Tim McClendon was afraid to come to school on Monday.
The young football player at the center of the firestorm engulfing Signal Mountain could not face his coaches, his teammates, his teachers or his classmates. He felt he had let them down. Big time.
McClendon believed he had somehow disgraced the very people who had embraced him as a student and an athlete and were fostering his hopes for a better education at Signal Mountain Middle/High School.
"You start something good and you think you've done everything right," said the 6-foot running back in an interview last week. "I'm trying to look past it and with God's help I'm going to get through this."
On Oct. 6, the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, the state's high school sports governing body, declared McClendon ineligible to play, wiping out the team's six wins this season in the process.
McClendon doesn't understand why, and neither does most anyone you ask.
"It's crazy," he said. "We did the paperwork for the hardship program."
McClendon was indeed granted something called a "hardship waiver" by the Hamilton County Department of Education that allowed him to enroll at the Signal Mountain school. But in requesting to transfer from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe in North Georgia, someone checked a box indicating he would be living in Signal Mountain's designated school zone. McClendon, meanwhile, has been living with his mother in Brainerd. Signal Mountain has filed an appeal of the ruling, arguing that McClendon's hardship designation should nonetheless allow him to participate in sports at the school.
"It makes me sad that I can't play with them," McClendon said of his teammates. "But I can still support them from the sidelines."
And as players streamed from the locker room to the field for practice one day last week, to a man, they stood up for McClendon.
Dylan Buck said, "Tim's a great guy. Super nice and a real leader on our team." Buck added that the community is being punished for developing its high-level football program in under three years.
"They're trying to find something wrong with our school because we're new and we won the state championship."
Trent Knox said it was "funny that they waited so long" to complain about the Signal Mountain team. "The reason we got picked on is we've done so well. No one would have looked at us if we had won one and lost nine."
Andrew Price said Signal's success has led others to assume the team recruited players such as McClendon, who scored a record five touchdowns for the Eagles in their 65-36 win against South Pittsburg on Sept. 23.
But Shane Roberson, a coach and wellness teacher at Signal Mountain who has been a father figure to McClen-
don for the past five years, says nothing could be further from the truth.
McClendon had obvious athletic ability, Roberson said in an interview. But he had not yet proved himself on the football field or any other athletic arena. He broke his leg in the eighth grade, tore a knee ligament in the ninth, sat out in the 10th grade and played less than one game last year in Georgia before re-injuring his knee.
"Tim hasn't come close to reaching his potential," Roberson said. "I told Tim, 'You need them more than they need you.'"
Roberson says it was McClendon, having attended five different schools in four years, who reached out to him at Signal Mountain last spring and asked for help to get to a safe school where he could concentrate on furthering his education.
At one school, he had been chased down the hall at knifepoint. At another, he was beaten up on his first day by five students who stole a chain that his mother had given him.
"The kid needs a break," Roberson said.
McClendon said students sometimes ask what school was like for him before he came to SMMHS. "I tell them, 'Stay with the kids you're with here. It's kind of rough off the mountain.'"
McClendon has overcome much adversity, and to know his story is to marvel at his resilience. Teachers, coaches and fellow students call McClendon rare for his kindness, good manners and desire to belong.
Fellow senior Carla Mendez was disturbed when McClendon failed to show up for school on Monday. She made a giant card for him out of posterboard and asked other students to sign it with their best wishes.
"I think every senior in the school signed it," Mendez said. "We told him we're glad you're here. When we gave it to him the next day, he looked at it and said, 'This is for me?' It was really cute."
English teacher Tara Tharp said McClendon struggles at times in her class. "But he is determined to make it. And with all the family and friends in his life who are encouraging him, he will make it, football or no football."
While the TSSAA considers Signal Mountain's appeal, McClendon dreams of being allowed back into the game he was only just getting the hang of. "My favorite position is running back. I like running the ball, taking it to the house and the stands go crazy. I feel like when I'm on the field, nothing is going to stop me or take me down."
A decision on the case is expected within days.
Regina Hickl-Szabo is a former journalist and the mother of two students at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, one of whom is on the football team. You can write to her at email@example.com.