IRVING, Texas — Orie Lemon was in excruciating pain.
The days after the Oklahoma State linebacker tore his knee last season were agonizing.
"I was hurt," he said.
He shook his head.
"I was hurt."
Thing is, Lemon wasn't talking about the pain in his knee but rather about the ache in his heart.
When he found out only four days before the season opener that he'd torn his anterior cruciate ligament, Lemon knew his year was over before it began. His days were going to be filled with rehab but his Saturdays would be void of football.
It was almost more than he could stand.
Now with his knee healed and his perspective changed, Lemon is counting down the days to the beginning of the season. It will be his return to football, to a game that he never realized how much he would miss until it was taken away from him.
It is almost more than he can stand.
"I'm a hundred percent ready," Lemon said, flashing a grin that appeared permanently attached to his face Tuesday morning at Big 12 football media days. "I just can't wait for Sept. 4 to get back out there and prove it."
This year's season opener against Washington State isn't as sexy as last year's against Georgia, but to Lemon, there has never been a bigger game.
Lemon, after all, had never been injured before hurting his knee, and frankly, he wasn't convinced he was injured even after the doctors gave him the season-ending diagnosis.
The Monday before the Georgia game, Lemon got tripped up late in practice. No one hit him. He just fell to the ground.
Expected to be the Cowboys' starter at middle linebacker, Lemon returned to practice and even ran afterward.
Everything seemed fine, but the next morning, Lemon's knee was tight. By lunchtime, doctors had determined he'd torn his ACL.
Lemon didn't believe it.
"I went back out there and ran on my own," he said. "I don't think anybody knew that."
"It was just tight. It wasn't swollen or anything."
But it was torn. In less than 24 hours, Lemon had gone from getting ready for Georgia to thinking about surgery and rehab and a lost season.
"It was very hard," Lemon said. "My teammates ... they told me to stay positive."
Not that he wanted to hear it.
"Not at that point," he said. "Not at that moment."
Lemon cried on Saturdays before games, heartsick about what he was missing. He longed to be on the field. He yearned to be in the fray.
Those emotions surprised him.
Oh, Lemon knew that he loved football. He gravitated toward the game ever since he was a kid growing up in Houston. He devoted himself to lifting and conditioning and practicing.
But he still didn't know how much football meant to him until it was taken away from him.
"I found love for the game that I never thought I had," he said.
It changed his approach to this season and his appreciation for this sport.
Who knows what impact that could have on the Cowboys this season? For a defense short on experience but long on promise, having a leader who is inspired like Lemon is could pay huge dividends.
"I've never been injured," Lemon said. "I never knew what it felt like to be hurt or injured."
He raised an eyebrow.
"I still really don't know what it feels like to be injured; I wasn't in pain or anything."
Not in his knee, anyway.