Football has always been an uphill battle for Cleo Lemon, going all the way back to his high school days in Greenwood, Miss. Becoming a seven-figure pro quarterback was something about which Lemon could only dream.
That dream came true this past weekend when Lemon signed a rich free-agent contract with the Jaguars to be David Garrard's backup. Not so all of a sudden, a player who was rejected by major college football, the Canadian Football League and the NFL draft is the infamous "one play away" from being the quarterback of the Super Bowl-hopeful Jaguars.
"I'm coming into a situation that I belong to a playoff team. It has a lot of pieces coming back," Lemon, 6-2, 215, said of joining the Jaguars.
The journey from Greenwood, Miss., to Jacksonville has taken a lot of turns. It even includes time in the Arena2 League, the minor league of arena football.
"I was a late-bloomer in high school. I had a great senior season but Ole Miss was already locked in on their guy and Mississippi State had their guy, too. It looked like I was going to sign with Southern Miss but the situation didn't work out the way I wanted. They pulled their offer back and Arkansas State came with an opportunity," Lemon said.
He was a four-year starter at Arkansas State; a record-setting quarterback in nearly every passing category. The NFL, however, wasn't sufficiently impressed. Lemon was neither drafted in 2001 nor signed as an undrafted free agent. He made his way into the Baltimore Ravens' camp the following year but was cut.
Lemon found his way onto the Chargers' practice squad in 2003 and that's where he began to carve out an NFL career that appeared so unlikely. Last year, that career blossomed in seven games as the Dolphins' starting quarterback.
"I felt I learned a lot through the whole process; the way you handle things as a starter. I felt I handled them in a professional manner. I think I'm ready to take the next step," Lemon said.
The next step is establishing himself as a dependable backup. Lemon won't be playing for a one-win team in 2008. As the backup quarterback on the Jaguars, Lemon is a critical member of a team some are considering a Super Bowl favorite.
"It's been a great ride. There have been highs and lows but that's life. I learned the true meaning of hard work and seeing that hard work pay off. Whenever you earn something, you cherish it," Lemon said. "It was a distant dream, but it was always a dream. Coming out of a small school, I knew it was an uphill battle."
At Arkansas State, Lemon played against the big boys: Miami, Oklahoma the year it won the national title, LSU, Ole Miss, TCU when it had LaDainian Tomlinson.
"I can remember playing a lot of teams tough but we didn't have the depth. We could never pull off that marquee win," Lemon said.
The marquee win in Lemon's career occurred last season against the Baltimore team that originally signed him and then cut him. Jaguars personnel boss James Harris was with the Ravens when Lemon cut his pro teeth in the Ravens' training camp.
"I'll stay in the pocket and deliver the ball, but if the run presents itself, I'll take it," Lemon said in describing his football skills. "I really enjoyed the trip to London and be the starting QB for the Dolphins; getting that win over Baltimore which gave up on me; just being able to run through that tunnel and being a starting quarterback.
"If my name is called I'm definitely going to take advantage of it. It really feels good to see all your hard work pay off and that they have the confidence in you to pay you that contract," Lemon added. "You're looking at a guy who's worked extremely hard. I really feel confident in my ability."