AJ Carr, a 51-year veteran of the sports writing ranks, has joined the GoPack.com staff as a contributing writer. A Wallace, N.C., native and a graduate of Guilford College, Carr spent more than 42 years on the staff at the Raleigh News & Observer, covering generations of Wolfpack sports. Both of his sons, Greg and Brad, are NC State graduates.
BY A.J. CARR
RALEIGH, N.C. - Michael Lemon didn't need to bench press 400 pounds to show his true strength.
Before arriving at NC State in mid August, the gargantuan 6-4, 267-pound junior had been carrying the weight of his world on his shoulders.
That was weight spawned from grief, anger, rejection and remorse.
At age 16, his best friend was in a fatal car accident and Lemon was there, holding him in his arms when he drew his last breath.
A few years later, his mother -- Phaba Hollingshed -- was murdered by her boyfriend, who subsequently burned the family's home during a violent rage.
Then, adding more trouble to tragedy, Lemon got in an off-campus fight at the University of Georgia. That misdeed in 2007 led to several charges and resulted in his getting kicked out of the Bulldogs' football program.
The sentence included spending three weekends in jail, time he pulled this past spring.
Grappling to stay afloat in that turbulent sea of adversity, Lemon latched onto football again at Georgia Military College, where he played in 2008. While hoping another Division I coach would call, he envisioned his once-promising career ending there amid the bugle sound of Taps.
Instead, NC State coach Tom O'Brien came to the rescue. While taking a circuitous route to Raleigh, Lemon is thankful to be making tackles again now as a second-team defensive end for the Wolfpack. His gratitude is manifested in a smile the width of a goal-post crossbar.
"I'm very grateful for a second chance," said Lemon, whose bright countenance is framed with a beard and sideburns. "I'm trying to make the best of it. It easily could have been over a long time ago."
Although he didn't arrive until midway through pre-season practice, Lemon -- a redshirt junior -- adapted quickly by spending extra skull sessions with defensive line coach Keith Willis. By the first game, he was in the D-line rotation and seized a moment in the spotlight with an interception in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina.
Considering his start with the Pack, it looks as if he might reach his football potential after all.
"He has good skills, good power, good quickness, good football instincts,'' O"Brien said. "He understands the game. He's going to play a lot of football the next two years for us."
Wolfpack assistant Andy McCollum, who recruits the state of Georgia, discovered the highly-regarded prospect.
When Lemon came for a campus visit, O'Brien saw a "remorseful" athlete - also an amiable person whose warmth shone in that smile and who comported himself in a manner the coach liked.
Before seriously recruiting Lemon, O'Brien did a background check that would have impressed an FBI agent.
The Pack coach visited and talked with many people at Stratford Academy and at Georgia Military. He had an "extensive conversation" with Lemon's attorney, John Donnelly, and with Georgia head coach Mark Richt.
"Mark endorsed Michael maybe even more than people in the community,'' O'Brien said. "I couldn't find anybody who would say a nasty thing about him. Kids are young and make mistakes. He certainly deserves a second chance and so far it has worked out well for both of us."
Georgia's defensive coaches wanted to give Lemon another chance. So did Richt. But several Bulldog players had been involved in off-field incidents that year and the head coach needed to take a tough disciplinary stand.
"I don't have hard feelings toward Coach Richt,'' Lemon said. "He was a great guy when I was there."
To play for State Lemon had to meet stringent demands laid out by O'Brien. Part of the process meant passing three summer school courses and clearing issues within the legal system.
"We gave him a lot of hoops to work through and he made it all.'' O'Brien said. "I think that speaks of his desire to take full advantage of that second opportunity, which we envision him doing."
Lemon needed football, a family, and a comfortable environment. He says NC State has provided that, helping turn around a life that had gone lemon sour.
"I love the state, the college, the team,'` he said. "Everyone's close; there's a great family feel. You can talk to coaches. Everyone cares about each other around here."
While pressing on with purpose, Lemon hasn't forgotten his past. He never will.
During a tutoring session at Georgia, his cell phone rang. He snapped it off once .... again ...and again. A persistent caller kept dialing.
Finally answering, he was told his house was on fire, Lemon hopped on his motor scooter, rode to his car and sped homeward to Macon in less than the 90 minutes it normally took.
"I rode up and it was all ashes,'' he said.
His 15-year brother, Marquez, had escaped, thanks to someone who awakened him by banging on the windows.
Then Michael got the devastating news: The body of his 39-year old mother was found amid the ashes, dead from a blunt weapon wielded by her boyfriend.
"I had just made her a birthday cake and written on it: `39 and still fine,'" Lemon said, again pierced with the pain.
"It was me, her and my brother. She would always say: `Just in case I'm not here, I'm teaching you this ...' We would hate it when she would say that. She taught us how to be strong, how to be sufficient without her."
Man of the house at a young age, Lemon learned to cook and do other domestic chores. He helped Marquez, currently playing football at Stratford Academy, with his schoolwork. He says a top priority still is taking care of his brother.
After their mother's death, a fund was established to support the children, attorney John Donnelly said.
"I want everyone to know I did appreciate the offers and effort they put in,'' said Lemon, concerned now that he might not have verbalized his feelings at that time.
"I guess I had to work through it myself,'' he said.
Years earlier, when Lemon was in the seventh grade, the teacher asked all the students to write a poem about any place they liked.
Lemon wrote about Heaven and the words he penciled that day are etched on the head stone of his mother's grave:
Heaven so yearned for, but also so dreaded.
The happiest but yet saddest end to every life.
Oh how I love the mansions and streets of gold,
But how I hate the day my loved ones leave to be with them.
Heaven, if only known for eternal happiness,
Why must it be associated with great pain and sorrow?
Taking those dear to our hearts to everlasting peace,
While leaving us with an empty space in our souls and longing for their touch.
Always echoing in the back of our minds that things happen for a reason,
Only to leave us in a never-ending struggle to find it.
Oh how I crave knowledge to understand you and your ways,
To see how you are not only a "better" place but also the "best" place.
I will keep you and the love ones you hold close to my heart,
Knowing that one day we will all be reunited.