Senior day is supposed to be a time for college football players to celebrate their accomplishments with their families.
At N.C. State this Saturday, mothers will receive roses and fathers will beam with pride at their sons' accomplishments as family members join players on the field at Carter-Finley Stadium. On this particular senior day, though, N.C. State senior defensive end Michael Lemon will be alone. Phaba Lemon, who raised Michael as a single mother, was murdered by her boyfriend in 2007 when Lemon was a freshman at the University of Georgia.
The lone remaining immediate family member in Lemon's life, younger brother Marquez, is a senior running back at Stratford Academy in Macon, Ga. He has a playoff game Friday night and won't make it to Raleigh on Saturday for the Wolfpack's 2 p.m. home season finale against Wake Forest.
So N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien asked Lemon who he would like to join him on the field when he is honored before the game. Lemon's answer delighted O'Brien, who has said he has been determined to build a team-first culture ever since he arrived in Raleigh after the 2006 season.
Lemon said he wanted defensive line coach Keith Willis and the rest of the defensive linemen to accompany him when he is honored before the game.
"We're just one big family on the defensive line," Lemon said. "We're a small band of brothers. I'm with those guys every day. They're the first guys I see in the morning when I get here, the last ones here when I leave."
After his family tragedy, Saturday will be a proud moment for Lemon. His life went into a tailspin after his mother was killed and her trailer was set ablaze by Herbert Hart Jr., who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to murder and arson.
In separate incidents, Lemon pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery and was charged with underage possession of alcohol. He was dismissed from the Georgia football team, but after Lemon transferred to Georgia Military for junior college, O'Brien gave him a second chance to play football in a Bowl Championship Series conference.
Lemon has made the most of it. He leads the team's defensive ends in tackles with 24 and tackles for losses with 6.5 this season. He also is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in African-American Studies.
"It's hard to put yourself in his place," O'Brien said, "to think you lose your parents, specifically your mother, in such a tragic way at such an early age. ... Talk about second chances, maybe that's the example I'll use to the team of second chances that succeeded."
His teammates don't need to be reminded of what Lemon has been through and accomplished. They are impressed by the way he approaches every task with a sunny grin that would never betray the hurt that must be inside.
"He's always got a smile on his face," fellow defensive end Jeff Rieskamp said. "He's always looking up. Everything to him, it seems he takes the best out of every situation. You never see him down, and to be able to be there to support him really means a lot to me."
Lemon said it will mean a lot to have his teammates with him. He affectionately speaks of freshman defensive end Darryl Cato-Bishop as a source of laughter, junior defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy's caring nature in a hulking frame, and Rieskamp's nutty humor.
"We just care about each other so much," Lemon said. "It's just a great time. This is the best time that I've had in my entire career, that I'm having this year. It's going to come to an end eventually, but I'll enjoy it while it's still here.
After this season, Lemon said, he will play pro football if he gets an opportunity, but that's never really been his dream. O'Brien said NFL scouts are taking a good, hard look at him but added Lemon is grounded and realistic about his chances.
Should pro football not open its doors, Lemon would like to start his own landscaping company. He said he will probably launch it in Georgia, either in his hometown of Macon or in the suburbs of Atlanta.
He said he's not sure what his emotions will be before his final home college football game. He said he knows his mother would be proud but said he tries to stay in the moment rather than think about that.
Lemon also is happy to have teammates who will be there for his special moment Saturday, when he will be honored for his accomplishments.
"I could have easily just given up on it all," Lemon said. "But that's not really my nature and character to give up. I fought hard and ended up here, and things are going great. So I'm enjoying it, just basking in all of it."
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