GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coaches, campers, players and spectators pack the sidelines of the school’s indoor practice facility for Friday Night Lights 2017.
The camp this year is the biggest in event history, with all eyes on the 5-star quarterbacks and 1-on-1 drills. However, the action on the field doesn’t have the attention of everyone in attendance.
Face down and music blaring, Adarius Lemons nods his head left to right as he stands back with his against the wall, seemingly lost in his own little world. It’s a feeling he knows all too well.
A familiar face draws a smile from Lemons as he pauses his playlist to exchange pleasantries. The Gators true freshman running back has been on campus for just a month, but already feels more at home in Gainesville than actual places he’s lived.
“I finally made it out,” Adarius says, referring to the dark hole he spent three months climbing out of.
A year earlier, Lemons made the decision to join Florida’s 2017 class after camping at Friday Night Lights. He was ranked the state’s No. 1 running back at the time.
But that summer pledge to the Gators would be short lived, as a couple incidents at Clearwater High School turned Lemons’ life upside down in a matter of weeks.
Lemons de-committed from Florida last Oct. 25. That night, Dr. Robert Urban saw the Lemons news during his daughter’s performance. With no reception inside the theater, he walked out to send Lemons’ father this text:
“I need to see him now.”
Another dark hole
Lemons began playing football at 8 years old, but would have started sooner if not for his predicament.
The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) removed Lemons and his sister from the custody of their mother, Ethel Jones, when Lemons was 6.
He stayed in multiple foster homes over the next two years.
“At one point, I didn’t even know where I was at,” Adarius says. “There was a lot going on around that time. I didn’t have my mother or my sister, so I was on my own. It felt like another dark hole.”
Lemons’ father, Herman Jones, was unable to take custody of him during those years, but Herman’s mother eventually did. Lemons moved in with his grandmother, Horace May Byrd, at age 8 and lived primarily with her until his high school graduation.
Lemons, now 19, harbors no ill will toward his parents and said he appreciate his grandmother caring for him the past 11 years. However, Lemons believes his unstable upbringing hurt him in the classroom.
“It was a struggle for them to provide for me and just keep up with everything I had going on,” Adarius says. “I’ve told them a few times, ‘You guys fell off with my schooling as I got older in middle and high school. Y’all fell off.’ I needed somebody in my corner.”
Lemons still maintains a relationship with his mother and father. Though painful, he often thinks back to his days in foster care and now appreciates the experience as an adult.
“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Lemons says. “I still wake up sometimes and I’m just wowed. When I got taken away, some of the houses I stayed in made me realize there’s more to life than being in the hood and living a low-income life. I just knew I wanted more.”
Foster care also fostered Lemons’ affinity for football.
He would play pick-up games in the street, such as “kill the carrier” and “sideline derby.” Most of the kids were ages 10 and 11, making Lemons the youngest player.
“But I was the best,” Adarius says. “I was faster than everyone. My speed came from kill the carrier.”
After a few years of playing center and defensive end in little league, Lemons volunteered to play running back when he joined a new youth football team.
“Our coach asked the players who can play running back and I raised my hand,” Adarius says. “I had never played it at all. I’m like 12 or 13. But I wanted to get on the field. Ever since I touched that ball, I loved it.”
By the end of his junior year at Clearwater High, Lemons was a consensus 4-star recruit, held more than 20 offers and ranked No. 1 at his position for the state of Florida after a 1,000-yard season in 2015.
Lemons committed to North Carolina in the spring of 2016, but became the top RB target for Gators coach Jim McElwain, offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and assistant coach Tim Skipper, his primary recruiter.
Their efforts paid off last summer when Lemons flipped from UNC to UF after attending Friday Night Lights. In the hours leading up his commitment, hundreds of Florida fans, recruits and players tweeted #GetLemons2TheSwamp and got the hashtag trending on Twitter.
“It was pretty amazing,” Adarius says of the social media campaign. “At the time I was so set and focused on North Carolina. I was really trying to get away from the state. But I kind of came to my senses on that Florida visit.
“When I got to the school and participated in Friday Night Lights, I pictured myself playing in The Swamp on Saturday nights and living the dream. The visit just went so well and everything felt right, so I committed.”
That commitment did not last long for Lemons, whose life took a turn for the worse.
Clearwater expelled Lemons in late October after his latest suspension, ending his senior season after only two games. In a knee-jerk reaction, Lemons removed himself from Florida’s 2017 class to avoid becoming a distraction.
