That was in 2006. Today, after enduring what would prove to be one of the most tumultuous periods in Tennessee football history, McClendon rose like a true champion above the conflict and finds himself with yet another chance of a lifetime.
This time, the 6-foot-3, 305-pound lineman has the opportunity to compete against some of the best in the business for the right to protect Tennessee’s favorite son, Peyton Manning, as a guard for the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League.
Selected in the fourth round by the Colts, McClendon was the 129th pick overall and will add depth to the interior line.
The Colts are hoping to develop McClendon’s already formidable skills for a bigger role in the near future. The pick was another move by the Indianapolis to solidify its depth on the offensive line and a rather unexpected one for McClendon.
“I had gotten a call that morning saying the Giants were going to take me in the fifth round. I didn’t really tell anybody about that. I had no clue I would go in the fourth round,” he said.
With the draft a distant memory, the former UT star has been concentrating on learning still another system — one that could take him to even new levels of stardom.
“I’m just trying to learn the ropes as a rookie. There is a lot of stuff you have to know. It’s a new process and a new game. I’m really looking up to the veterans and watching how they do their thing,” McClendon said of beginning his new gig. “I’m making sure I can follow suit and get in line with this great organization I’m with.”
As far as McClendon is concerned, he could not be any more thrilled to be going to the team that chose him to protect one of the National Football League’s premier quarterbacks. He said he is truly blessed and looking forward to learning from the best.
“I really can’t put it into words. You go to a team like that, fresh off the Super Bowl, the winningest organization in a decade of NFL history. There is so much tradition in this organization. To go where they win on a constant basis is really a blessing,” he stated.
“Peyton Manning is a great guy. He has won a lot. He’s a great leader and to be on the same team as him, to be the best you have to learn from the best. It’s definitely great being on his team.”
The hard working athlete has not had a great deal of time to sit around and be happy with the Colts’ choice. He has spent the summer preparing for his latest challenge and will be headed out this week to begin preparation in earnest for the upcoming season.
“I’ve been up there all summer working out with the team and making sure I’m doing what I need to be doing to get myself in the best possible shape to fit into their system. I’ve already had a couple of OTAs (on the field activities) and on the field practices, so I’ve kind of gotten the sense of how they do things,” said the future Colt.
“We start rookie mini camp Wednesday. That will be another installation process for us rookies trying to get familiar with the offense. That (mini camp) will transition us to the real training camp, which we will report to this weekend. It’s really about to get cranked up.”
Few are the number who recognize the thrill of stepping up to college level football from high school. Fewer still are those who realize every football player’s dream — from pee wee to college – of suiting up and racing onto the field in the NFL. McClendon is one of the fortunate few who have that chance. He intends to make the most of it.
“The jump from high school to college is nowhere near what the jump from college to the NFL is. These NFL guys, it is a very strenuous process to even get on a roster. You are weeding out on each level. This is the ultimate level everybody strives for. The talent gap from college to the NFL is tremendous,” said the unassuming rookie. “I’m just trying to get up to speed and make sure I’m doing the right techniques and doing the right things to make sure I put myself in the best position to succeed.”
At any level of athletic competition, fear is a career killer. Many promising futures have been cut short because an athlete with the talent and skills to succeed could not overcome the fear of failure or even success. There is no place for such dread for an NFL rookie and no room for a, ‘What am I doing here?’ mentality.
McClendon said he is not afraid or intimidated by what is in front of him but, at the same time, a sense of urgency in regard to catching up to the program is a good thing.
“I don’t think it (fear) was ever like that (with me) but you have to be like, ‘Oh man, I have a long way to go to where they are at.’ It’s never a level of being scared,” he related. “It’s just that you know you have a lot of stuff you need to work on. You are talking about guys that have been doing this 10 or 12 years, six, seven years. Obviously, there is a little bit of catching up to do. I know that I am going to have to work extra hard to catch up to their level.”
With all the transitions and changes facing an NFL rookie, one of the biggest obstacles can be that of veterans’ attitudes toward the incoming class of freshmen. Seasoned pros who have just reached the level of starter or starters who are nearing the sunset of their career can jealously protect the trade secrets that will allow them to extend their livelihood. McClendon said he has encountered no such road blocks with the veteran players of the Indianapolis Colts. If fact, just the opposite is true.
“I’m in one of the few organizations where that is not a problem at all. All the offensive linemen have been very helpful to me, trying to teach me the protections and the offense. I just look up to them for leadership. They have been really great. None of them have looked down at me. They all want to help because they feel they are only as good as their weakest link. They want to get the rookies ready to play,” he shared. “The cream is always going to rise to the top and they have to give us a fair shake to get there. It’s (veteran intimidation) not really been a problem since I have been up there. You look at the Ryan Diems, Jeff Saturdays and people who have been doing it there for a long time and you just really try to follow their lead and how they go about their business.”
“It’s definitely a big jump. To see how they go about their business and how much more goes into it than the college game is definitely eye-opening and I am just trying to catch up.”
So far, with his own deep-seeded desire to succeed and instruction from a core group of the best the NFL has to offer, McClendon has steadily improved his skills and techniques in his transition from college veteran to NFL rookie.
“I feel myself getting ready a lot more in the OTAs. It started out where I was like every other rookie, just going out there and trying to figure out what you have to do. Once you figure out what to do you can finally get better,” he said. “I’m at the point where I am progressing every day. As long as I can practice and say, ‘OK, this day was better than yesterday’ its going to take me farther in my preparation.”
Even so, the former Volunteer is very aware and understands exactly where he is as a professional — rookie or veteran. Where high school football is a sport, college football becomes more business than sports. Then, for those fortunate enough to go even farther, professional football becomes the business of sports.
In any job, personnel can become expendable for any reason as the business grows or downsizes. Nowhere is that more true than the NFL. And, as Michael Corleone said to his brother, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”
“No doubt. It’s nothing you can take personal,” said an astute McClendon. “You could be up there one day and be cut the next. But it’s not personal, it’s what’s best for the business of that organization. Everything you do also is a business choice. You have to handle yourself the best way you can, go out there and give it your all and what is supposed to happen will happen.”
Naturally, what McClendon hopes will happen for himself and his Colts teammates is a long and productive career in the National Football League. Indeed, if his personal football past and the Colts’ storied history is indicative of the future, many good things are in store for the former Volunteer. He sees no reason for other than a successful partnership.
“I see a team that has won a lot of games the last 10 or 12 years. I don’t see that getting anything but better. They have won for a long period of time and I don’t see why we won’t do that in the future. I’m just going to go in there and do the best I can to help this team no matter where that is,” he said.
“There is no telling what the future holds. I’m going to go out there every day and give it my all. What God wants to happen will happen.”