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November 10, 2010One of the most touching moments of senior day is when each of the departing players hear their names introduced one last time at Carter-Finley Stadium. They take their final run out of the tunnel with their family and greet head coach Tom O'Brien near midfield.
When NC State asked fifth-year senior defensive end Michael Lemon who he would be walking out with Saturday when NC State plays Wake Forest for the final home game of the 2010 season, Lemon could only think of one thing.
"Once it came to me, it was just obvious," Lemon noted. "I guess I just had to wait for someone to trigger it."
The natural option would be Lemon's younger brother Marquez, a senior running back at Stratford Academy in Macon, Ga. Lemon's brother is the only family he has left after both of his mother was murdered by her boyfriend in 2007. The Lemon house was subsequently burned to the ground, but Marquez managed to escape the flames unharmed.
But Marquez has a high school playoff game Friday night, and his older brother does not want to burden him.
"He knows I love him," Michael Lemon said. "If he were here he would definitely be the one I came out to with. Since he's down there I'll just lean on my second family, the D-line."
In what promises to be an unique scene for senior day, Lemon will walk out with his fellow defensive linemen and defensive line coach Keith Willis.
"We're just one big family on the D-line, just a small band of brothers," Lemon noted. "I'm with those guys every day. Those are the first guys I see in the morning when I get here, the last ones I see when I leave. I just felt that I just wanted to come out to those guys, and I was glad that they wanted to do that and were happy to do it.
"Coach Willis is a great guy. He's very supportive, just always there if you ever need him. He's been a great help to me."
Redshirt junior defensive end Jeff Rieskamp, whom Lemon jokingly noted has a "couple of loose screws in his head," was honored by Lemon's decision.
"It means a lot," Rieskamp said. "He's a good guy. He's always got a smile on his face. He's always looking up. Everything to him it seems like he takes the best out of every situation. He never seems down. To be there to support him means a lot to me."
Even the typically stoic O'Brien was touched by the gesture.
"I think it talks a lot about him, who he wanted out there," O'Brien said. "He could've had anybody. I didn't offer myself because I was afraid I'd be rejected, but I think it speaks for who he thinks his family is here, and that's the guy that he's in the meeting room with, the guys he's played with and the guys that he probably eats with most of the time.
"It's hard to put yourself in his place. To think you lose your parents, specifically your mother in such a tragic way at such an early age, to be able to come back, to be on track to graduate, to do the things even after he stubbed his toe and had to leave the University of Georgia to get a second chance."
Senior day will be part of the final chapter of a successful comeback story for Lemon. After his mother's death, a grieving Lemon ran into off the field issues, including a fight in 2007 that forced him to spend three weekends in jail. Georgia coach Mark Richt dismissed Lemon from the team.
He spent 2008 at Georgia Military Academy in Milledgeville, Ga., where then-NC State linebackers coach Andy McCollum noticed him. McCollum convinced O'Brien to take a look at Lemon, and after lengthy discussions with those associated with Lemon's past, including Richt, O'Brien decided to take a chance.
"Mark endorsed Michael maybe even more than people in the community," O'Brien said at the time. "I couldn't find anyone who would say a nasty thing about him."
Lemon has played well in his two years at NC State, appearing in all 21 contests and starting two. He had 24 tackles, including four for losses and a sack, seven quarterback hurries, five pass breakups, an interception and forced fumble last season.
Through nine games this year Lemon has 24 tackles, including 6.5 for loss and two sacks. He has pressured the quarterback three times and broken up a pass.
The 6-4, 274-pounder will also graduate in the spring with a degree in African American Studies, and he already has ambitions about his post-graduate life.
"Growing up [the NFL] was never my dreams," Lemon admitted. "I always wanted to have my own company, which I plan on starting when I do graduate, my own landscaping company. If the pros come knocking of course I won't turn it down.
"I think I might go back to Georgia. I am still trying to get used to all this cold and snow up here. Georgia is my home. That's what I know better. I do love Raleigh. I love this area."
Lemon has a notepad at home with 50 names for his landscaping business. He thinks he might relocate to metro-Atlanta rather than his hometown of Macon.
He also knows that his mother would be very proud of him as he gets ready for the next stage of his life, and how he handled himself at NC State. Lemon is proud of himself.
"I could have easily just given up on it all, but that's not me and my nature and character to give it up," Lemon said. "I fought hard, wound up here, and things are going great. I'm enjoying it. I love it.
"I love this place. They gave me a great second opportunity to really show who I could be. I kind of slipped up earlier in life. NC State gave me a second opportunity to show who I can be, and they allowed me to blossom into the person that I can be."
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