TORONTO — For a free agent choosing a new team, there are a variety of factors that can come into play. Money, a hungry fan base, top-notch facilities, the opportunity to win.
Shawn Lemon wanted to be the face of a defence.
Lemon explained it to reporters one year ago during a promotional shoot for adidas in Toronto. The veteran pass rusher said he chose the Saskatchewan Roughriders over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats because he wanted to be ‘the guy’.
“It was down to Hamilton and Saskatchewan when I was making my final two decisions,” Lemon said then. “And Hamilton already has a Simoni Lawrence there – that’s the face of that team defensively. I want to be a leader by example.”
Fast forward a year and it’s clear things didn’t work out — at least, not that way. They have worked out in a different way, though.
After his trade to Toronto, Shawn Lemon ranked second in the CFL with 14 sacks (Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca)
While Lemon’s Riders career lasted one game and not a single start, the Charleston, S.C. native tied for second in the CFL with 14 sacks as an Argonaut in 2016.
Lemon stepped off the plane last month in Regina during Mark’s CFL Week feeling like it’s been ages since whatever transpired in Regina last season.
“I felt when I got off the plane like ‘wow, I really played out here’,” said Lemon. “But I couldn’t be happier. It worked out and I love Toronto, I like the direction they’re going towards.”
The mysterious fallout between the Riders and Shawn Lemon conjured headlines early in the 2016 season. Lemon was one of the team’s celebrated, big-ticket free agent signings last off-season, joining fellow free agent signing Justin Capicciotti on a new-look Chris Jones-led defence. Between the time Lemon signed and the first game of the season, however, something changed. In the Riders’ opening game in Week 2 vs. Toronto, the pass rusher was listed third on the team’s position chart at left defensive end.
Rumours swirled and word out of Saskatchewan was that Lemon wanted out. The Riders obliged and Toronto would become the 28-year-old’s fifth CFL city in as many years (Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa marking his previous stops).
Today, Lemon says he holds no ill-will towards the Riders.
“I enjoyed my time in Saskatchewan, the fans embraced me,” he said. “I don’t have any bad feelings towards them because they traded me to a place that they figured fits my personality.”
Shawn Lemon’s time with the Riders came to an end after just one game (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)
And it’s true. Think of a word you’d use to describe the city of Toronto and it probably works for Shawn Lemon, too.
A force on the field and on social media, Lemon’s signature lemonade-drinking celebration after big plays quickly became a fan favourite. He also spent time manning the Argos’ booth at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE).
Just this off-season, meanwhile, Lemon was by far the most vocal Argonaut in courting potential new free agents.
After moving around often throughout his six-year CFL career, Lemon signed an extension this off-season. Toronto might finally be a permanent landing spot.
“The city fits my personality. They haven’t had an elite pass-rusher in a while and I couldn’t be happier with being there,” said Lemon, who lives on Front Street in the heart of the downtown core. “I can eat all types of food, for one . . . it’s similar to the city I grew up in, Washington D.C.”
His favourite spot is Fring’s, the local restaurant owned by Drake near King and Spadina.
“The food is delicious, it’s sharable — when me and my fiancée go we just eat off each other’s plates.
“I don’t feel like I’m in another country when I’m in Toronto. I feel like I’m somewhere I can call home.”
Shawn Lemon celebrates following a big defensive play in Ottawa in 2016 (Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca)
With a new contract, a city he loves and a starring role, the Lemonator has checked off almost all of the boxes. All that’s left now is to win.
Lemon played a pivotal role in the Stampeders’ Grey Cup Championship in 2014, recording 13 sacks and eight forced fumbles before departing to the NFL. Two years ago he played with the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the Grey Cup.
Last year, with the Argos, Lemon played on a five-win team. And the Argos’ defence was one of the CFL’s worst statistically.
Drastic change from the general manager to the defensive coordinator gives the Boatmen a new outlook. While Lemon will miss Rich Stubler, the former defensive coordinator who he considers family and a mentor and says he still talks to at least once a week, he’s excited to work with Corey Chamblin, a 39-year-old former CFL player with a Grey Cup ring as a head coach.
“I’m excited,” said Lemon. “The energy he brings, his excitement behind it — he’s been similar to me, so to speak, a coach that people have counted out. People have counted me out as a player so I understand he has a lot to prove as well.”
Chamblin was fired by the Riders two seasons ago and has something to prove with his new club. That resonates with the Argos’ top defensive star.
“He knows what it takes to get to the top of that mountain and he knows what it takes to be at the bottom of it as far as not winning,” said Lemon. “He’s going to do whatever he can do to get back to the top.
“We’ve got to fine-tune some small pieces, which I think we did this year, and we’ll turn things around in the win department.”