By Jimmy Hyams
As time has passed, it’s hard for Lester McClain to wrap his mind around the fact that it was 50 years ago today that he broke the color barrier for Tennessee football.
On Sept. 14, 1968, McClain jogged onto “Doug’s Rug’’ to a standing ovation as the Vols opened the season at home against a strong Georgia team.
It was an ovation that McClain said was a “major step’’ in helping him be successful.
But it was also surprising to him, because as the first black to suit up for Tennessee, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It’s not like you’re Mickey Mantle who hits home runs and that gets you applause when you are coming up to bat,’’ McClain told UT’s sports information office. “I hadn’t done anything.’’
Actually, he had. He had the courage to become a pioneer, to face the flak that was sure to come, to endure unwarranted insults.
McClain will tell you his journey at Tennessee was worth it. How it started is intriguing.
McClain had played at a Nashville high school before transferring his senior year to Antioch High School, a school nearby to where he lived. Bill Garrett, a pharmacist whose dad was a long-time commissioner of agriculture in Tennessee, conducted early morning runs for the Antioch players and helped recruit McClain – it was legal for alums to recruit in those days.
Tennessee targeted two blacks in 1967 so they could be roommates. The first was Albert Davis of Alcoa, one of the top running back prospects in the nation. McClain was another.
“Albert was such a superstar,’’ McClain said during an interview with Sports Talk WNML. “He was Tennessee’s Herschel Walker before Georgia had theirs.’’
At the time, schools could sign 40 recruits. Davis was the 39th to sign, McClain the 40th.
“That was the beginning of a whole new world that no one ever planned,’’ McClain said.
But Davis didn’t qualify academically and went to Tennessee State.
Did that change McClain’s mind about attending Tennessee?
“My first thought about coming to Tennessee had nothing to do with anyone else,’’ McClain said. “… I never thought I needed someone else to be there. I just wanted to go.’’
In McClain’s first game as a Vol, he caught a key fourth-down pass from Bubba Wyche in the fourth quarter that helped UT rally from a 17-9 deficit to tie the game against Georgia.
“It meant a lot for me to be able to participate in that game,’’ McClain said.
It was UT’s first game on artificial turf – dubbed Doug’s Rug for UT coach Doug Dickey. Georgia wasn’t keen on playing the game with a new, unknown surface and even mentioned the word boycott.
McClain said the turf was good and bad.
“I thought the turf was great as for as speed of the game,’’ McClain said. “It seemed like you ran so much faster, and much quicker.
“The only thing bad was, if you fell and didn’t have sleeves or something covering your knees, any skin that went across that turf was left on the turf.’’
McClain said he was welcomed at UT by teammate Mike Jones, a Nashville native. But the key was the embrace he received from upperclassmen on the team.
“It was so positive,’’ McClain said. “It was going to be a success for me as a result of that kind of relationship.’’
During his UT career, McClain caught 70 passes for 1,003 yards and touchdowns, adding two rushing scores. He ranked fifth on UT’s all-time receptions list when he completed his career. And he was a member of the 1969 SEC championship team.
McClain caught a then-record 82-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Scott against Memphis State in 1969 on a pass McClain said wasn’t designed for him. He was running an underneath route, looked up and saw the ball coming his way.
“I was thinking to myself, `My God, is that the ball?’’’ McClain said. “It really was the ball. … I ran as fast as I could because I didn’t want to get caught.’’
McClain paved the way for Condredge Holloway, the artful dodger from Huntsville, Ala., to become the first black quarterback in the SEC. Holloway, who works in the UT athletic department, makes sure each Vol football player knows the McClain legacy.
“I’m blessed that I got to know him,’’ Holloway said. “And after knowing what he went through, you talk about me being the first black quarterback in the Southeastern Conference … without Lester McClain none of that happens.
“Everybody thinks that I went through a lot; he went through much more. There weren’t many black players on the team or in the league. Lester took the brunt for everybody and was a perfect gentleman, still is today. I have nothing but respect for Lester McClain, and I’m proud to call him my friend.’’
The feeling is mutual. McClain calls Holloway “one of the most fascinating guys’’ he’s known. And Holloway the player was worth the price of admission.
“You would go to the game to see Condredge play,’’ McClain said. “When the ball was snapped, you found yourself standing up. You couldn’t sit in your seat and watch him when the ball was snapped because something fantastic was about to happen.’’
McClain is a member of the Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame and was recently inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
“I cannot explain how wonderful that experience was,’’ McClain said. “It was a special occasion.’’
McClain said he is forever “thankful for the opportunity’’ Tennessee gave him.
But he also has a regret. Men like Dickey and then-athletic director Bob Woodruff and then-UT president Andy Holt declared in the 1960s it was time to end segregation with Tennessee football. Woodruff and Holt are deceased.
“People making those decisions for me to have an opportunity to come (to UT) really had an impact on my life, my family,’’ McClain said. “I appreciate those things.
“I regret I didn’t go back and thank those people. Maybe I was too young to understand really what it meant, and by the time I truly understood the dynamics of what it took to put it together, some of those people were not alive anymore.
“I have a greater appreciation today for what’s happened than ever before in my life.’’