“I thought my football career was over and the coaches were going to drop me,” Adarius says. “But Florida never pulled my offer or asked me to de-commit. I just did it.”
Lemons was forced to attend Pinellas Secondary School for the rest of the fall semester to improve his attendance and academics.
“My first day at the school, a police offer maced two students and a teacher got maced trying to break it up,” Adarius recalls. “They search you every day and pat you down. They were pretty heavy on security there. It was a different environment.
“The worst thing about it was just seeing the way kids would act. The teachers focused on the ones with behavioral problems. I knew I didn’t belong there, but at the same time your actions have consequences. I put myself in a dark hole.”
Fortunately for Lemons, Dr. Robert Urban and his wife Jeannie would help him escape. Lemons’ father is a patient of Dr. Urban and asked him for help when Adarius’ future was in jeopardy.
“I had read an article about Adarius in the Tampa [Bay] Times, but I didn’t know him,” Robert says. “But I found out about his ordeal in October through a patient of mine. I do a lot of mentoring for young people and this patient thought Adarius could benefit from having me in his life. I couldn’t wait to help.”
Dr. Urban and his wife started looking into Adarius’ academics and discovered he had several errors on his high school transcripts. What followed was a two-month crusade by Jeannie.
“The administration was downright obstructionist at Clearwater,” she says. “They were all mad that we got involved at first, until I ruffled some feathers. But their grades for him were wrong! I fought that for two months before it got fixed.
“Some of his grades were two letters too low. Now, they fixed them, but who would have done that for him had we not stepped in? The school didn’t even know what courses he needed to qualify academically. He wasn’t in enough core classes. It was a mess.”
Lemons eventually gave Dr. Urban and his wife power of attorney for his education. He made honor roll at Pinellas Secondary School and was allowed back at Clearwater High for the spring semester.
“I kind of had to reprogram myself,” Adarius says. ““It was tough. But then again, some people have it tougher than me. What killed me is people knowing who I was. When I got there, some Florida Gators fans were like, ‘What are you doing here?!’ You don’t belong here!’
“That motivated me to get back everything I had. I don’t want to be a person who could have made it. That’s not me. You’re going to go through trials and tribulations in life. It’s about how you overcome those things.”
A place to call home
Dr. Urban and his wife did much more than help Lemons get his grades in order.
They offered him support at his lowest point and provided the stability — and resources — he never had. Lemons eventually moved in with the Urban family and lived there during the last half of his senior year.
“We gave him a bed and he told us it was fine, but a few days later I saw him laying on it and he was scrunched in the corner,” Robert recalls. “I said, ‘Adarius, you don’t look very comfortable.’ He goes, ‘Well, it’s kind of small, but I didn’t really want to say anything.”
Dr. Urban couldn’t understand why Lemons willingly slept on a bed that didn’t fit him. As it turns out, he was just happy to have one.
“When I was at my grandmother’s house, I slept on a mat on the floor,” Adarius says. “So I had something to lay my head on, but I never had my own bed.”
Lemons also ate and trained better than ever before, bulking up to 200 pounds. He admits that living under a new roof was difficult initially, but he’s grateful to the Urban family for taking him in and changing his life around.
“It was a little strange and weird at first. It’s like taking a wild animal and putting him in a new habitat,” Adarius says. “My biggest fear was not fitting in, but I kind of overcame it. It’s good to be around people that are doing positive things for themselves and it gives you motivation to push for something.”
Lemons had to follow a strenuous plan to meet Florida’s academic requirements, but he stayed on track once he returned to Clearwater and finished out his senior year successfully.
It was unknown whether Lemons would be able to sign with Florida on National Signing Day, but according to Dr. Urban, the staff planned on it all along.
“To be honest with you, he never really left the [recruiting] class,” Robert says. “Him not signing was never a conversation. That was always the goal and whole time we kept it quiet.
“Coach Skip was at our house a few weeks after he de-committed. Coach Nuss came afterward and told Adarius if you keeping do this, this and this, you’re good.”
Lemons was the final letter of intent Florida received on National Signing Day, completing his incredible four-month transformation. He changed his lifestyle, friends and even family, but is now a changed man.
“I’m proud of him,” McElwain said of Lemons. “When you go through things, you can just say, ‘Hey, I quit.’ Yet, you know, he’s not the only one that’s had some tough things go on.
“The key is not feeling sorry for yourself, not using that as an excuse, but rather let’s use it as an avenue, really a drive, to go up and do something great.”