NEW ORLEANS — Michael Lemon talks about his first trip to the Big Easy like any other wide-eyed college freshman.
"I’m having a blast," the Georgia defensive lineman said Friday on the floor of the Superdome, breaking into a big smile for the whole world to see.
No one’s quite sure what he’s going through on the inside.
While in high school, Lemon watched his best friend die in a car wreck. Then, this past February, his mother was beaten to death and her home set ablaze, allegedly in an attempt to conceal the crime.
It’s more pain than any 20-year-old should have to endure, but Lemon seems to be handling it with remarkable grace and resiliency as he prepares to play for the Bulldogs against unbeaten Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.
"I was just raised to take in stride whatever happens, to keep on moving," said Lemon, a redshirt freshman who backs up at defensive end. "You can’t just stop when something happens, you know what I mean?"
Still, there are those who wonder if Lemon is bottling up much of his anguish, putting up a facade that few people can break down.
"Michael Lemon is a very quiet, very introverted young man," said Kevin "Chappy" Hynes, the team chaplain. "I wouldn’t say he’s handling it well. I wouldn’t say he’s not. I don’t know. I do know he’s internalizing it."
Lemon first encounter with the tragic side of life — and death — came when he was only 16. His best friend, Cory Johnson, was in a car that swerved off the road. Lemon was following right behind in another vehicle.
"When I came up on the car, it was in a ditch," he recalled matter-of-factly before a morning practice. "He was there on the bank. I pulled him up. He was alive at that point."
Johnson died at the hospital, stricken down before his life ever really got started.
"You just get used to that kind of stuff," Lemon said, shrugging his shoulders. "It kind of hardens you up a bit, but you’ve just got to fight through it."
Football surely helped him cope with his grief. Lemon, who is black, played at Stratford Academy, a predominantly white private school in Macon, Ga. While he might have felt out of his place, his mother wouldn’t let him take the easy way out.
Mark Farriba was Lemon’s high school coach. He was the one who took the initial call from Phaba LaDon Hollingshed Lemon, a hospice nurse who wanted to know what it would take to get young Michael into Stratford.
"I’m not sure it was Michael’s choice to come there," Farriba, who now coaches at another school, said by telephone Friday. "But I know his mom really wanted him to go there. She wanted him to get a good education."
He really stood out in athletics. Lemon played both ways in football, and lettered in basketball and track. He grew into one of the state’s top prospects and signed with the Bulldogs. His mother was there to cheer him every step of the way.
"She was one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet in your life," Farriba said. "She had a great personality. She was always encouraging Michael. She was a fighter, too. She was all about getting your work done and taking care of your business. She was all about doing your best and not making excuses. She brought him a lot of good core values that are paying off now."
Lemon didn’t play his first season at Georgia, but he was looking forward to getting on the field in 2007. Then, while attending an early morning study hall last winter, he got the awful news from home.
His mother’s mobile home had burned down. His little brother made it out safely, but no one could find 39-year-old Phaba Lemon. Michael jumped in his car and raced for Lizella, his tiny hometown just outside of Macon.
When Hynes got the news, he actually drove out to meet Lemon on the highway.
"He pulled over and I said, ‘Michael, there’s nothing I can do to you right now, nothing I can do to help. Let me just pray with you to have a safe trip and calm your spirit,’" the chaplain remembered. "At the moment, we didn’t know what happened. We just knew there was a fire and they didn’t find his mom."
Her body was eventually discovered inside the charred home. She had died from blows to the head. Her boyfriend was charged with murder.
That weekend, three busloads of players and coaches traveled to Macon for Phaba Lemon’s memorial service and burial. "We want you to know that we love you," coach Mark Richt said. Lemon’s teammates formed two lines at the grave as the casket passed through, reminiscent of the "Dawg Walk" those very same players pass through before each home game.
The school got NCAA approval to form a trust fund for Michael and his brother, Marquez. Nearly $70,000 in donations poured in, money that will be used to handle their day-to-day expenses.
Right after the crime, Lemon sought solace at the home of his best friend, the one who died in the car wreck. That’s still the most poignant memory for Hynes, who prayed with Lemon and Johnson’s parents in their kitchen.
"You just knew the last time anyone huddled in that kitchen like that was when that young man died," Hynes said. "You could tell that house was very, very bleak."
There were adult responsibilities Lemon had to take care of while still a teenager, such as picking out the burial plot and headstone. He made sure his then 15-year-old brother was taken care of (he now lives with their aunt and, like Michael, plays sports at Stratford Academy).
"I didn’t have too much time to sit there and dwell on it," Lemon said. "I had stuff to do business-wise. I had stuff to do to take care of the rest of my family. I guess I was just busy the whole time."
He soon returned to school and his extended family, teammates and coaches who helped him get through. Lemon played a limited role for the Bulldogs, getting into seven games and making six tackles. Just making it through the season may have been his greatest accomplishment.
"He’s handled it as good as anybody could," receiver Sean Bailey said. "Sometimes I look at him and don’t know how he keeps a smile on his face, how he stays so upbeat."
For Lemon, there’s no other option.
"I have other people counting on me," he said. "You can’t just quit."