I could regurgitate to you the tale of the Miami Dolphins’ Cameron Wake. A former CFL star who seamlessly made the transition to the NFL and landed a multi-year extension. I could sit here and tell you how that’s the path the Pittsburgh Steelers hope Shawn Lemon follows.
Of course that’s true. It’s the ideal, for the team and Lemon. But that’s not going to happen. He’s not going to be the next Wake.
The better question: Who is he and what can Shawn Lemon become?
He began his football career at Westlake High School in Maryland, just under an hour from Annapolis. There, he dominated, recording a video game-esque 21 sacks during his senior year, topping a junior season that produced 16. A short highlight video from his high school days exists on Youtube.
Despite the gaudy numbers, he was only regarded as a two star prospect. Originally verbally committing to UConn, he wound up at Akron, one of the tiniest football schools in the FBS. He entered a promising Zips program, coming off a bowl appearance in 2005, but left one that failed to win more than five games during his collegiate career. That includes spending the 2006 season in a sort of limbo, and for reasons that I never found out, didn’t officially enroll in college until January of 2007.
His numbers were uninspiring until his senior year when he took off, putting together a 10.5 TFL, 7 sack, 3 FF campaign. But they still weren’t enough to warrant a draft pick.
The journey has seen him wear a lot of hats. CFL stints in Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Edmonton, and Calgary. AFL stops with San Jose and Orlando. He even grabbed a cup of coffee with the Sioux Falls Storm of the Indoor Football League, playing three games with them in 2012. Lots of frequent flyer miles.
But Lemon is a relentless, ever-optimistic player. He worked as a substitute teacher at Westlake to make extra money during the offseason. He taped his personal goals to the bathroom mirror, a daily reminder of what he was playing for.
It’s an attitude he’s held since he was five, proclaiming to his mom he was going to make it into the NFL. Twenty-one years later, Lemon has fulfilled that promise. Approximately 13 to 14 teams showed interest in the 250 pound linebacker after the CFL season and Lemon, citing the Steelers’ family atmosphere and desire to play for Mike Tomlin, chose Pittsburgh.
“I just had to stay hungry and set goals that I wanted to accomplish. I had to understand don’t worry about the distractions around you. Every day I just want to be a better person.” he told Gazette.net in January.
Sometimes, the distractions, or better phrased, learning curves, came from within the team. As recent what as his time with the Calgary Stampeders, his last CFL stop before signing with Pittsburgh. On the surface, the numbers are impressive – 13 sacks and an astounding eight forced fumbles in 2014. But his defensive line coach DeVone Claybrooks points out it didn’t occur automatically.
“At the beginning of the season it was more like pulling teeth, getting him to understand, for instance, that even though the guy is giving you the inside move, you can’t take it because we’re blitzing someone there. So you have to override ‘Oh, I can beat him.’ That doesn’t matter. Because if you take the inside and the blitz comes there, we don’t have a contain guy and now the back runs for 25 yards,” he said in an interview with the Calgary Herald shortly after the linebacker signed.
Lemon, in the Gazette article, agreed.
“It was a difficult transition. It was the first time in my life where I had to focus on little things and put different things in my game. So I used that time to — with coach Claybrooks, he helped me out a lot — just put different transitions in my game and be more of a complete player on special teams as well as defense.”
Though considered a defensive lineman north of the border, Claybrooks believes Lemon has the skillset and versatility to adjust to playing with his hand up the majority of the time, noting that he was “accustomed to dropping into coverage.”
Hearing the two talk about it, it doesn’t sound like his stellar 2014 season was a fluke. Instead, the product of a player finally finding his footing, settling into one team, and getting some tough-love coaching to ultimately make him a better player. And unintentionally, gear him up to become a professional where the meticulous is routine.
The chances of him cracking the 53 aren’t great. At best, there will be one open spot at outside linebacker. At worst, they may all be gone already. And still, even learning all this, it’s impossible to answer with any degree of certainty who exactly Lemon is.
What is clear the team has added a player who has done everything right the last 12 months to give him the best possible chance to succeed in the NFL. If there’s anything to take away here, any key point to learn, it’s that fact.
And if it doesn’t work out, Lemon can take solace in knowing he’s come a lot farther than what anyone, and maybe in a dark moment, himself, imagined possible.