Tennessee trailblazer breaks color barrier in SEC

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) - Not many know this, but University of Tennessee athletics played a huge role in the integration of athletics in the Southeastern Conference, but it wasn't easy for the man who started it all.

"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 Lester McClain. "So you never were frightened by that happening you just looked forward to the change."

McClain was the change in 1968. Before him, no African-American student athlete had worn the Power T.

However, McClain wasn't even supposed to be the first. Tennessee football head coach Doug Dickey recruited a guy with over 100 offers from across the nation. They called on running back Albert Davis of Alcoa to break the barrier.

"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.

At that point, color didn't matter.

"Are we going to take this phenomenal athlete and let someone grab him from elsewhere? I don’t think he (Dickey) made this decision based on politics, I think he made this decision based on winning," said history and American studies professor, Dr. Bob Hutton.

Now they had Davis, but coach Dickey wanted to make the transition easier for him.

"So we got busy and recruited Lester McClain of Nashville," said Dickey.

But something went wrong with Davis's admission, so the responsibility fell to McClain.

"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, but I wasn't thinking about it just being the only African-American," said McClain.

It did eventually hit him though. 

"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."

Being a Vol football player, people knew who he was. But when Lester McClain stepped on the field, he wasn't black or white - he was orange. 

"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," he said.

McClain was not the first African-American to integrate the Southeastern Conference. The first was Nate Northington at Kentucky who did it one year earlier. However, McClain left a lasting impact as the first African-American football letterman in the SEC.

"I think it depends on how we create our history," said Hutton. "Are we more interested in that first that absolute first moment, that absolute first play like the wildcats had? Or, something that’s more sustained. I think UT played a bigger role in sort of melting the ice in the SEC than perhaps Kentucky did."

McClain stayed because he understood it wasn't just about him. 

"If you fail, I think I would have let a lot of people down,"said McClain.

He didn't just open the door for black athletes in the SEC, he held it open because it was about more than football.

"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.”'

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