Strong-armed Rippetoe made lasting connection at UT

Johnson City’s John Rippetoe takes in the action at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

By Trey Williams

It’s fitting that strong-armed quarterback John Rippetoe’s college career was completed outside the lines.

Rippetoe led Science Hill to its last undefeated season when Kermit Tipton’s Hilltoppers went 9-0-1 during Rippetoe’s senior year of 1965. 

The Science Hill brand was red-hot, particularly for quarterbacks. Former ‘Toppers teammate Steve Spurrier finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting as junior at Florida that year and won the Heisman the following year.

Then 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Rippetoe made multiple high school All-America teams and was rated the No. 1 prospect in the state of Tennessee. He had at least 29 offers, none more appealing to him, perhaps, than Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt and Duke.

A playing career at Tennessee, however, never materialized, thoughRippetoe made a connection with receiver Lester McClain that transcended sport.

“The first black athlete in the Southeastern Conference was Lester McClain,” Rippetoe said in 2016. “Lester and I are like brothers. Sometimes it’s kind of odd to think about how close we’ve gotten – and stayed that way, too.”

John Rippetoe with his college roommate and lifelong friend Lester McClain.

Rippetoe arrived in Knoxville a year before McClain broke the so-called color barrier. They were roommates during McClain’s sophomore and junior seasons when racial tension was sky-high.

McClain became one of the Tennessee offense’s primary weapons. Rippetoewas essentially a strong-armed practice player.

“I used to throw with him a lot,” McClain said Monday night. “He had a strong arm, I mean a powerful arm.”

Rippetoe also had a powerful bond with McClain – seemingly overnight.

“John had that genuine vibe of a good person, you know, I mean totally,” said McClain, who’d been a touted recruit out of Antioch. “He was always, even though he was that guy who had been the number one athlete, John was very studious and smart. So he had another side to him that wasn’t football even though he had gotten all the accolades in high school, particularly in football.”

There were times when Rippetoe and McClain must’ve felt Southern society pulling against ‘em.

“I’d say to Lester, ‘How in the world would anybody have thought you and I would have gotten along so well being roommates for two years,’” Rippetoe said. “We both question how it was that we became roommates. We go from the sinister calculations to the point of were we that good of friends that we projected that friendship to others. …

It was just a very positive thing between Lester and I.”

Rippetoe suspected that a factor in being chosen to be McClain’s roommate was Science Hill having integrated prior to his senior season. McClain also integrated – from Haynes to Antioch – prior to his senior year of high school.

Rippetoe played as a high school senior with former Langston High School standouts such as Charles Buford and Eugene “Red” Gillespie, and he’d enjoyed watching former Langston players like Kenny Hamilton and Johnny Russaw, the latter of whom was the first African-American football player to receive a scholarship to East Tennessee State University.

Rippetoe (15) during his playing days at UT.

“I loved to watch Johnny Russaw,” Rippetoe said. “I thought if ever there’s anybody I’ve seen that could play in the pros…’ Him and Kenny Hamilton, what a tough bunch of nuts.

“We had probably a dozen black athletes play football with us – Charlie Buford, Jerry Hartsaw, Red Gillespie. They were critical in developing Science Hill’s program from a point of – we never had a lick of trouble, not the first issue as far as any integration problems. And I think that had a lot to do with why Lester and I were roommates, because that was known and kind of talked about by the other coaches.”

Rippetoe said teammates such as Buford, Gillespie, Terry Dellinger, Tommy Thomas and Dennis Kerley generated much of the rave reviews he received in high school.

“I was selected to two All-America teams,” Rippetoe said. “I feel fortunate to have that background. Scholastic Magazine was one of the All-American teams. … 

“I was kind of embarrassed, if you will, because I had such a great team surrounding me. It seemed like I was getting credit for things that they had done. I played with a bunch of great folks. …

“Charlie Buford was a flanker and strong-side split end, if you will. He was quick. The tight end role played by Red Gillespie was significant. He was a strong, strong guy. I’m talking about built like Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

McClain said Rippetoe alluded to the Hilltoppers teammates that helped pave his way to Knoxville.

“He always talked about how it was like a magical thing,” McClain said. “He could throw the ball, but he said he had guys that made him look better than what he really was. And I’m sure he was exaggerating that.”

Rippetoe passed for 66- and 60-yard touchdowns to Buford in a 21-6 defeat of Asheville-Lee Edwards in 1965. The 60-yarder, according to newspaper accounts, covered 60 yards in the air on the last play of the half. He also threw a 60-yard TD to Kerley. 

“I always got a good feeling being able to throw the long ball down the sideline,” Rippetoe said, “and hit Dennis Kerley in stride, full speed ahead.”

Emory Hale was an assistant coach at Science Hill when the signal-callers included Spurrier, Glen Altman, Rippetoe and Tommy Sholes. He went on to become head coach at Oak Ridge (1969-80), where he won three state championships while going 112-23, before becoming the head coach at Austin Peay (1981-87).

In 2011, Hale chuckled while fondly recalling Rippetoe’s passes against Lee Edwards.

“We called a throw-back route and John hit Dennis Kerley on the dead run for a touchdown,” Hale said. “And they had a blitz on. It was a heck of a play.

“I remember him throwing a stop-and-go route to beat Greeneville, too. He could make all of the throws.”

Dellinger got 13 letters at Science Hill, which was one more than Rippetoe earned thanks to Snake Evans persuading Dellinger to run at a cross country meet. Rippetoe was a power pitcher in baseball, threw the shot put and discus and ran the 880 relay in track & field and was a key cog for Elvin Little in basketball.

