Sam Washington, the A&T coach, paid close attention to McCain the first time he joined the team’s walk. McCain stared up, mouth open in awe. In those moments, McCain would think about the words of one member of the Greensboro Four. He did not read them in a history book or hear them in a documentary. They were words Franklin McCain had told him when he was young.
“It just reminds me: Your grandfather, he had heart,” McCain said. “He was brave, and he wasn’t scared of anything. You have to use that on the field.”
Since birth, Franklin McCain III has gone by Mac. He grew up and played football in the shadow of where his grandfather became one of the pivotal figures of America’s civil rights movement. McCain faced “the advantages and the burdens” of his family’s legacy, his father, Frank McCain, said. Now McCain wants to take them to the NFL.
McCain declared for the NFL draft over the winter, bypassing a year of eligibility after the coronavirus pandemic scuttled his final college season. An all-conference cornerback and three-year starter who came late to the sport, McCain is the kind of prospect most affected by the circumstances of the past year. He played outside college football’s highest level, which meant he had no chance to prove himself in the fall, which cost him the crucial chance to display his talent for NFL evaluators at pre-draft all-star games.
If given a shot, McCain believes he will show he can be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. At his pro day at the end of March, held at North Carolina State, McCain ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds — slightly faster than the average NFL cornerback — and punched up times in quickness drills that stack up with early-round cornerbacks from last year. McCain probably will be picked on the final day of the draft, which is being held next week, or sign as a priority undrafted free agent. Washington, his coach, said he is certain McCain will make the team wherever he lands.
McCain holds a familial imperative to think beyond himself as he pursues personal excellence. He earned two degrees at A&T and wants to inspire young athletes to consider attending historically Black colleges while tackling issues beyond the field, foremost hunger in underserved places.
The urge to help is a family trait. When he was in the fourth grade, McCain arrived home from school and told his parents he would not go on a planned school field trip to Washington. He had heard a few kids in his class could not go, so he thought it would be unfair if anyone did. The McCains poked around and discovered six children couldn’t afford the trip. They held discreet fundraisers and collected enough money to pay for every student.
Years later, after Frank McCain spoke at a local function, a man approached him. The man told Frank he had been one of the kids who went on the field trip because of the fundraiser. He had never traveled outside Greensboro. The trip had changed his life.
“The world is bigger than you,” Frank McCain would tell his children. “If you look at it from a single lens where it’s always about I and me, you are really missing out on the greatness of the world.”
Franklin McCain died in 2014. The Woolworth where he sat on, in his words, “that dumb stool” now houses the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. Mac McCain chose to attend college down the street. He would sometimes pass his grandfather’s statue on the way to class.
“With my granddad, he made some big shoes for me,” McCain said. “It wasn’t really too much pressure, but really I just had to make those shoes even bigger in my way.”
‘It was his story to tell’
Frank McCain’s oldest child, his daughter Taylor, came home one day after an elementary school history class with a question. “What’s granddaddy doing in this book?” she asked.
The McCains withheld their grandfather’s role in the sit-in movement from their children when they were young, wanting to avoid burdening them with expectations and allowing them to discover it on their own. When it came time, they encouraged them to go directly to Franklin McCain.
“I let them initiate those conversations with him,” Frank McCain said, “because it was his story to tell.”
McCain knew his grandfather as a jolly man who loved dessert, could make a mean pork loin and watched every Carolina Panthers game. They did not speak often about his civil rights pioneering. McCain held tight to two things his grandfather told him: Don’t wait on the crowd to act, and get your education because no one can take it away.
Every Feb. 1, A&T held a breakfast to commemorate the Greensboro Four. Franklin McCain would stand behind a lectern and speak, the room transfixed on every word, a gaggle of news cameras pointed at him. One year when he was a child, a thought hit McCain: This is bigger than me and my family.
As McCain grew older, he learned how his grandfather had changed the course of American history. In his youth, Franklin McCain bounced between Greensboro and Washington, D.C., following his father wherever he found work as a masonry contractor. In Washington his family lived on Dix Street, just off Benning Road. He kept money in his pocket as a short-order cook at Ben’s Chili Bowl. He graduated from Eastern High.
Toggling between Washington and North Carolina gave him an acute sense of his second-class status. In 1955, just as Franklin McCain was starting high school, the brutal murder of Emmett Till profoundly scarred him. “I don’t know if you’ve ever felt suicidal at 14,” Franklin McCain once told documentary filmmakers. “But I did.”
