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Former ASU quarterback earns job in NFL

Discussion in 'San Diego Chargers Hall of Champions' started by robdog, Sep 6, 2005.

  1. robdog

    robdog Code Monkey Staff Member Administrator

    Jun 29, 2009
    Source: <a href="http://www.jonesborosun.com/archivedstory.asp?ID=15863" target="_blank">Jonesboro Sun</a>

    SAN DIEGO - The sun sits high above the rolling hills of Southern California, casting long shadows on the palm trees that hedge the practice field at Chargers Park. That same blazing California sun sends sweat beads down the face of Chargers quarterback Cleo Lemon.

    Practice has been over for nearly 30 minutes, but Lemon is still on the field, shuffling his feet to make sure that his mechanics are perfect and tossing pigskins in every direction. He zips a ball to Keenan McCardell, hitting the crafty veteran right out of his break.

    Lemon stops to pinch himself, making sure that the moment is real. Can you blame him?
    Two years ago, Arkansas State's all-time leading passer was substitute teaching in the Jonesboro School District, desperately trying to get back into football after a long hiatus from the gridiron. Life took him on a chaotic, winding path, but he's now secured an NFL job. And he's loving every moment of it.

    "I don't like to use clichés, but I've really learned to take advantage of every day, every blessing that comes my way," Lemon said. "It took me a long time to get here. I'm just fortunate to be here."

    During Lemon's junior year at ASU, he suffered a knee injury that he was told he could play through. As it turned out, the Greenwood, Miss., native suffered a partially torn ACL. The injury caused him to miss only minimal time at ASU, but in the long run, it would cost him two years of professional football.

    Scouts were wowed by Lemon's arm strength and decision-making ability, and in the spring of 2001, he was invited to the NFL pre-draft scouting combine. He left Indianapolis with a good feeling, but his knee ultimately kept him from being drafted.

    "I went to the combine and had a pretty good showing," Lemon said. "I really thought I'd hear my name called on the second day of the draft. The reason why I didn't get drafted had nothing to do with my abilities. I failed every team's physical. I had no idea what was going on. It had to do with something that I couldn't control."

    Although he was not drafted, Lemon was invited to mini-camp with the Green Bay Packers, but because of the injury, he never got much of a chance in Lombardi Land.

    "I signed with Green Bay right after the draft, but failed their physical, so they cut me," Lemon said. "The Packers' doctor told me that if I was going to make it in the NFL, I was going to have to get my knee fixed. I had surgery about a year-and-a-half after I hurt it."

    The next two years featured a series of twists and turns that would have caused many people to give up on football, but Lemon would do no such thing. Following surgery, he returned to Arkansas State to finish his degree in marketing. While in Jonesboro, he also served as a student coach on the football team and went through an intense rehabilitation process.

    That fall, nearly a year-and-a-half after his short-lived stint in Wisconsin, Lemon was finally healthy. NFL teams started calling, and he was back on track to life in pro football. He signed a contract with the Baltimore Ravens, who allocated him to NFL Europe.

    But a disappointed Lemon was placed on the practice squad of the Berlin Thunder. Since he wasn't getting any live game action, Lemon lobbied to come home, and the Ravens accommodated him.

    Lemon's offseason in Baltimore under offensive guru Brian Billick was a learning experience, but once again, it was back to the drawing board. He was cut following training camp, and for a second consecutive fall, he wasn't given the opportunity to get on the field. He spent the 2002 football season back in Jonesboro as a substitute teacher and doing odd jobs just to get by.
    "There were times when I sat around with no money in my pocket wondering what I was going to do," Lemon said. "Football was in my heart, and I just couldn't give up. It was all I wanted to do. You think about giving up, but when you know that you have the ability to play, you can't quit. I just kept pressing on."

    With NFL options dwindling, he pursued employment in arena2, the lower level of the Arena Football League. While preparing for his first start with the Memphis Explorers of arena2, Lemon received phone calls from three NFL franchises. The Chargers, Packers and Dolphins each invited the Greenwood, Miss., native in for a tryout.
    Lemon never made it to Green Bay or Miami. The Chargers offered him a contract, and he immediately signed. That fall, he was awarded a spot on the Chargers' practice squad.

    He spent the entire 2003 season there, but his employment again became in jeopardy when the Bolts used their top pick in the 2004 draft on Philip Rivers. With Drew Brees, Doug Flutie and Rivers ahead of him, Lemon wondered if he still fit into the Chargers' plans.

    "I had Drew Brees, a legend, and a No. 4 overall draft pick in front of me. I was wondering what my role on this team would be," Lemon said. "I didn't know if I had a spot."

    Because of what they had invested in Lemon, the Chargers decided to keep four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, something that is seldom done in the NFL.

    "We knew that Doug wasn't going to be around a whole lot longer, and we felt that we'd put too much time into developing Cleo to let him go," Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer said. "If we had put him on our practice squad, there's no doubt in my mind that someone would have snatched him away from us."

    This offseason, Flutie signed with the New England Patriots, leaving Lemon third on the Chargers' depth chart. He's seen extensive action this preseason and has made the most of it. In San Diego's final preseason game, a 28-24 win over San Francisco, Lemon completed 12-of-14 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns, including the 32-yard game-winner to Ruvell Martin with 9 seconds left.

    The Chargers' quarterback situation remains one of the most intriguing issues in the NFL. Prior to the 2004 season, NFL experts had left Brees for dead. The Chargers used their top draft pick to acquire Rivers, who was heralded as the franchise's savior. But Brees had a Cinderella season in '04, throwing for 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions while leading the
    Bolts to their first division title in 10 years.

    Following the season, Brees signed the team's franchise tender, keeping him in San Diego for at least one more season. Following the 2005 season, the Chargers will likely be forced with the decision to either lock up Brees long term or hand the reins to Rivers. With so much salary wrapped up in the position, it's highly unlikely the team will keep both quarterbacks, meaning that a year from now Lemon could very well become the Chargers' primary backup.
    Lemon says he never thinks about it. Besides, his goal isn't to be a No. 2.

    "I feel like I can be a starter. I believe it in my heart," Lemon said. "I'm trying to get better every day so that when the opportunity comes, I can be ready to take it and lead a team to a lot of wins and even a championship."

    Lemon has never suited up for a regular-season NFL contest, but he'll finally get that chance when the Chargers open their 2005 campaign against the Dallas Cowboys next Sunday. While it hasn't been an easy wait, it's been one well worth it.
    "I spent two years out of football," Lemon said. "I don't really have time to reflect, but when I have kids and get to tell them a good story, that will be special. To still be living my dreams is great. You just can't give up on them."

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