ST. PETERSBURG — In the movies, the kid who overcame two surgeries, who walked away from rehab once or twice out of frustration, who read in the newspaper that he’d never play again, makes his dramatic return to the field and gets a sack on his very first play.
Demondre Lambert, though? He got held.
“That’s why I was mad,” he said with a chuckle. “Man, I had him. The offensive lineman grabbed me.”
The lack of a big-screen flourish aside, Lambert’s return to the field in Thursday’s 28-17 win over Seminole was a triumph for the Dixie Hollins senior and his circle of friends and family.
When Lambert wanted to quit during the past 14 months of rehabilitation, his dad said no. His classmates told him they were waiting for him to return. His teachers kept him focused. And his coaches and teammates kept him involved.
Backfield mate Kabriel Jackson, who was going through his own rehabilitation from a knee injury, called every night.
“Bro,” he would tell Lambert, “I don’t want you to quit. I want to play with you again.”
“I ain’t gonna lie, I did (quit), I did,” Lambert said. “Maybe like once or twice, not a lot, but I did. But Mom and Dad were like, come on, you can do this.
“And Kabriel kept calling.”
Lambert turned 18 two weeks ago and is not the same player he was the night of Aug. 31, 2012. On the season opener of his junior season, he decided to change direction on a run near the home sideline and was buried from behind by three tacklers.
His knee exploded. The ACL, MCL and LCL were all torn. The knee had to be popped back into place right there on the field. He looked at his dad, Terrell Johns, and asked if it was really bad. Dad just shook his head while a teammate began to weep.
The second before the injury, Lambert was a developing college prospect. He had shown great potential as a sophomore and rushed for 165 yards in the spring game.
The day before his knee fell apart, coach Shannon Brooks had given Lambert a college letter, his first — an invitation by Louisville to visit campus.
Lambert, a Northeast Little League standout on a team that spawned current high school stars Donterio Fowler, Chris White and Davion Sutton, rehabbed his injured right knee for six months. Then in the spring he got more bad news — he needed a second surgery.
He was told it wouldn’t stop him from returning for his senior year. Then as he was being prepped for surgery, he was told it might.
“I was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before,’ ” Lambert said. “Had I known that, I would have never had the surgery. I would have just played with my knee like it was, and if it went, then that was all.”
Lambert had a summer to prove to doctors he was ready to return.
Brooks thought Lambert’s playing days were over. He told reporters his running back was finished. That was news to Lambert, who was shown the article by a teacher in class.
“I was upset,” he said. “But it was the truth, I guess, because that’s what the doctor said.”
So while others hung out at the beach and chased girls, Lambert was reinvigorated. He could hear the clock ticking louder than ever.
“I was going to play,” Lambert said. “I was definitely going to play.”
Jackson returned with a bang, rushing for 176 yards in the season opener. In three games, he is averaging more than 100 yards and has scored three touchdowns.
Lambert needed a few extra weeks. Doctors cleared him to return Sept. 20, but Lambert never stopped working and made them move up that date one week.
The Thursday crowd for Lambert’s comeback was filled with friends and family. He said he could hear them every time someone called out “Dre! Dre!”
One of his friends, he said while blushing a little, even took off work that day so she could watch him play.
He started at defensive end. “Less traffic out there,” said Lambert, who had been a linebacker before.
He had a few tackles, one for a loss of yards, and two other times forced the guy blocking him to hold, drawing a penalty.
“He created a lot of havoc,” said Brooks.
He’d like to carry the ball again, lined up alongside Jackson, but not right now.
He doesn’t have the confidence, especially when he knows tacklers will be going low to bring down the 6-foot, 230-pound bruiser.
The important thing is he’s back. Not like he was as a college prospect, which he may never be again, but like he is now, which is plenty good enough.
“Forget the scholarships, he gets to play as a senior in high school, with guys he’s known forever,” Brooks said. “He’s going to have memories that will only get better with time. We forget about that sometimes. We forget how important that is.”
Lambert didn’t get his big-screen flourish. But he did get, for now, a happy ending.