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Where Are They Now

Where Are They Now: Cliff McClain

Catch Up with the Former Jets Running Back from South Carolina State


The next-to-last thing Cliff McClain was thinking about during his junior year at South Carolina State was being drafted by an NFL team.

The last thing he was thinking about was being drafted as a running back.

"I was an offensive lineman and a scout came through and was timing some guys in the 40. They were not running decent times, so they asked me to run with them as a challenge to see if anyone would run a better time. I did, and trying to run with the other guy, I ran a 4.7 40. The scout looked at me and said, 'Go put some cleats on and let's see what you do.' So I put some track cleats on and ran a 4.5," McClain said.

"He said, 'Wow! What position do you play?' I told him I played offensive guard (at 215 pounds) and he shook his head. He said, 'Geesh, I thought you were a running back.' So he went and talked to the coach, [Oree Banks] and he put me at running back in spring training.

"And when spring training came around, I was running pretty good. I was actually getting five or six yards every time I touched the ball. But when the spring game came around, I had twisted my ankle, so they never saw me play. And when (my senior year) regular season started, I was injured. I played in one game and I looked terrible because I was still injured and I hadn't practiced. But they were trying to get me to play because the scout had shown up to see me."

Despite being unable to show what he could do carrying the ball in a game; McClain was chosen by the Jets in the fifth round of the 1970 NFL Draft.

And when he and the other rookies arrived for training camp at Hofstra, while it couldn't quite be mistaken for a ghost town, there were less people there than normal. And in this case, the fewer the better was a bonus.

"When I got there, that was during the strike, so there were no veterans in camp," McClain said. "Which was good for me because it gave the coaching staff a better opportunity to look at new players without being concerned with old players as well."

Making the team as a backup, McClain saw a majority of his playing time as a rookie on special teams.

"Yeah, I played special teams because the Jets didn't have anybody sitting around just doing nothing. If you're going to be on the team, you're going to do something," McClain laughed.

The following season, with 10 games of experience and playing very sparingly as John Riggins and Emerson Boozer's backup, McClain found the end zone twice. The second time on a 63-yard run in the season finale against Cincinnati. It was, however, a bittersweet six points.

"It didn't mean a lot to me because I was so disillusioned by the time that came around that my whole mind was just screwed up because of the ups and downs that I had had with the team," McClain said. "I wasn't progressing as well as I thought I should or wanted to be. So when that came along, it was a good moment for me, but I couldn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to because at that point I was so emotionally torn, it didn't satisfy me as well as it would if I was at a place where I was happy."

In 1972, with football fans around the country watching the nationally-televised game, McClain came through with an outstanding performance on Thanksgiving in Detroit when he posted a team-high 121 yards on 10 carries to go along with a 44-yard reception.

And even though the Lions won 37-20, did McClain find the game personally more enjoyable than the previous ones?

"Yeah, but I was still in the learning process because I hadn't played running back that much. So I had a lot of ups and downs," McClain said. "The coaching staff, I guess when you get to the professional level, they expect you to know certain things. Well, there wasn't much coaching as far as coaching players on how and what. They just said this is the play, this is what we want you to do, and I guess your ability is supposed to take over from there.

"So from my viewpoint, the coaching was very low. Their strategy was the thing for them. When to call the play, when to use the play, when to put personnel in, and so forth."

With the Jets for four seasons, 1970-73, one of McClain's memorable experiences occurred during his rookie year, and, well, away from the field.

"I don't remember where it was, but (wide receiver) Ed Bell, they put both of us in the same room and there was only one bed. It was a king size bed, but being rookies, we thought, well, this is what we were accustomed to in college," McClain laughed. "So a guy came checking to make sure everybody was in their room. He came in and looked and there was me and Ed sleeping in the same bed. They made a big joke about it, but when they found out, they swapped us out and put us in a room that had beds."

And what makes him most proud of his NFL career?

"Regardless of the ups and downs, God blessed me with being at a level I never thought I'd get to. And I think he did just because I was me," McClain laughed. "I mean, why would you think a guy with little experience at running back would get drafted in the fifth round by a team that just won the Super Bowl two years earlier?"

Making their home in Orlando, Florida, McClain and his wife, Betty, have three daughters and eight grandchildren. Following his playing days, he went on to become an officer with the Orlando Police Department, where after 25 years, he retired as the Deputy Chief.

"And now I'm in ministry," McClain said. "I started a church, and worked at it for 12 years, called Eagle's Nest Baptist Church. And after a while I joined Tangelo Baptist Church. I'm a minister there and in charge of a men's ministry bible study. It's called Marathon Men Bible Study, and the credo of it is – in it for the long haul."