By Tom Mattingly
A few years ago, I received an e-mail from Chris Burrows, who identified himself as the Baptist Student Union Director at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. It was one of a number of missives I receive on a daily basis.
He had spent more than 20 years as a sports writer/columnist, primarily at the Northeast Mississippi (Tupelo) Daily Journal and for The Associated Press, primarily for Ole Miss and Mississippi State athletic events.
He offered an insightful story about the relationship between Archie Manning and Lester McClain, gleaned from the aftermath of the 1968 Tennessee-Ole Miss game in Knoxville and from halftime of the return engagement in Jackson a year later, a game well known in Tennessee history as the “Jackson Massacre.”
McClain was the first African-American athlete in the SEC to earn significant playing time and had a major impact on Tennessee fortunes. He and Archie were each home-state players recruited in 1966-67, Lester from Nashville and Archie from Drew. Manning’s recollection of the 1968 and 1969 games included a couple of vignettes about McClain.
Lester caught 70 passes during his Tennessee career (1968-70) for 1164 yards and 13 touchdowns and had memorable receptions in the fourth quarter of the 1968 Georgia game and the 1970 UCLA game. Both came at key moments as Tennessee stole a 17-17 tie against the Bulldogs and roared back from a 17-14 deficit to win against the Bruins.
In 2022, Lester was one of four African-American athletes honored with statues outside Neyland Stadium for their contributions to the history of Tennessee football. He joined Condredge Holloway, Jackie Walker, and Tee Martin in being so honored. All were true trailblazers in orange jerseys.
“Manning,” wrote Burrows, “grew up in the Mississippi Delta and had not shared the field with a black athlete until his college career.” He said McClain “had a profound effect on his attitude concerning African-Americans as competitors and comrades.
“Everybody remembers 1969, but 1968 at Knoxville is something I’ll never forget,” Archie told him. “I was a sophomore and threw about seven interceptions, had three or four passes knocked down, and spent the best part of that day on my butt.
“They just killed us, 31-0, and as the final seconds ticked off, I can honestly say at that time it was the worst moment of my football life. I didn’t know if I’d ever get over it. It’s a moment, especially for a young player, when you question whether you can really get the job done.”
As the teams were heading toward their dressing room, there was an unexpected interaction with a Tennessee player.
“As I was walking off the field, Lester McClain made the effort to come over to me,” said Archie. “I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he told me I was a great player and not to let one day ruin things for me.
“It really said a lot about him, because it wasn’t easy to be a Black player in the SEC and, at the time, it meant the world to me and my confidence. It was great sportsmanship on his part, and he went out of his way to do it.”
Fast forward to Nov. 15, 1969, when a No. 18-ranked Ole Miss squad demolished an undefeated No. 3-ranked Tennessee contingent apparently headed to the SEC title and Orange Bowl berth. (When the dust had cleared, the SEC title did come home to Knoxville for the second time in three years, but the Vols ended up losing to Florida in the Gator Bowl.)
“Now, it’s a year later and we’re up 24-0 in Jackson. That stadium had the locker rooms for both teams off the same end zone, so at halftime, both teams would run off together.
“As I was about to break off toward our locker room, I looked over, and Lester McClain was running beside me. He looked over, and we nodded at each other and ran side-by-side for about five seconds.
“He said, ‘See, Archie,’ and I looked over, and he shook his head a little bit and with a little smile, he said. “Y’all are just kicking the **** out of us today.”
Archie had a quick response to Lester’s comment.
“Lester McClain was a great player, but I’ll always respect him more as a man,” said Archie.
It has been said that sports don’t build character as much as it reveals it. That was the case more than 50 years ago with a moment or two spent between Tennessee wide receiver Lester McClain and an Ole Miss quarterback named Archie Manning.