O’Leary: Lemon walks it like he talks it for another year

MONTREAL — One-by-one, Shawn Lemon shifted through the large, shapeless figures in front of him. Full speed, knocking them to his left, his right, ducking under them, spinning around them.

The 35-year-old showed his footwork on a ladder. He ran hills, he ran drills, the sweat pouring out of him under a hot July sun. It seemed wrong after a dozen seasons in the CFL to see Lemon on an empty field at that time of year.

“Thirty-five days,” he said to the camera. “Thirty-five days. But I know it’s coming.”

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Lemon was right. On the heels of a 14-sack season that saw him named the West Division’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2022, Lemon signed as a free agent with the BC Lions over the winter. The Lions cut him from their training camp in May. One of the CFL’s greatest-ever defensive linemen sat idle into July, until the Montreal Alouettes added him to their roster.

If you’d listened to him, if you saw his summertime free agent posts online, you wouldn’t be surprised that his impact would be immediate. In his second game with the Als, he had a pair of sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in the team’s Week 9 win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. He finished the season with nine sacks in 13 games, along with two interceptions, a forced fumble and a touchdown. In the process, he became just the 13th player in league history to surpass the 100-sack mark.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of adversity in life and a lot of adversity in my pro career,” Lemon said after the Als’ practice on Thursday. “You only control the…opportunity you get in 24 hours in a day. What you do with it, that’s on you. I just choose to make lemonade.”

When Lemon makes his Lemonade reference, Almondo Sewell laughs from a few feet away. The veteran defensive tackle was Lemon’s college teammate at Akron, then lined up with him when the two were in Edmonton in 2012 before Lemon joined Sewell and the Als this year. Lemon in 2023 is the same one that Sewell saw in college: full of fire, determination and a self-belief that’s unmatchable.

“He’s the same. He hasn’t changed,” Sewell said. “For all of the people I’ve known over the years he’s the only one that’s never changed.”

Lemon may be driven by the pursuit of success, of being a part of a winning team and as he’s done twice in his career to this point, hoisting the Grey Cup above his head. He also has no problem letting people know that he works at an elite level. When he isn’t recognized for it, he’ll call it out. On Thursday, as the East and West All-Stars were named, Lemon knew that his name wasn’t on that list and he wasn’t happy about it.

“I like to prove people wrong. Even now still, I’m pissed off for this week. I wasn’t selected to All-Star. I’m pissed off this week. Look at the plays that I have — and I’m not making excuses, congratulations to the guys that got it. But they had six games on me and, you look at the stats,” he laughed.

“Once I feel like I’ve have nothing else to prove, that’s when I walk away from the game. But I still had to prove myself on that field. I still feel like I still don’t get the respect that I deserve. And that’s OK. I don’t mind that, it gives me extra chip on my shoulder. I’m the type of guy that looks for motivation in the trashcan, anywhere it is I’m going to look for it. And I’m going to use it to motivate me to be a better player.”

In Big Little Lies, Reese Witherspoon’s character is urged to let some grievances go. She refuses, saying, “I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.” You can almost hear Lemon say it as he recounts the slights he’s encountered in his career, each one a log on the hotly-burning fire inside of him.

“I’ve been released when I had six sacks with Edmonton in 2012. I’ve been released when I had 92 (career) sacks in BC,” Lemon told the Montreal Gazette’s Herb Zurkowsky after he’d recorded his 100th sack. “I’ve been dealing with adversity always, but you control the belief in yourself.”

When Lemon came to the Als, Sewell knew that Lemon would be ready to hit the ground running. He saw that same work ethic at Akron and he knew everything that would come with it. When Lemon’s on your team, he brings a standard and the challenge is on everyone else to match it.

In addition to the nine sacks he had, Lemon pulled in a pair of interceptions this year for the Als (The Canadian Press)

“I think that’s what people misunderstand about him, is he’s always going to get to the quarterback. He’s always going to be out there working and hardly anybody out there is going to out-work him,” Sewell said.

“It’s one of those things where people are going to like him or they won’t. At the end of the day, he’s not a bad guy. I feel he’s more misunderstood than a lot of people. And I share part of his frustration too, when I see teams overlook him. You see guys get paid…or you see things, media people may not like him but at the same time, he produces. This is a league of producing.”

In a game where very few get to choose the end of their careers, seeing Lemon posting those videos in the early parts of the season, you might have wondered if that would be the last you’d see of him. Those posts are in some ways a microcosm of his career though; a supremely talented player with a shining resume was showing anyone that would look at what he could do. Whether it’s clips online or demanding the respect he’s built up through his career, it’s not the first time he’s had to go to bat for himself. Once again, he’s proven himself and continues to demand more.

“It was tough, mentally,” Lemon said of watching this season start without him.

“But I understand what my skill set is. I’ve always had confidence in what I can do on the field and I know all I need is an opportunity. No matter what defence it is, I want to perform.”

On Saturday, he’ll try to help lift the Als to their second consecutive Eastern Final appearance.

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