus and objective here is to repay him for doing that for me.”
Lemon is focused on getting his degree in African-American Studies and getting a job in 2011.
A major part of his life now is striving to be an example to Marquez Lemon, a junior at Stratford, who is a standout running back with a stack of mail from Football Bowl Subdivision programs.
Marquez Lemon is the only immediate family left in Michael Lemon’s life.
“Despite everything, we’re still here, making it, doing pretty good for ourselves,” Michael Lemon said.
Their relationship is celebrated in a tattoo of a chain with two dog tags attached to it on Lemon’s left arm. One tag bears his name. The other bears his brother’s.
The ink proclaims their bond, but could just as easily describe Lemon: “Unbreakable.”