Former Bearcat Lemon Works Hard to Play Professional Football

Receiver's journey has taken him to LSFL's Laredo Rattlesnakes

By John Lind, Assistant Athletics Communications Director

LAREDO, TEX -- Competing at the professional level for NCAA Division III athletes after graduation is often an intimidating prospect. Most athletes who choose to play at schools like Willamette University arrive with the promise of getting a good education while continuing to play sports, seldom considering the uphill battle of competing in professional sports afterwards.

Regardless of what sport a Division III athlete may try to pursue after college, perseverance and work ethic are two necessary components the athlete must possess. As a current member for the Lone Star Football League’s Laredo Rattlesnakes, former Bearcat wide receiver Mikey Lemon (’11) especially knows this. Lemon’s journey has taken him from Willamette through several different professional leagues, including the Arena Football League, all the way to Texas.

Lemon played two years at Willamette after transferring from Northwest Conference rival Linfield College. While with the Bearcats, he was an ideal fit for Coach Mark Speckman’s “Fly” offense, contributing both on the ground and through the air. He finished his career with 290 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground plus 149 yards and one touchdown receiving.

Possibly the best game of Lemon’s senior year was also one of the biggest setbacks in his football career. After a relatively quiet 2010 season, Lemon erupted against Lewis & Clark College with five carries for 30 yards and two touchdowns. However, Lemon’s performance was cut short when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and meniscus in his right knee, effectively ending his season.

Despite the severity of the injury, Lemon said the incident didn’t deter his dream of playing professionally. “I honestly knew at that point that I would still pursue and play professional football,” Lemon said. “So for the remainder of that year and the follow football season I was aggressive with my rehab.”

Lemon was a wide receiver coach for Willamette during the 2011 season while he finished his degree in Sociology. After he graduated, Lemon received a tryout with the Spokane Shock of the Arena Football League. Lemon made the Shock’s roster despite being one of the few players to come from a Division III program.

Although he was later released due to a lack of roster space, Lemon said the initial opportunity gave him the confidence of knowing he could play at the professional level. “I received a lot of good feedback from the head coach and general manager,” Lemon said. “A couple of the most gratifying statements were things like, ‘We didn’t know what to expect from you being a small college player … but we were pleasantly surprised’ and ‘You can definitely start in this league.’”

Lemon’s will was tested time and again throughout the process of finding a team who would give him a chance. Opportunities with other teams didn’t come to fruition, and Lemon returned to coach at Willamette in the fall of 2012. He tried out again for the Shock last December and “had a really good work out and was told [he] would definitely be invited back for training camp,” but to no avail.

“It was discouraging,” Lemon recalled, “but unfortunately that’s the nature of being a Division III player pursuing professional sports at some levels.”

Lemon finally got a chance with another team, the Kentucky Drillers (formerly the Eastern Kentucky Drillers) of the Continental Indoor Football League (CIFL). At the end of January, he flew to Pikeville, Ky., and made the roster. While with the Drillers, Lemon got playing time, even scoring his first professional touchdown against the Owensboro Rage.

Lemon’s hard work and perseverance paid off. He signed with a new agent, who quickly contacted the head coach of Laredo and found him the opportunity with the Rattlesnakes. “Word got back to me that there was a contract in Laredo waiting for me if I wanted to step out and earn it,” Lemon said.

The day after his debut with the Drillers, Lemon told his coach he would be leaving for Laredo. Despite his short stint in Kentucky, Lemon feels that he left on good terms. “He (the coach) gave me his blessing and I left that day… that’s just the nature of the business; all of the players want to move up to higher leagues, and coaches often do their part in helping,” Lemon said.

While Lemon is currently with the Rattlesnakes, his is constantly setting his sights higher. “After my AFL experience, I have a huge hunger to get back to that league,” Lemon said. “My goal is to play at the highest level that I am capable of before ultimately hanging it up.”

Lemon said he and his agent are also looking into international leagues, including the Canadian Football League and German Football League, for possible tryouts. However, he is currently committed to returning to Willamette as a coach for the fall of 2013.

For the time being, Lemon will suit up for the Rattlesnakes. Laredo is currently 1-1 in the LSFL, and will play its next game on Saturday, April 6 against the Rio Rancho Stars. The Rattlesnakes are one of five teams in the league.

Lemon has yet to see playing time for Laredo, but he isn’t especially surprised. “Being a Division III player in professional football is interesting and almost humorous at points, because people do not initially expect much out of me,” Lemon said. “On the professional level, ‘small colleges’ usually refer to Division IAA schools, Division III is viewed as really small.”

Despite the disadvantage of these initial judgments, Lemon’s persistent effort and optimism have translated into tryouts and opportunities. Pedigree may mean something in the locker room, but effort and ability trump all on the field.

This was best demonstrated for Lemon during his first tryout with the Shock. On the first day of the tryout, Lemon was matched up against a defensive back who started four years at Division I football power University of Southern California and even started a year in the NFL. When they met, Lemon said the player was confident he would have no trouble containing Lemon.

“As practice progressed, he was my first professional head-to-head competition,” Lemon said. “Not only did I win the [first] rep against him but I continued to have a good two weeks.”

Lemon hopes his continued work in the pros can be an example for other Division III athletes that competing at the professional level is possible. “When you step on that field or court, all labels go out the window,” Lemon said. “Just work on perfecting your craft and you can make it, regardless of what others say and think.”

Mikey Lemon ('11) scored two touchdowns against Lewis & Clark in 2010.

Mikey Lemon ('11) scored two touchdowns against Lewis & Clark in 2010.

Mikey Lemon celebrates following one of his touchdown runs versus the Pioneers.

Mikey Lemon celebrates following one of his touchdown runs versus the Pioneers.

Mikey Lemon catches a pass against Linfield in 2009.

Mikey Lemon catches a pass against Linfield in 2009.