Vols trailblazer Lester McClain weighs in on racial tensions

Vols trailblazer Lester McClain weighs in on racial tensions


Vols trailblazer Lester McClain weighs in on racial tensions


Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton

Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton

Antioch great Lester McClain was the first black football player at Tennessee in 1967.

Antioch great Lester McClain was the first black football player at Tennessee in 1967.

Lester McClain had a choice: find a way to integrate with the white players on Tennessee’s football team or spend a great deal of his time in college alone.

The former Antioch High star wide receiver was the first African-American athlete to sign a scholarship at Tennessee in 1967.

By the time he left, McClain had proved African Americans not only deserved the same opportunities as white players to play for the Vols on the field, but also to be a part of the program’s culture.

Albert Davis (also an African American) was a great player from Alcoa who was supposed to be my roommate, but after he signed his scholarship he did not come to Tennessee,” said McClain, 66, who shared his story last week at the Antioch All Athletes/Sports Gathering at the school’s Alumni Hall. “So I didn’t have a roommate my freshman year.”

McClain was assigned a roommate for his sophomore and junior years — John Rippatoe, a white player and highly recruited quarterback from Science Hill.

McClain and Rippatoe didn’t allow their skin color to come between them and quickly established a bond.

“We were even roommates in summer school, and we got along great,” McClain said. “John thought he was part of something special to be my roommate, and I liked him. It was a wonderful relationship back then as it still is today. We are still very, very close. Our families are very close.”

As much as McClain accomplished on the field, finishing his career with 70 catches for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns, he and Rippatoe may have made a greater social statement with their lasting friendship.

Lester McClain, the first African American to play football at Tennessee, had 70 catches for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career (1968-71).

Lester McClain, the first African American to play football at Tennessee, had 70 catches for 1,003 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career (1968-71).

“There is nothing I wouldn’t do for John to this day, and I know the same thing is true for him,” McClain said. “And there were so many other guys who I played with and had great relationships with.”

McClain’s only other scholarship offers were from Tennessee State and Middle Tennessee State.

His decision to break the color barrier at Tennessee blazed a trail for others to follow and set in motion what many believed would help lead to racial harmony at some point down the road.

But here we are nearly 50 years later, and racial tensions in many ways remain as volatile as when McClain accepted the last of 40 scholarships given by coach Doug Dickey and his staff.

Count McClain, who served on the UT Athletics Board after his playing days, among those who hoped, and even expected, race relations in America to improve over the past five decades.

But also include him among those who remained skeptical about just how much progress had truly been made even before the highly publicized number of unarmed black males shot by police officers across the country, the shooting deaths of white police officers in Baton Rouge and Dallas and a recent Rasmussen report that found that 60 percent of likely U.S. voters believe race relations have deteriorated since President Obama’s election eight years ago.

“As you get older and you look back at what you thought was going on, what you thought was being expedited, and it really wasn’t what you thought,” McClain said. “There are many of us who wondered all along how much progress have we made? Is it what we dreamed it would be? Are the education and other opportunities really better for that group of people that was trying to change or improve? You look at a whole lot of things. The tension between the races and all that is going on now may have always been there just below the surface.”

That goes back to the lack of integration, McClain said, despite the many efforts by school systems, churches and so many other entities.

“How familiar are we with each other? How much talking do we really do?” he said. “That’s where it starts, and I’m not sure it ever really took hold.”

TSU will cash in on game at Duke

Teresa Phillips

Teresa Phillips

Tennessee State is guaranteed $85,000 for playing a men’s basketball game at Duke this season, Tigers athletics director Teresa Phillips said.

Coach Dana Ford confirmed earlier this month the Tigers will visit Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 19

That’s a very hefty paycheck for one game, and Phillips also is happy about the experience TSU’s players will get by playing against one of the nation’s premier college basketball teams.

“It’s a great opportunity to play in a historic facility against one of the top two or three teams you think about when you think about men’s basketball,” Phillips said. “Athletes want to play against top-name schools at their places. It’s very exciting for our student-athletes.”

New chairman named for Nashville Sports Council   

Ronald Roberts

Ronald Roberts

Ronald Roberts was elected chairman of the Nashville Sports Council this past week.

Roberts is a longtime member of the Nashville Sports Council who has served as chairman of the public relations committee, speakers series committee, Celebration of Champions event and marketing chairman for the 2016 NHL All-Star Game.

Roberts, a Gallatin native, is managing partner and CEO of DVL Seigenthaler.

Meanwhile, Adam Burke, who has been a member of the Nashville Sports Council and Music City Bowl staff for the past eight years, announced he is leaving to pursue other opportunities.

New minor league team hires ex-Preds announcer  

Former Predators radio play-by-play announcer Tom Callahan was named play-by-play announcer and media relations director for the Tucson Roadrunners hockey team this past week.

