Looking at how former Vol Lester McClain broke barriers in the SEC

Tennessee 225

Honoring Black History

Nashville, Tenn. (WKRN) — Lester McClain will forever be remembered for the change he created on Rocky Top.

“You get congratulation letters, but you may get more hate mail than nice mail. But you realize the happening is part of the process of the change,” said McClain.

In 1968, the Antioch native would become the first black student-athlete at the University of Tennessee, even though he never planned for that to be the case.

Running back Albert Davis from nearby Alcoa was first recruited by Volunteers head football coach Doug Dickey.

“He’s right down the road and he knew us, so we’ve been following him. So we got busy recruiting him and he agreed to come,” said Dickey

Dickey thought to make the transition for Davis more smooth, they’d next go after McClain, but the highly sought-after Davis would never end up coming to UT and McClain found himself questioning his own decision.

“When I had heard that Albert was not coming, I started getting phone calls from all over the place from sports writers and people, “Are you still going? Are you going?” And you know I was thinking, I wasn’t thinking about anyone else. I was thinking this is something I’d like to do,” said McClain.

Ultimately, McClain stayed true to his commitment to Tennessee, but it took time to get used to his new home.

“The day my father and brother dropped me off and they drove away. It was kind of like, oh my God, what have I done? I don’t know anyone,” said McClain.

But people knew him, and when McClain stepped out on the football field and ran through The Power-T, he felt different.

“I remember going into the game and you don’t really notice much about what goes on. You’re kind of focused but I saw people standing up and applauding,” added McClain.

And while Nate Northington was the first black athlete to integrate the Southeastern Conference, McClain’s lasting impact as the first black letterman in the SEC and his legacy stretches far beyond football.

McClain said, “I saw a guy at our 50th reunion. He would always say something that I found to be – I never heard it before – it was so important though and he always said, “Dear Lord, help us to play the game of football so that we are prepared to play this game of life.”

Tennessee 225: Dive into the history of the Volunteer State.

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