The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame will hold its 50th Anniversary Induction Banquet on Saturday, June 18 at the Omni Nashville Hotel. The 2016 Hall of Fame Class includes Lester McClain, first African American football player at Tennessee; Ernest Gray, All-America wide-receiver from the University of Memphis and NFL star; Joe Biddle, longtime middle Tennessee sport writer; Conrad Graham, University of Tennessee All-America defensive back; Missy Kane, University of Tennessee Middle Distance Runner and bronze medal Olympian; Mike Taylor, UT-Martin football player and current SEC football official; and Mike Curb, legend in automobile racing; with posthumous inductions for Tennessee Titan great Steve McNair and Baylor Golf Coach King Oehmig.
The Hall also chose the football Canale Brothers from Memphis; in all, six brothers played football in the SEC at Tennessee (George, Frank and Whit) and Mississippi State (Justin, Billy and Conn). Also the Hall will induct Milligan College legend and coach Duard Walker as the Lifetime Achievement Inductee.
Mississippian Steve McNair played football, baseball, basketball, and ran track at Mount Olive High School. He then went on to fame as “Air McNair” at Alcorn State University, passing for 14,496 yards and 119 touchdowns; with 2,327 yards rushing. These records still stand. McNair quarterbacked in 135 regular and post-season games for the Tennessee Titans from 1995-2005, with 78 wins, throwing nearly 27,000 yards and 153 touchdowns, rushing for over 3500 yards and 40 touchdowns and guiding the team to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV.
Lester McClain, born in Nashville, attended Haynes High School and Antioch High School. He became the first African American to play in an SEC varsity football game for Tennessee when they played Georgia on September 14th, 1968 under Head Coach Doug Dickey. In his three years at Rocky Top (freshmen were ineligible to play varsity prior to the 1970s), he caught 70 passes for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns, while rushing 10 times for 123 yards and two scores.
In 1970, McClain led the Big Orange in kickoff return yards, bringing eight kicks back a total of 168 yards. He was selected in the ninth round of the 1971 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. Lester currently owns a State Farm insurance agency in Nashville.
Earnest Gray came to Memphis State University in 1975, and in four years became one of the most renowned pass receivers in Tiger football history. The 6’3″ wide receiver became a starter as a true freshman, and over the next four years set virtually every Tiger receiving record. An Associated Press and Football News All-American, he led Memphis in pass receiving in 1976, 1977, and 1978, and finished his career with 97 receptions for 2,123 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Gray had a seven-year career in the NFL with the New York Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals, totaling 246 receptions for 3,790 yards and 27 touchdowns. He has been employed with the Memphis Fire Department for 27 years as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration Coordinator.
The Male Professional Athlete of the Year honorees are Eric Berry, NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Kansas City Chiefs safety; and Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies 2015 NBA All-Star center. Eric Berry is a safety for the Kansas City Chiefs, drafted by them fifth overall in 2010. At the University of Tennessee, he was a two-time All-American, recognized as the best collegiate defensive back in the country. Berry came back for the 2015 NFL season after a cancer diagnosis; was named to the Pro Bowl, the AP All-Pro team, and named 2016 AP Comeback Player of the Year.
The Sports Hall of Fame held its first induction banquet in 1966, and has as its goal to enshrine successful teams and individuals who display sportsmanship, good character and success, creating a legacy for others to follow. The Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame Museum, housed in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, pays tribute to those who have made an impact through sports in Tennessee. The Hall holds that sports serve society’s highest ideals by educating youth through sports, and promote the virtues of competition, fair play, friendship, solidarity, mutual understanding and respect for human dignity; and that the best way to honor sports legends is to pass their legacy down to future generations.