If John Lembo’s time at Lyndhurst could be summed up in just one play, one moment, it would be his last one in a Golden Bears football uniform.
On 4th-and-1 with less than a minute left and his team trailing Pequannock, Lembo audibles out of the initial play call. After signaling the change to receiver Tony Frangipane, Lembo throws a fade pass to Frangipane in the corner of the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.
“Coach called ISO-Right and I saw the corner pressing one of our top receivers Tony Frangipane,” Lembo said. “So I tapped my helmet, which means go and I just risked it all and I just threw it.”
“That was Johnny. We called a little short hitch to get the first down since it was 4th-and-1 with 40 seconds left. And Johnny had the guts and the gall to audible and go over the top for a touchdown,” head football coach Rich Tuero said. “Johnny wanted it. I watched him do the signal, I watched the receiver get the signal. I could have screamed, ‘no, no, no, no!’ Same thing with my offensive coordinator Pat Auteri. We watched it, we had the confidence in Johnny and Johnny earned it. That play summed it all up. He went for it all and he got it.”
It doesn’t matter if it’s from the football field, the baseball diamond or the basketball court, everyone in Lyndhurst has their own John Lembo story. No matter the story, they all share the same theme and that’s when the game was on the line and a big play was needed, Lembo would be the one who produced it.
Lembo’s incredible sense of timing as well as his overall body of work makes him The Observer’s 2021-2022 Male Athlete of the Year. Lembo is the fifth Lyndhurst male to win the honor and the third in seven years, joining fellow former Golden Bear football stars Piotr Partyla (2019-2020) and Petey Guerriero (2015-2016).
“I don’t know (how to fully explain it), it’s just that there are some times when things aren’t going well that the team needs someone to pick them up and make a big play to give us a spark,” Lembo said. “Some players don’t want the spotlight. They might be scared that they’ll mess up. I always wanted it.”
“He lives for the big moment, he wants the big moment,” said Auteri, who also serves as Lyndhurst’s head baseball coach. “He wants to be the guy because he knows that he can handle the pressure situations and I think that’s what separates him from a lot of players.”
For Auteri, that moment was this May when the Golden Bears baseball team traveled to division-leading Dwight-Englewood. Lyndhurst lost the earlier matchup and the Bulldogs had ace lefty Rhys Bowie on the mound.
Lembo quickly showed the rematch would be different. He led off the game with a double down the right field line. Lembo reached base five times that day, going 2-for-2 with two hit by pitches, a walk, two runs, an RBI and a stolen base as Lyndhurst went home with a 5-2 victory and a tie in the NJIC Liberty Division standings.
Lyndhurst went on to win the division title outright.
“He gets up to the plate, he blasts that double and you could see our guys change,” Auteri said. “It set the tone in general for the game and for our guys to say ‘relax, we got a shot.’ That at-bat just boosted the confidence of our team. The momentum of that at-bat really changed the outcome of that season and winning the division was big for us.”
Lyndhurst boys’ basketball coach Tom McGuire had two examples that came to mind as well.
The first, during Lembo’s junior year, when he hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Golden Bears to an overtime victory at Secaucus in the final game of the Covid-shortened season. The other, coming this February on Senior Night against Garfield when Lembo had an offensive rebound and put-back right as the horn sounded for a 61-59 win.
“When it came crunch time you wanted the ball in his hands,” McGuire said. “You wanted him to make the decisions whether it was to shoot it, whether it was passing it to another guy. He did have that gene and it is rare.”
This season, Lembo led the basketball team in scoring (11.4 points per game), assists (4.0 per game), steals (2.0 per game) and 3-pointers (35) while also pulling down 3.9 rebounds per contest. On the baseball diamond, Lembo led the team in runs (36) and stolen bases (17) as he hit .326 with 17 RBI, showing why several coaches expressed interest in him as a baseball player in college.
But ultimately, Lembo, who has had the nickname of “Johnny Football” dating back to his early days playing Lyndhurst Recreation, decided to focus on football in college, committing to play at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison.
While in recreation, Lembo not only earned the nickname, but first showed his instinct for thriving in the big moment.
“In pee-wee football, we had a play where we’d be on the 1-yard-line all the time that I could take control, take the snap and go up the middle and score,” Lembo said. “I did it like half the time when we were inside the 5.”
This past season, Lembo completed 109-of-160 passes for 1,702 yards and 17 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He also ran for 297 yards and four touchdowns, earning himself a spot in the Bergen County All-Star game.
Even in a June exhibition, “Johnny Football” was “Johnny on the Spot” running for a 25-yard touchdown with two minutes to go to give his team the lead. When Lembo ran in the ensuing two-point conversion, fireworks were set off from a house nearby giving Lembo and the fans at Lyndhurst High School a colorful sendoff for the Golden Bears’ leader and clutch performer.
“Johnny always wanted the ball in his hands with the game on the line. That’s just the way he was,” Tuero said. “(Making the big plays) is just what he does. Johnny Football baby!”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)