When Charlie Lemon lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq three years ago, he said he felt more hot than hurt.
The worst part, he says, is he also lost his best friend.
Lemon, a 31-year-old Haines City native and Tampa resident, was six weeks from coming home after a 12-month Army deployment. He went on his regular mission early on June 8, 2011, transporting civilians in an armored truck from the embassy to the courthouse, in the city of An Najaf where they were going to help the Iraqi government.
But 10 minutes into the trip, the truck was struck by an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP — a "fireball," as Lemon calls it — which took Lemon's legs, and the life of his roommate, Matthew England.
Lemon is thankful England was the only one in his company to die that year, but wears his friend's Army bracelet as a daily reminder and motivation.
"It could always be worse, so you just drive on, living the life" Lemon said. "Remembering his sacrifice."
Lemon, who uses a wheelchair, has not slowed down, as he has completed two 500-mile hand-cycle rides and a 400-mile trip from Paris to London.
Wednesday in Tampa, he'll be one of several members of the Wounded Warrior Amputee Football Team participating in a flag football exhibition against former Bucs and NFL players at Plant High School.
NFL Films and ESPN cameras are expected for the game, which starts at 7 p.m. Former Bucs including Mike Alstott and Brad Culpepper, plus Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood, are among those signed up.
"They'll have a secret play for me," Lemon quipped.
The WWAFT, made up of men and women who have lost a limb in Iraq or Afghanistan, has played six games together, including exhibitions against NFL alumni before each of the past three Super Bowls. The goal is to raise awareness of veterans' sacrifice and resilience (the Wounded Warrior Project helps veterans of all armed forces, not just the Army). It helps create special moments such as when Army Cpl. Jeremy Stengel (from West Allis, Wis.) was asked by a fan to sign a football next to Packers great Jerry Kramer.
The games also help support military families. Five widows will be honored Wednesday including Tampa's Michelle Taylor, whose husband, Maj. David Taylor, died in Iraq in 2006. Proceeds from the tickets, which cost $5-$10, will benefit the education fund for the Taylor's son Jacob, as well as the WWAFT.
Sgt. Brian Taylor Urruela, who was driving the bombed humvee Taylor died in, will be the game's host, and a key player, coming off his MVP performance in the exhibition before Super Bowl XLVIII in New York.
These veterans play for keeps (and are 6-0). Just ask Bucs punter Michael Koenen, who played (and lost) to the WWAFT before the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans. Koenen, along with receiver Vincent Jackson, will be among the current Bucs attending Wednesday.
"When I first agreed to play in the game, in my mind, you're like, 'These guys don't have legs and arms, it must be like playing your little brother,' " Koenen said. "But we got out there warming up, they were winging the ball around and running. I'm like, 'Oh boy, we're about to get whooped.'
"They're phenomenal. Some guys are diving on the ground, laying out. If they wore jeans, you'd never know they had that injury."
Tyler Jeffries remembers every detail of when he was "blown up."
Jeffries, a Zephyrhills native, was on dismounted foot patrol in Afghanistan when he walked onto a command wire IED, which was detonated by an Afghan militant.
"Your first instinct is you're going to die," says Jeffries, who now lives outside of Charlotte, N.C. "You're looking down and your legs are gone, chunks of yourself are everywhere. I kind of expected the fact I was going to die. All my friends were patching me up, I'm telling them, 'I'll have a beer before you will.' "
Jeffries lost his right leg below his knee and left leg above that knee. But just 54 days after the blast, he was walking on his prosthetic legs. Jeffries spent 18 months at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, and had more than 40 surgeries.
Jeffries, who enjoys scuba diving and plans to attend gunsmith school, will be at Wednesday's game, playing if he feels good enough.
"Every time you get up to walk, it's a reminder of what you lost," Jeffries said. "It takes a while really to set in, that your life is not over and there are things you can do."
Lemon said there was never any doubt in his mind he'd live, even after he was in a coma for seven days and had 20 surgeries. But he needed some help getting back to Tampa from Texas, where he was rehabbing. Former NFL and USF kicker Bill Gramatica, whose family's foundation builds mortgage-free homes for veterans, heard about Lemon's struggle to find a wheelchair-accessible home and helped get him one.
"Charlie and his mom were there, they absolutely lost it," Gramatica said. "All of us did."
Gramatica and Lemon remain good friends and fishing buddies. Lemon is on the board for the Gramatica Family Foundation, joining Bill's brother, ex-Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica.
Bill Gramatica, like Koenen, said it's an honor to play against these veterans and learn their stories, noting nothing will hold Lemon back.
"I'm sure he'll find a way to score," Gramatica said, laughing. "He definitely will."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]