He remembers the applause and he remembers his first catch.
Those are the memories Lester McClain recalls of his first football game at the University of Tennessee when the sophomore wingback from Nashville suited up against Georgia at Neyland Stadium on Sept. 14, 1968.
Fifty years ago, McClain became the first African American to play football for the Volunteers.
He played three years for the Vols, totaling 70 receptions for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns, while adding two rushing scores. He ranked fifth in Tennessee history in receptions at the conclusion of his career in 1970, was part of the 1969 SEC Championship squad and played in three bowl games: the Cotton Bowl, Gator Bowl and Sugar Bowl.
He proudly notes that Tennessee was undefeated against Alabama and Georgia during his career, although the Vols did tie the Bulldogs once—in the 1968 season-opener when McClain entered the game for the first time and received a standing ovation.
“You don’t expect to go in and receive applause when you haven’t done anything,” McClain said. “It’s not like you’re Mickey Mantle who hits home runs and that gets you applause when you are coming up to bat. I hadn’t done anything. I thought that was wonderful. That’s a major step toward helping one be successful.”
McClain certainly did something later in the game, making a crucial fourth-down reception that sustained a drive and helped the Vols come back to tie the Bulldogs, 17-17.
“I remember getting into the game and getting the chance to just play a little bit,” he said. “It got to a crucial time of the game. We were behind, actually. It was fourth-down-and-long, and I’m a sophomore and Bubba (Wyche) threw that fourth-down pass to me. I made a first down, and we went from there to tie the ball game.”
Listed at 6’3”, 197 pounds, McClain had knack for making big receiving plays during his Big Orange career.
He had a then-record 82-yard touchdown reception against Memphis State in 1969 and a fourth-and-13 grab versus UCLA in 1970. He scored two touchdowns against Georgia Tech in 1968.
“He could catch the deep ball, he could go across the middle, he had good hands,” said Bud Ford, Tennessee’s former longtime sports information director. “He himself said he wasn’t the fastest player or the best player, but he wanted to work hard to be as good as he could be. He put a lot of effort into making himself a great football player.”
While he was certainly a pioneer, McClain said his focus was on being a great teammate and football player. Entering his first game, he was hoping to master his assignments and not drop any passes.
“I wanted to be successful as a player on a football team more than anything else,” McClain said.
His accomplishments inspired others and paved the way for Black athletes at Tennessee, including the first Black starting quarterback in the SEC, Condredge Holloway.
Holloway credits McClain for breaking down the barriers that enabled him to become ‘The Artful Dodger’ at Tennessee just two years after McClain wrapped up his career.
“I’m blessed that I got to know him, 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,” Holloway said. “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.”
Tennessee Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer played offensive line for the Vols from 1968 to 1971 and was McClain’s teammate.
He, too, is proud to call him a friend today.
“Lester McClain is one of the greatest people I have ever known,” Fulmer said. “He is intelligent, hard-working, polite, thoughtful and professional. Lester is a great businessman and family man.
“His leadership and the example he set as he helped Tennessee break the race barrier was extraordinary. I have read some of the things he went through, and I naively did not know it (at the time), because Lester was simply being Lester—leading, working hard and showing us the way it was supposed to be done as a teammate and friend.”
Always humble, McClain said his favorite memories over the years are seeing teammates and other VFLs have success after their playing career is over. He specifically points to Fulmer’s career with joy.
“Seeing other players do well are my favorite memories, like Phillip for instance,” McClain said. “He went from being a player to a coach to the head coach to winning a national championship.
“He is a first-class guy. His success means a lot to all of us. Anytime you have a former player that does well, you all feel good about it. He bleeds orange blood. He knows what it takes to make Tennessee successful.”
McClain was drafted in the ninth round of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears, but he never played in the league. Still, he has gone on to have a tremendously successful career in the insurance industry, working for State Farm for 35 years. He still runs his own State Farm agency in Nashville.
McClain and his wife, Virginia, have four children and one grandchild.
He is a member of the Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Sports Hall of Fame. He was appointed to the alumni position on the UT Athletics Board in 1987 and was appointed to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission by former Gov. Lamar Alexander.
He will return for a Tennessee football game later this season and be honored on the field.
“Life has been good,” McClain said. “I have been fortunate. It has been a wonderful ride.”
That ride made a notable stop inside Neyland Stadium 50 years ago, clearing a path for thousands of athletes to follow.