By Charlie Reed
A leader on and off the football field, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student McClendon Curtis is destined for greatness, even if he doesn’t play for the NFL.
But his chances are looking, well, better than average this spring. (Curtis is considered one of the most versatile prospects in the upcoming draft.)
The 23-year-old Chattanooga native and Mocs football standout will graduate with a master’s degree in School Leadership in May, finishing his last semester online while living and training at a Florida camp for league hopefuls.
A 2017 Chattanooga Central High School graduate, Curtis played in Finley Stadium last fall, having gained an extra year of NCAA eligibility because of the pandemic.
“He’s an outstanding young man and someone we’re all proud of,” UTC Chancellor Steven Angle told a crowd of students at Central High last fall.
A graduate student-football player is a rarity, and Curtis could have gone straight into pro-football mode after earning a bachelor’s degree in sports management in May 2021.
Instead, he chose to go straight into the School Leadership program in the UTC School of Education.
“I’m all about using my time wisely, and with this master’s program I’m getting the best of both worlds: sports and education,” he said.
He gravitated to education naturally, he said, gaining experience working as an advisor and tutor in the UTC Student-Athlete Enhancement Center and volunteering with Hamilton County students and first-year UTC students. He also was selected to the NCAA’s Football Oversight Committee in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years.
“I firmly believe that McClendon will pay it forward and change lives no matter where he goes and what he does. I wish him nothing but the best as he pursues his NFL career, but I also know that he will make a great academic advisor someday. Preferably here at UTC,” said Emily Blackman, UTC assistant vice chancellor for athletic academic enhancement.
“So many people helped me get to where I am; that’s why I’m so invested in education and being a part of the community and working with youth,” said Curtis, who had a rough start in life.
“When me and my mom came to Chattanooga when I was 2, we were homeless, and now my life has changed and completely turned around because people cared about me when they didn’t have to,” he said.
That sentiment is what drew him to the UTC School Leadership program. He pursued the non-licensure track and got experience with a pilot course in athletic advising, something that’s almost second nature after a decade as a high-performing student-athlete.
“That’s why I want to go into advising and coaching, especially because I can relate to students who are struggling, wondering where their next meal is going to come from or where they’re going to live next week,” he said.
But overcoming odds and making time for people are his strongest suits.
“Building relationships is one thing I pride myself on,” he said.
“I have great relationships with everyone at UTC, whether I met them a million times or just once or twice, and it’s those relationships that can get you places you never thought you could be,” Curtis said.
His best advice for students considering graduate school?
“Push yourself now because you don’t want to struggle later.”