Lester McClain fifty years ago recalls his first football game at the University of Tennessee when he was only a sophomore wingback from Nashville. The game was on September 14th, 1968, at Neyland Stadium against the University of Georgia.

McClain made history by being the first African-American football player for the Volunteers. With a three year career playing for the Vols, he had a total of 70 receptions for 1,003 yards, and 10 touchdowns with two rushing scores. In 1970, he was the fifth in Tennessee history in receptions, and was part of the Championship team of 1969, and played three bowl games– The Cotton Bowl, Gator Bowl, and Sugar Bowl.

In the 1968 season-opener, McClain remembers entering for the first time and receiving a standing ovation.

“You don’t expect to go in and receive applause when you haven’t done anything,” McClain said. “It’s not like you’re Mickey Mantle who hits home runs and that gets you applause when you are coming up to bat. I hadn’t done anything. I thought that was wonderful. That’s a major step toward helping one be successful.”

McClain made a crucial fourth-down reception that helped the Vols come back to tie the Bulldogs 17-17.

“I remember getting into the game and getting the chance to just play a little bit,” he said. “It got to a crucial time of the game. We were behind, actually. It was fourth-down-and-long, and I’m a sophomore and Bubba (Wyche) threw that fourth-down pass to me. I made a first down, and we went from there to tie the ball game.”

During his Big Orange career at 6’3″, 197 pounds, he made big receiving plays for the Vol team. His focus was to be a great teammate and football player. He wanted to make sure his first appearance he did not drop a pass and master his assignments.

“I wanted to be successful as a player on a football team more than anything else,” McClain said.

The accomplishments of McClain have inspired black athletes to create their legacy at Tennessee, including athletes such as first starting quarterback in the SEC, Condredge Holloway.

“I’m blessed that I got to know him, and after knowing what he went through, you talk about me being the first black quarterback in the Southeastern Conference…without Lester McClain none of that happens,” Holloway said. “Everybody thinks that I went through a lot; he went through much more. There weren’t many black players on the team or in the league. Lester took the brunt for everybody and was a perfect gentleman, still is today. I have nothing but respect for Lester McClain, and I’m proud to call him my friend.”

Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee Director of Athletics, was McClain’s teammate from 1968 to 1971.

“Lester McClain is one of the greatest people I have ever known,” Fulmer said. “He is intelligent, hard-working, polite, thoughtful and professional. Lester is a great businessman and family man.

“His leadership and the example he set as he helped Tennessee break the race barrier was extraordinary. I have read some of the things he went through, and I naively did not know it (at the time), because Lester was simply being Lester—leading, working hard and showing us the way it was supposed to be done as a teammate and friend.”

McClain, being humble, says his favorite memories were seeing Vol teammates and other VFL’s have success after their career is over. He points to Fulmer’s career with joy.

“Seeing other players do well are my favorite memories, like Phillip for instance,” McClain said. “He went from being a player to a coach to the head coach to winning a national championship.

“He is a first-class guy. His success means a lot to all of us. Anytime you have a former player that does well, you all feel good about it. He bleeds orange blood. He knows what it takes to make Tennessee successful.”

After McClain’s Vol career, he was drafted to the Chicago Bears in the 1971 NFL Draft, but never played in the league. He went on to have a successful career in the insurance industry, working for State Farm for 35 years, and still runs his own agency in Nashville.

McClain and his wife, Virginia, have four children and one grandchild.

He is a member of the Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, and the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Sports Hall of Fame. In 1987, he was appointed the alumni position on the UT Athletics Board. He was appointed to the Tennessee Human Rights Commission by former Governor Lamar Alexander.

This season, McClain will be honored by the team that applauded his success.

“Life has been good,” McClain said. “I have been fortunate. It has been a wonderful ride.”

During this season, support your Tennessee Volunteers and Lester McClain legacy by tailgating for any game during the year. Here is a new recipes to get you through the college football season, and the beer to pair it with.

“Smokey Got Sauced” Pulled Chicken Sliders
Cooking Method from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe, Jack Daniels Sauce adapted from Southern Food at About.com

Photo Credit: Kitchen Prep Blog

2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 medium {or 1 1/2 small} yellow onions, sliced thin
1/4 cup Jack Daniels whiskey
1/4 cup chopped yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, grated
1 cup ketchup
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons vinegar {I used cider vinegar}
1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup {packed} brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Line the bottom of the crockpot with a layer of sliced onions. Place chicken on top.

In a medium bowl, combine remaining ingredients and whisk together until incorporated. Pour over chicken.

Cook on high for 3-4 hours or until chicken is cooked through and tender. Remove chicken from crockpot and shred with 2 forks or {or with a hand mixer, as odd as that may sound!}.

Serve on your favorite sliders rolls.  Find more tailgating ideas from Tailgate Thursday: TN Edition

Pair it with your favorite beer. Suggestions: Black Abbey’s The Rose — 5.7% ABV, 15 IBU or a Porter by Yazoo Brewing Company’s Sue — 9% ABV, 72 IBU.