At the end of a high school football season coaches meet to vote on all-district teams and players of the year. In 1994, there was no need to vote. Without question, Heritage's Paris Lenon was the Western District's Defensive Player of the Year. "It was an open and shut case," Pem Apperson said, his head coach at the time.
Fast forward 20 years and Lenon is now a starting linebacker in the NFL for the Denver Broncos, a team that will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl Sunday February 2nd at 6:30 p.m.
"I haven't had that oh my gosh moment," Lenon said over the phone from New Jersey, the site of the Super Bowl. "When it's over and you have a chance to sit back, drink it all in, then I might realize how special this is but when you're in the moment, you're so focused on what you have to get accomplished. It's definitely exciting to be in the position to play for a world championship [but you have to treat it like] it's still a [regular] football game."
Lenon was Heritage's quarterback for the first few games of his senior year, Apperson's first as the Pioneers' head coach. Apperson believed Lenon would be better utilized as a defensive player so they made the switch midway through the season. "He only started on defense four to six games at linebacker and he turned out to be the District Defensive Player of the Year. He was very quiet, maybe even shy, but when he stepped on the football field he was very physical, very smart, and could anticipate offenses," Apperson said.
The first game Lenon was on defense Heritage played Albemarle. Lenon was playing strong safety and he had to cover a running back out of the backfield. "He made the play and it was a clean, brutal tackle. It was an NFL hit at the high school level," Apperson recalled. "He was talented but what set him apart from the other area athletes was his character and determination."
That determination is what has kept him in the NFL for 12 seasons.
WORLD WIDE JOURNEY
At 36 years old he's the second oldest player on Denver's roster. Quarterback Peyton Manning is 37. Those two are the veterans of the team and the league but their journeys through the NFL have been remarkably different. Manning was the number one draft pick of the Indianapolis Colts in 1998. He played there for 14 years and has now been with Denver for two seasons.
Lenon's journey looks more like a circuitous road trip. Following all-conference seasons at Richmond, he went undrafted but signed with the Carolina. The Panthers were the first of a number of teams to release or waive him. He then joined the Memphis Maniax of the short-lived XFL. The Packers then picked him up briefly before he shipped overseas to play in NFL Europe. He then rejoined the Packers for three seasons. Then Lenon played for the Detroit Lions for three more. Following a year with the St. Louis Rams he became a team captain with the Arizona Cardinals and in August of 2013 he signed with the Broncos.
Lenon's mother Audrey, who arrived in New Jersey Thursday, along with her husband Paris Lenon, Sr., can still remember the day when her son contemplated the idea of quitting football to begin a real career.
"He was home (after being released from the Seahawks in 2001). We always watch movies late at night. We were watching a movie and he asked me, ‘Do you think I need to go on and start a career and forget about the NFL? I said, ‘I can't answer your question with an answer. I have to ask you a question. Can you give it up and feel good about yourself?' He said, ‘No because I'm just as good as some of the other guys out there.' I said, ‘Well then you need to go back to work and make sure you're in shape.'"
It's safe to say Paris took his mother's advice.
"It gives you chills and a tremendous sense of pride," Audrey said last week. "It's a great deal of fun. At times it's unnerving because you watch him get hit, make hits and all you want to do is make sure he stands back up."
Fortunately he's been able to get back up throughout his NFL career. Over that time he's had a number of influential people that have made him who he is today. Lenon mentioned a number of people from his stints with the Packers and Lions as the ones that really shaped his development as an NFL linebacker. Those people included Bo Pelini, his linebackers coach in Green Bay. Ed Donatell and Jim Bates were two of Lenon's defensive coordinators in Green Bay and Phil Snow was Lenon's linebackers coach with the Lions.
The week of the Super Bowl can be hectic at times but Lenon has called home to Lynchburg every day since Denver beat the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship. "They tell me about all the people at home that are rooting for me, got pictures up, and you know people jumping out of cars to come talk to them," he said.
Paris Lenon, Sr. added, "The guys up on 12th street, they were hoopin' and hollerin' when I went there [the other day]. They were waving and shaking and saying my man's going to the Super Bowl. We're happy."
"The fact that he's still playing in the NFL speaks volumes about his character," Apperson said. "When he's home, he'll speak to kids. He is an outstanding role model."
An outstanding role model that will be on a world-wide state Sunday night.