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South End Zone: The integration of Tennessee football, and a miss on a local star

How Tennessee recruiting still remains a source of pride and disappointment locally.

Welcome to the South End Zone, a place where fans can submit their work for others to read and share. If you’d like to contribute, you can send your work to fox@sportsradioknoxville.com with subject line “South End Zone”.

I wanted to talk about this one for a bit up top. Gilbert Orr is a student at the University of Tennessee. He reached out to me last week, asking if he could share his work on Tennessee’s integration of African-Americans into the football program. Some of what he uncovered isn’t widely-known in East Tennessee. That’s why I’m excited to get this out. Considering it’s Black History Month and recruiting season, it seems relevant to me. We’re hoping to make this a weekly series on the integration of Tennessee athletics throughout the month. Gilbert’s work is well-researched, thought out, and well-sourced. I hope you enjoy this one.

In 1967 in Alcoa, TN, somewhat of a local legend had become national folklore for die-hard football fans. Albert Davis of Alcoa was drawing comparisons to Jim Brown for his talent on the football field. Davis was the only All-Southern high school selection ever at the time and he held over 120 college scholarship offers. Albert Davis was the to be the first African American athlete at UT if he signed his letter of intent with the school.

In a time of social tumult UT had quietly integrated the University in 1961 by admitting Theotis Robinson, Charles Edgar Blair, Willie Mae Gillespie, and Avon Rollins. Athletics at UT were seemingly behind national competitors Syracuse and The University of Houston by the time 1965 rolled around having not integrated yet. The University of Houston’s football team even visited UT in 1965 and Warren McVea of Houston was the first African American to play in Neyland Stadium.

Why UT athletics hadn’t integrated seemed to be a tough question to answer. President Andy Holt and Athletic Director Bob Woodruff were pushing their coaches to make the move. Tennessee had a long history of including African Americans in the athletic department going all the way back to 1925. When General Neyland coached at UT, he hired an African American assistant named Dummy Fogery.

Fogery had an uncanny ability to scout football players and was also in charge of the team’s equipment. Many of the places UT traveled would not allow Fogery to travel on the train with the team so Neyland would hide him in the women’s restroom of his car until the conductor was done checking tickets. All of the wait for UT athletics to integrate ended in 1967.

Albert Davis signed his national letter of intent with UT in May of 1967. Later in the month there would be an Albert Davis Day in Alcoa. In Nashville a lesser-known recruit named Lester McClain would sign with the Vols. McClain was going to join Davis and the two would be the first African American athletes at UT. News of McClain’s signing was hardly covered in East Tennessee newspapers, however.

The registration and admission of Albert Davis had hit a snag. Davis’ test scores had come into question and UT wanted him to retake a standardized test. Davis would not retake the test because of his principle on the matter. UT struck out and Davis went elsewhere. This left Lester McClain alone to break the color barrier at UT and he would also be the first African American to play football in the SEC. Tennessee football integration was underway.

There are some parallels with Davis’ recruiting debacle and UT losing out on local stars and legacies this year. Similarly just down the road in Oak Ridge, Tee Higgins will sign with Clemson in this year’s recruiting cycle. This is not to draw comparisons to what Davis endured when he was making strides through a changing social climate in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. This is to highlight UT missing out on a local product with such excitement and praise surrounding them.

Tennessee lost out on a player that could have restored momentum lost as the team lost 4 of its last 7 games this year and 2nd in 4 years to Vanderbilt. No matter how you cut it, Tennessee could have gained significantly from this signing class by hauling in Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers (the son of former UT quarterback Tee Martin).

The parallels between Higgins and Davis are there. They were both once committed to play at UT. They were high school all star stalwarts locally anointed to take UT to the next level. Both ultimately decided not to attend UT. UT was coming off an 8-3 record in 1966 and a 9-4 record in 2016.

Does missing out on these local phenoms mean UT will suffer immensely? Not quite. Following up after the whiff on Davis and the 8-3 season UT went 9-1 in the regular season and won the UPI national championship before losing to Oklahoma in their Orange Bowl appearance. Could UT bounce back next year and make a run at the East and possibly the SEC? Absolutely.

Now back to the history lesson. Lester McClain enrolled in UT in the fall of 1967. He wouldn’t be allowed to play varsity football that year because of NCAA regulations at the time. McClain says he had his ups and downs at UT, but ultimately it was an experience he went through that paved the way for players immediately after him like Jackie Walker from Fulton High School in Knoxville.

Walker was the SEC’s first African American All American in 1972. Lester McClain acknowledged that UT wasn’t the first to desegregate their football team. Kentucky signed two African Americans in 1965 but after a terrible accident in 1966 that left Greg Page dead Nat Northington soon transferred. McClain, when asked about his time at UT said “Tennessee wasn’t the first to do it, but they were the first to do it well.” Coach Doug Dickey would go on to say “It was the right thing to do at the right time.”

After 1969, Dickey took over at his alma mater, The University of Florida. He would also integrate their football program. Tennessee had come a long way in 1967 from the days of Dummy Fogery and Robert Neyland.

As for Mr. Albert Davis, Davis would go on to a successful career at Tennessee State University and a 14-year career in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. Davis now lives in Blount County where he was a school administrator for 20 plus years.

So here’s to this: may this year’s recruiting cycle yield the leaders that Tennessee found in McClain and subsequent classes. May Coach Jones be a bastion for success and lead not only UT, but also his peers in the industry. If Tennessee can turn the page and be leaders like they did in 1967, I can see the Vols winning a championship in 2017.

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