JON JOHNSON COLUMN: Lunchtime with some Troy, and Wiregrass, legends (2023)

TROY – It’s not every day you get to spend lunchtime with a group of Troy football legends, listening to stories of years’ past and getting a birds-eye view of the love they really have for the university they attended.

On Saturday before the annual T-Day football scrimmage, five former Trojans – legends if you will – sat together on a stage to share their experiences with those gathered for the second annual Lunch with Legends in the Troy Stadium Club.

Two of them were Wiregrass natives – Ozark’s Steve McLendon and Elba’s Ted Horstead – who were joined by Levi Brown, Ted Clem and Boris Lee.

Troy radio announcer Barry McKnight was the emcee of the program and posed interesting questions to each on the stage.

The supporters in attendance were also able to ask a few questions, and one asked McLendon what was his biggest transition from high school to college?

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“I was born and raised in Ozark, Alabama, which is 23 minutes away from here, to be exact from my house to Troy,” McLendon said. “That was my biggest adjustment. Second was I had this thing where I had so many doubters … I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t strong enough.

“But I always told myself I’m never in the business of proving anybody wrong, I’m in the business of proving myself right.”

Of course, McLendon, a defensive tackle, certainly proved the doubters wrong throughout his Troy stay and the following 13 years in the NFL, which included being part of the 2020 Super Bowl champs Tampa Bay Bucs.

McKnight made mention of Troy’s 2008 game against Middle Tennessee when McLendon picked up a fumble and returned it 67 yards – almost for a touchdown – before running out of gas and coming up short of the end zone.

“To my defense, this was a 10-play drive,” McLendon laughed. “I tried to get my defensive line coach to take me out of the game and he told me no. I was like, ‘Why won’t you take me out of the game?’ like after 10 plays, and he said, ‘Because something special might happen and you need to be on the field.’

“As I was running, I can remember I was like five yards away from the end zone and then I knew I had nothing left in me.”

As McLendon, now retired, proudly wears a Super Bowl ring from his time with Tampa Bay, it was being part of the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers team that lost to Green Bay in the Super Bowl that drove him to succeed.

“When I saw us lose to the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl, every day of my life for the next 10 years, all I did was train,” McLendon said. “I did things that people thought I was crazy. I didn’t take a trip other than football until my 10th season in the NFL. My wife was like, ‘This is enough.’ All I wanted to do was win it because I knew what it felt like to lose it … just seeing the confetti rain down on everybody else.”

When Tampa squared off with Kansas City for all the marbles, McLendon wasn’t about to let a second opportunity for a championship get away.

“On that day of the Super Bowl, I knew we were going to win and I knew the game wasn’t going to be close,” McLendon said. “The day on the field I remember telling one of the guys on the Kansas City Chiefs, I said, ‘I hope you’re willing to die for this, because I am.’ And I really meant that, because it’s so hard to get there. I was blessed to have a second chance.”

Horstead, who ranks third all-time in Troy history with 2,926 career rushing yards, which included 1,123 as a fullback on Troy’s 1984 Division II national championship team, didn’t start his career as a Trojan on the offensive side of the football.

“I was fortunate that we had a coaching change my second year here,” Horstead said. “When Coach (Chan) Gailey came in, he brought in the wishbone. I was playing defensive back before that as a walk-on and he moved me to fullback."

Gailey drilled the team on the wishbone day after day and it became a success.

"He drew lines on the field to direct our paths," Horstead said. "You could do it with your eyes closed, and that’s the reason it seemed so seamless, because that’s what we practiced every day.”

A youth in the audience asked the group about how to be recruited.

McLendon answered, “Keep working.”

Horstead took it a bit further.

“I was determined to play, I wanted to play and I continued to do the things I needed to do to play, and I ended up being a four-year starter as a walk-on, so just work hard,” Horstead said.

While the ones on the stage took center attention on Saturday, there were several other Troy legends in audience – such as former head coach Larry Blakeney.

Lee, a ferocious linebacker, and Brown, a record-setting quarterback, each shared some thoughts on their coach.

“I had a father, but that father figure as a coach – someone you can reach out to if you have a problem, any issues – there was no person I would go to other than him because I knew he had my best interest,” Lee said of Blakeney. “He was going to take care of me and look out for me.”

Brown said Blakeney was a coach that kept the team from getting too high or too low.

“I think the thing for me was just his energy … he always had phenomenal energy,” Brown said. “Like in our team meetings every day, he’s just a guy you love listening to him talk.

“Like he’s hilarious without really even trying to be, but he’s steady, too. We could be winning by 30 or losing by 30 he’s so steady. You look at him and you always feel like, ‘We’re fine, just settle back down.’”

All five of the panelists talked about their love for Troy and how the school shaped their lives.

Ted Clem, who kicked the game-winning field goal in the 1984 national championship game, summed it up well.

“For me, Troy established the whole foundation for my life,” Clem said. “I met my wife here. All three of my kids attended and graduated from Troy. I have two son-in-laws who both graduated from Troy.

“Being able to play for coaches who provided such a Christian influence on us as players and really, that spiritual foundation of my life was established here in Troy.”

He carries a part of Troy in his every day work life.

“I work for the Alabama Department of Commerce,” Clem said. “We dedicate ourselves for helping improve the state of Alabama … its economy … and providing better livelihoods for the citizens of our state. Looking back, just about every important life lesson I gained, I learned from my time here at Troy.”

Troy prepared the five well to go out into the world and succeed. Horstead, Brown, McLendon, Lee and Clem made Troy better, too.


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