By Jimmy Hyams
When J. J. McCleskey walked on at Tennessee, the Karns High School product was about 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds.
Nobody gave him a chance to make a mark in college, not even lower level programs.
You can measure size but you can’t measure heart. And it was heart – doused with a mix of competitive spirit – that allowed McCleskey to become a captain at Tennessee, play both ways and enjoy an eight-year NFL career despite never touching the tape at 5-foot-8.
McCleskey will be inducted tonight into the 36th annual Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame along with eight others.
McCleskey might have overcome the longest odds of them all.
“It’s just an honor,’’ McCleskey said. “The past people that are already in the Hall of Fame have paved the way for me to be where I’m at today. It’s a humbling experience.’’
Where McCleskey is today is training young athletes. He’s in his sixth year of running Mental Edge, near New Orleans.
“I tell ya man, I get some great athletes,’’ McCleskey said. “But I get better kids that work hard.’’
He calls his facility Mental Edge because “in sports, if you have mental toughness, you have a mental edge. If you have the knowledge to study and have preparation, you can be better than what you are.’’
McCleskey said it’s important for high school and college – even pros – athletes to play to their speed. He said few do.
“There are ways to do that,’’ he said. “You just have to be disciplined and seek the wisdom for it.’’
McCleskey played to his speed and overachieved at Tennessee. His fearless nature contributed. He wasn’t scared to go head-to-head in practice with Carl Pickens or Alvin Harper. He wasn’t afraid to run routes against UT’s best DBs.
It was that attitude that helped him become a UT team captain in 1992 and play eight seasons in the NFL at receiver and cornerback for the Saints and Cardinals.
Some of McCleskey’s spunk has apparently been transferred to his won, receiver Jalen McCleskey, who is the leading returning receiver in the Big 12 after catching 73 passes as a sophomore for Oklahoma State last year.
McCleskey said his son fit the “culture’’ and “system’’ run by Oklahoma State.
“That’s the reason why he picked Oklahoma State,’’ McCleskey said.
Jalen wasn’t offered by Tennessee.
“People think that at one time that I was upset and everything,’’ McCleskey said, “but you have to go where you fit.
“Would I have loved for my son to play at the University of Tennessee? Absolutely. But was Oklahoma State the right fit for him? Absolutely.’’
And the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame is the right fit for McCleskey, who battled long odds to make it big.