‘Earning the Plaudits of History’

By Tom Mattingly

Every so often, one of the ESPN cable networks or the SEC Network will air Kenny Chesney’s tribute to Condredge Holloway (“The Color Orange: The Condredge Holloway Story”). The tribute highlights Condredge’s trailblazing college career as the SEC’s first African-American quarterback.

Near the end of this very well-assembled documentary, Condredge stepped back from the spotlight, put everything into clear perspective, and paid tribute to former Vol wideout Lester McClain, who had done some significant trailblazing of his own during his career (1968-70). His Vol career began 54 years ago this fall, when the thought of African-American athletes wearing SEC school colors was a troublesome concept for many fans across the SEC.

Tennessee had opened the 1968 football season on Sept. 14 against Georgia on the newly minted Tartan Turf on Shields-Watkins field. ABC had the telecast, with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson mic-side.

That day was a major event for the McLains and/or McClains, depending on how you spell the name.

That day, Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain won his 30th game, earning the cover of the next week’s edition of Sports Illustrated.

Later that afternoon in Knoxville, Lester McClain of Nashville’s Antioch High School became the first African-American player to wear an orange jersey and the first in the SEC to see significant playing time. Had things turned out differently in Detroit, the cover might have might have featured someone in an orange shirt, maybe even McClain, on the cover.

History was in one of its cycles of change. McClain’s arrival on campus for fall drills in September 1967 came more than 20 years after Tennessee had forfeited a Dec. 23, 1946, basketball game against Duquesne, rather than play against a team that refused to bench an African-American player. UT historian Milton Klein chronicled that event.

McClain came to Knoxville as a scholarship athlete 13 years after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision and a year after Kentucky had signed Greg Page and Nate Northington in football and Vanderbilt had likewise inked Pearl High School’s Perry Wallace and Godfrey Dillard in hoops.

Doug Dickey led the way for the Vols, saying the time was right to make the move. The times might have seemed troubled and uncertain, but the reminder is always present that whenever significant social advances are made, somebody or a number of somebodies, in this case McClain, Dickey, Holloway, Bill Battle, and Jimmy Streater led the way.

Here’s a quick history lesson. Northington was recruited in the 1965-1966 UK recruiting push out of Louisville, and had played sparingly in the Kentucky-Ole Miss game in 1967. He did not letter that season, according to Kentucky records.

Page, also signed by the Wildcats that year, came to Lexington from Middlesboro. He was paralyzed after an injury in a non-contact drill on Aug. 22, 1967, and died a month or so later on Sept. 29. He is listed as a 1967 letter winner in the Kentucky Football Media Guide. After Page’s death, Northington transferred to Western Kentucky.

McClain had been one of two African-American players Tennessee signed in that 1966-67 recruiting season. The other, fullback Albert Davis of Alcoa (often referred to in media reports of that day as “Alcoa’s great Negro running back”), was not admitted to the University, so the torch was passed to McClain, and he played and played well.

He finished in 1970 with 70 career catches for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had an 82-yard TD reception from Bobby Scott in the 1969 Memphis State game. He was determined to make the best of things, despite a rough patch or two along the way.

“There is a time you question whether you want to pack your bags and go home,” said McClain. “I would be lying if I said I never considered that. But I just couldn’t. I knew the next day the headlines would say, ‘Lester McClain, first black athlete, quits U-T.’”

McClain ended up being a program trailblazer and history positively records his contributions to the Vol program.

As for Davis, Klein wrote, “Controversy surrounding the conditions of his recruitment caused the University to rescind its offer to the young Alcoa star on June 15, 1967, causing embarrassment to both Davis and the University.”

No one watching the Chesney documentary had to have been surprised when Condredge Holloway passed the plaudits of history in Lester McClain’s direction. No one was surprised when Lester McClain spoke eloquently about his role in how this history developed.

They are both the epitome of class and distinction, great representatives of the University of Tennessee.