But he turned heads on the football field, where he also punted and kicked.

“John could stand flat-footed and throw it 70 yards,” Dellinger said. “He would knock you down if you did anything under 10 yards. You had to be ready to catch it.”

Rippetoe said Spurrier helped him develop touch and improve his accuracy.

“It doesn’t take a strong arm to get the ball in the right spots,” Rippetoe said. “Spurrier is a perfect example of how the finesse of throwing a football is tempered between the strength and the speed you throw it at, and the abilities of the receivers. I used to tell folks I could probably throw the ball harder and further than anybody else I knew until Jim Maxwell came on board from Nashville. Jim was a year behind me and, boy, he could throw a ball that’d eat you alive. If you missed it you better be ready to pull it out from between your shoulder pads.

“Throwing a ball hard and fast helps keep it away from the defense, but it doesn’t make it real easy to handle for the offense. And it took me a little while to learn that. Steve Spurrier helped me. I used to go up to Science Hill after work in the summer and he would take the time to tell me some things about throwing the football that were important to know. I think Steve was the kind of a guy that – he was not interested in ‘Look what I’m doing for me.’ – he wanted to see what he could do to help you be a better player. And watching him coach at South Carolina, it was obvious that his effort to coach is not sidelined by other people’s opinions of what kind of coach he is. He’s as good of a coach as there’s ever been in my opinion.”

Oddly enough, the lack of mobility that steered Spurrier away from Knoxville helped keep Rippetoe on the Neyland Stadium sideline.

“My dad used to say I ran the ball like a cow in a rail pile,” Rippetoe said with a bemused chuckle.

Of course, it’s all relative, and Rippetoe had his moments at Tennessee. He was 8-of-13 passing for 101 yards, including a 25-yard TD pass to Mike Price, in an Orange-White game. 

Better yet, the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder said he ran over linebacker Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds during a drill when Doug Dickey was among the coaches looking on. Granted, that triumph came at a price.

“There was a little bit of noise about it, you know, ‘Take that’ or ‘Give it to him again, Rip,’” Rippetoe said. “Yeah, right. That’s just what I needed. And the next thing I know I’m running full speed and wham, I see stars.

“Jack Reynolds was certifiable. I could tell you stories about Jack that would flip you out.”

Reynolds got his nickname after he sawed an abandoned 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air in half following a 38-0 loss to Ole Miss during Rippetoe’s senior season.

“It wasn’t a hacksaw, it was a chainsaw,” Rippetoe said.

Reynolds and fellow linebacker Steve Kiner helped the Vols win the SEC in ’69 and they each had lengthy NFL careers.

“To watch Steve Kiner and Jack Reynolds at linebacker – they worked so good together,” Rippetoe said.

Rippetoe and McClain worked well together off the field. Their bond was conspicuous during a time when even some family members of each player were surely uncomfortable. It was an era when too many people worried about what the wrong people might think.

“They kid us now about acting so much alike that we are beginning to look alike,” McClain told sports writer Marvin West when he and Rippetoe were roommates.

Perhaps love never grows stronger than when it’s been fertilized with hate. 

Certainly, a “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” vibe checked in to the Gatlinburg Inn on Thanksgiving of 1968. Rippetoe’s wife Doris’ aunt and uncle, Rel and Wilma Maples, owned the hotel, where Tennessee’s fight song “Rocky Top” had been written in Room 388 a year earlier. (It wasn’t adopted by UT until ’72).

Rippetoe invited McClain to a Thanksgiving dinner at the Inn. The Vols had practiced that day and McClain and Rippetoe were eager to eat a big meal and watch Texas-Texas A&M, the winner of which would play Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl. (Texas won handiley and romped past the Vols in the Cotton Bowl.)

The formal setting at the Inn was tensely awkward for some of Rippetoe’s relatives, if not McClain.

It was Thanksgiving, but Cornish hens were on the menu. They would break the tension.

“We were, you know, eating like royalty,” McClain said, “and they had those hens and they came around with it and they took the top off (the pan), and I put my elbow in John’s side and I said, ‘Do you see those scrawny little turkeys?’ And he busted out laughing and he laughed out loud right in the middle of everything. And he wasn’t even embarrassed for laughing out loud because he thought that was so funny. 

“He said, ‘Lester called it a scrawny turkey.’ We laughed so much. We were just too silly. … They have never forgotten that story for all those years.

“Those were special times in life that made impressions on a young kid – a young kid from Antioch that had never been many places. That was a big deal.”

Exposing Rippetoe to musical groups such as the Temptations was also memorable.

“That was a wonderful time,” McClain said. “We were so silly. It was fun to be young.”

Growing older has been a blessing too, of course. Rippetoe was successful in business management, taught school and became a private pilot. He has four children, 13 grandchildren, a great grandchild and another one on the way.

As families expanded, McClain and Rippetoe remained like brothers while spending the majority of more than a half century visiting multiple times a year.

McClain, a Nashville resident, came to Johnson City last summer to see Rippetoe, who has valiantly battled Parkinson’s Disease like he once went at Hacksaw Reynolds. 

Rippetoe also wasn’t long removed from COVID. A lesser friend might’ve had mixed emotions or felt awkward during the visit, but not McClain.

“He was my roommate,” McClain said. “He was my friend. I was just happy to be there with him. That was a relationship made in heaven.”


About Author

Comments are closed.