The Roadrunners, formerly the Springfield Falcons, will play in the American Hockey League as the minor-league affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes.

Former Predators operations and promotions manager Mark Iralson was hired as the Roadrunners’ director of game operations.

NFL’s most underrated players include former Commodore, Vol

Andre Hal

Andre Hal

Former Vanderbilt safety Andre Hal, now with the Houston Texans, and University of Tennessee linebacker Robert Ayers, now at Tampa Bay, are among the NFL’s most underrated players, according to CBSsports.com writer Pete Prisco.

“(Hal) has the range that is needed to play the middle of the field, continuing a league trend of converted corners moving inside,” Prisco wrote.

“Ayers doesn’t have the speed to be a blow-by-the-tackle pass rusher, but he can pressure the quarterback.”

Prisco listed one player for each team.

Linebacker Avery Williamson was the Titans’ most underrated player, and former Titans cornerback Adam Jones, formerly known as “Pacman,” was Prisco’s pick for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Former Tech, TSU players join Australian league

Demario Donnell

Demario Donnell

Cornerback Demario Donnell, who played at Pearl-Cohn and Tennessee Tech, is not only getting to continue his football career, but also is getting to spend time Down Under.

Donnell signed this past week to play with the Sydney Express in the inaugural Australian National Gridiron League season, which begins Oct. 9.

“When you’re the first, you always go down in history,” Donnell said. “I’m thankful to be chosen out of so many potential prospects.”

Donnell had 132 tackles, 18 deflected passes, an interception and four forced fumbles in his career at Tech.

Also playing in the new league is former TSU offensive linemen Shaq Anthony (Logan City) and DeShawn Byrd (Gold Coast).

Women’s Open Championship is this week

The Golf Capital of Tennessee Women’s Open Championship is Thursday-Saturday at Stonehenge Golf Club in Fairfield Glade.

Some local players to watch include Esther Moon from Greenbrier, who was the top finisher from the Midstate in the pro division last year at 21st, Riley Rennell from Columbia, who was the top finisher from the Midstate in the amateur division tied for fifth and Vanderbilt’s Alexandra Farnsworth, a three-time Tennessean/Metro Parks Schooldays champion from Ensworth, who finished ninth in the amateur division last year.

Last year’s champion, Karlin Beck from Montgomery, Ala., is not in the field.

TSU professor earns award for book on father

TSU professor Harriet Kimbro-Hamilton received the Robert Peterson Recognition Award for her book “Daddy’s Scrapbook: Henry Kimbro of the Negro Baseball League, A Daughter’s Perspective.”

Kimbro grew up playing in the city parks in Nashville and became a Negro Baseball League star playing for the Baltimore Elite Giants, Birmingham Black Barons and New York Black Yankees. He was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.

The award was presented to Hamilton at the 19th annual Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference in Kansas City, Mo.

Hermitage Golf Course director helps LPGA’s Skinner 

Jim Vernon, PGA director of golf at Hermitage Golf Course, was honored by LPGA Tour pro Val Skinner for helping her raise more than $500,000 for breast cancer initiatives at her annual LIFE pro-am at the Mountain Ridge Course in West Caldwell, N.J.

Vernon, his wife, Beth, and their daughters Anna and Bailey were at the pro-am.

Skinner has raised a total of $10.5 million for the cause over the past 17 years.

Registration open for City Civitan Golf tournament

Signups are underway for the Sept. 26 Nashville City Civitan Golf Outing at Hermitage Golf Course.

Proceeds from the annual four-person scramble help pay for the AD Hancock & Walter Nipper Award, the Moss-Oliver Award, the Leroy Wright Basketball Tournament and Special Olympics.

The cost is $100 per golfer. Register at ncc.golfreg.com. For more information, contact Vic Ledoux at 615-613-3573 or Scott Brunette at 615-356-2845.

MTSU 1,000-point scorer Riley dies

Former Middle Tennessee State basketball star Ken Riley, the Blue Raiders’ leading scorer and rebounder in 1968, 1970 and 1971, died Monday. He was 69.

Riley had 1,043 career points and 924 rebounds. He also threw the discus and shot on MTSU’s track and field team.

If you have an item for Midstate Chatter, contact Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 and on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.


The top five local ratings for sporting events on television for July 11-17:
1. Awards: ESPN ESPYs, 5.1 rating
2. PGA: British Open (final round), 4.6 rating
T3. MLB: All-Star Game, 3.7 rating
T3. NASCAR: New Hampshire 301, 3.7 rating
5. PGA: British Open (3rd round), 3.5 rating
Each rating point is equal to 9,902 Nashville homes.
Source: Mark Binda, WTVF-5 programming & research director.


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