Lester McClain

Moving the Chains

By Dan Conaway

Reflections on a game-changing fall day in 1968

Georgia scored again while I was throwing up.

Georgia and I had already done these things several times in the preceding three hours, but like Tennessee, I didn’t think I had anything left to counter this time. Late — very late — in the fourth quarter, our offense had gone ice cold, we were down by 8, and my temperature was red hot, up by 2. The governor, the first Sen. Al Gore, a gaggle of congressmen and even the head tire kicker at Goodyear, whose blimp hovered above, were watching from various swell box seats. Millions were watching on TV, and even ABC’s saccharine Chris Schenkel (this guy makes Jim Nance sound like the grim reaper) thought Uga had this one all wrapped up.

I was watching from the couch in the ATO house tube room, alternating between teeth-rattling chills and wind sprints to the john, all wrapped up in a blanket.

It was the first and only home game I would miss in my four years at the University of Tennessee. It was the first and only home game UT wouldn’t win during those four magic years. It was our first game played on artificial turf, dubbed “Doug’s Rug” for Coach Dickey. It was the very first game and the very first catch for No. 85 in your Tennessee program, a shy sophomore from Nashville named Lester McClain.

It was a remarkable game.

Bubba Wyche (is that a good quarterback name, or what?) was staring at fourth down. Fans poured from Neyland Stadium, resigned to loss, and the clock ran faster than any of our backs had all day. He let the pass go, and Lester McClain pulled it in at the Georgia 48.

Lester McClainFirst and 10, Tennessee. First ever, SEC.

That pass gave us a chance, gave us hope. It changed the game and the way the game is played. Lester McClain is black. Two black players had gone before him at Kentucky, but neither had lettered, since you couldn’t play varsity as a freshman, and their careers were ended by injury and heartbreak. Lester’s roommate his freshman year, also black, didn’t come back his sophomore year. So, with that catch, Lester McClain broke through the varsity football color line in the SEC and moved the chains.

It was an amazing game.

Later in the drive and facing another fourth down, Bubba moved the Vols to the line quickly and fired a touchdown pass to Gary Kreis as the clock rolled up all zeros, and I knocked over a pitcher and fell off the couch. Bubba then hit Ken DeLong for the two-point conversion, and Tennessee tied Georgia as Chris Schenkel and I — and those loyal, hopeful fans still in the stadium — all went insane. I charged to the front porch, blanket flapping and heaves forgotten, and screamed at the throngs headed to their cars, completely unaware of the final result and staring unbelievably at the leaping, ragged frat boy specter before them bearing the improbable news in boxers and blanket.

It was a miraculous game.

From the east upper deck, student seats in my day, the world looks promising. On one side, sheer cliffs rise from a river dotted with boats in a moored parade, and distant blue-green mountains form the backdrop. On the other, the buildings that house the means to be any and everything stand watch over dreams on a hill. Below, a contest unfolds that is no more serious than a game but every bit as serious as things that have gone before and are yet to come.

For more people than any other sport, I think, the beginning of football season is about hope and renewal, a slate wiped clean for whatever’s next, shared in mass mutual anticipation on a huge stage or by just one sick kid on a couch.

1968 was the symbolic year of the tragedy of Martin Luther King in the spring, of Bobby Kennedy in the summer, and of the hope symbolized in one young man catching a ball in the fall.

When Lester McClain caught that fourth-down pass, he wasn’t black or white. He was orange. And he was red, white and blue.

– – –

Dan Conaway graduated from UT Knoxville in 1971 with a B.S. in communications, a major in advertising, a strong like of Smoky Mountain Market cheese dogs and a strong dislike of threedraw plays and a punt. He lives in Memphis and is a communication strategy consultant and freelance writer. Visit him at www.wakesomebodyup.com.