HALL OF FAME SPOTLIGHT: McLendon brought national attention to Albemarle

Between 1999 and 2001, any discussion of high school football in North Carolina would almost inevitably include the prodigious statistics that were being amassed by a running back at a small high school in the central part of the state.

T.A. McLendon

Among these astonishing numbers were:

• Points scored in a career: 1,070;

• Points scored in a single season: 428;

• Touchdowns in a career: 178 (at that time, a national record);

• Touchdowns in a season: 71;

• Rushing touchdowns in a career: 170; and

• Rushing touchdowns in a season: 68.

And these are only the categories in which this running back, Tristan Akeem “T.A.” McLendon, still holds NCHSAA records … a full 22 years after last carrying the football as a Bulldog.

So how did all this begin?

“I was ‘all boy’ growing up,” McLendon said, noting that his family was a major influence in his journey into sports.

“I just took a liking to sports of all kinds,” he said, adding that he enjoyed swimming, playing basketball, football and baseball (“and anything else they were playing,” he added) with other youngsters in the community.

But the game of football drew his primary interest.

“I liked it better than the other sports, and I was better at it, too,” said McLendon, whose first experience with organized football was in the seventh grade at Albemarle Middle School.

“Watching all the great running backs on TV back then got my interest up, and I just sort of gravitated toward football,” he said, while giving much credit to Mike Turner, his coach at Albemarle Middle.

“He gave me a pretty good ‘jump start’ to the game,” McLendon said.

Major lessons awaited McLendon at the high school level, where coach Jack Gaster provided both inspiration and a constant challenge to improve.

“Coach Gaster taught us to love the game…to never let up and never take the other team lightly,” he said.

McLendon’s incredible statistics caught the eye of major college coaches around the country, but when it was time for a decision, the Albemarle native didn’t stray far, choosing to play at NC State for coach Chuck Amato.

McLendon’s freshman year turned out to be his best season at NCSU, as he rushed for 1,101 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning the 2002 ACC Rookie of the Year award. He was a major contributor for the Wolfpack for the next two seasons, but was hampered by injuries, many of which he attributes to the grind of that freshman season.

“My freshman year took such a toll on me,” he says. “I had so many injuries that I never had a chance to bounce back. I didn’t have one year where I was completely healthy. My body never had a chance to recover.”

McLendon entered the NFL draft following his junior season, but was not selected and was unable to sign a free-agent contract after several tryouts. But despite that disappointment, McLendon says he’s comfortable with his career and his legacy.

“Not getting drafted and not playing professional football doesn’t define me,” he says. “It was a big part of my life, and I’m glad I got to play at the level I did. Football is not the end-all, be-all. It gave me tools for life. You get knocked down, and you have to get back up and be ready for the next fight. Whether you are hurt or not, you have to get back up.”

Looking at the changes that have taken place since his playing days, McLendon offered several thoughts.

“A lot of today’s athletes are coddled,” he said, “and a lot of opportunities are just given to them. Those opportunities mean more when they have to work and earn them.”

The former Bulldog also expressed some thoughts on the state of the sport in his hometown.

“When I was growing up, and when I was playing, we couldn’t wait for Friday nights,” he said. “Now, there’s just not as much ‘want to’ here; not as much enthusiasm about the games as there once was…the love of the game is just not the same.”

But he also expressed hope for the future.

“Hopefully things are coming back around,” he said. “We need to get the buzz back.”

McLendon is one of five persons who will be inducted into the Stanly County Sports Hall of Fame on July 17 at Pfeiffer University. Tickets to the induction ceremony are available for $35 in advance ($50 the day of the event). Advance tickets may be purchased at Albemarle City Hall, Albemarle Parks and Recreation (Jesse F. Niven Center / E. E. Waddell Center), Starnes-Bramlett Jewelers, Uwharrie Dash, Locust City Hall and Oakboro Town Hall.