As a freshman at A&T, Franklin McCain roomed with David Richmond, a friend from Dudley High in Greensboro. They would meet with their new friends Ezell Blair Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan) and Joseph McNeil, staying up all night and delving deep into discussions about being Black in America. The wrongness of how they were treated was obvious to them. Their personal pain was searing.
By early in their second semester, they decided they would be hypocritical if they did not act. Inspired by the civil disobedience of Mahatma Gandhi, they hatched their plan to sit down and order food at Woolworth, a white-only counter.
“If I were lucky, I would go to jail for a long, long time,” Franklin McCain said years later. “If I were not quite so lucky, I would come back to my campus but in a pine box.”
Despite the risk, Franklin McCain felt “too angry to be afraid,” he once said. He believed America’s systems had betrayed him and determined life as an unequal citizen would not be worth living. Before they left campus and walked downtown, Franklin McCain asked his three friends, “Are we chicken?”
The protest quickly garnered intense local and national news coverage. The next day, 23 people protested at Woolworth. The day after, there were 66. By Feb. 6, 1,000 people jammed downtown Greensboro. Within two months, 54 cities in nine states saw sit-in protests.
On July 25, 1960, Woolworth integrated its lunch counter, and Franklin McCain rushed to Greensboro for a meal. The world had shifted. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed that year. In February 1964, as Franklin McCain was finishing his degree in chemistry and biology, the Civil Rights Act passed.
The McCains planned to call their son Trip or Trey, but a close family friend suggested Mac. Franklin McCain III only uses his given name on official documentation. “You call him Franklin, he probably won’t even turn around,” Frank McCain said. His parents wanted to shield McCain from the glare of his name, to prevent others from making an immediate connection.
Once during Frank McCain’s career in wealth management, his father told an interviewer the then-president of the United States had set race relations back 50 years. (Frank McCain withheld details so as not to reveal where he worked at the time.) The next morning, his boss opened a newspaper to the page with his father’s quote and hissed, “You tell your dad he don’t know what the hell he’s talking about it.”
Frank McCain gently let his father know his words could have an adverse impact on him, implying that Franklin McCain could make things easier on his son if he toned down his comments.
“He said, ‘That’s a problem you’re going to have to manage, but I’m not going to be silenced,’ ” Frank McCain said. “I have had to figure out how to deal with it as Mac and my daughter have.”
‘He rose above and beyond’
McCain dabbled in football as a boy, but when he reached adolescence he abandoned the sport. He was a jitterbug point guard who played on the same AAU team as current Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo, and he thought he would play basketball. Then he stopped growing at 6 feet.
Dudley High had a powerhouse football program, attracting recruiters from the ACC and SEC. Friends implored him to come out for the team.
“I knew the first time I touched the field at Dudley High School I was an NFL player,” McCain said. “I knew then. As soon as I stepped on the field, I felt like, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ ”
McCain assumed he would be one of the players offered a big-time scholarship. He would attend summer camps with teammates and local opponents. He ran as fast as them and blanketed receivers in drills. But the offers never came, McCain believes, because he lacked experience and game tape.
“Had he had that, there would have been no way we would have had a shot at him,” Washington said. Instead, A&T was the only school to offer McCain a full athletic scholarship.
“A&T is in our blood,” Frank McCain said. “Mac is a third-generation Aggie. I wanted him to go there. I never told him he must. It was divine intervention.”
McCain cherished the tightknit environment at A&T, a program Washington has built into a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference power. McCain intercepted six passes as a freshman, returning three for touchdowns, and was named defensive MVP of the Celebration Bowl. As a sophomore, he returned a pick 109 yards for a touchdown against East Carolina, the crucial play in an upset of a Football Bowl Subdivision school. ECU had scheduled A&T as a “guarantee game,” paying the school to come play it for an expected victory. In the raucous winning locker room, Washington shouted, “Tell them to bring me my money!” — video of which launched a thousand memes.
McCain played through a knee injury as a sophomore and junior, and he planned to use his senior season as a platform to show he could be the next HBCU star to make the NFL, following players such as Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen. When the pandemic hit, Football Championship Subdivision schools canceled or postponed their seasons. Out of loyalty to A&T, he never considered transferring.
But he worried about what staying in school might mean — if the 2020 season had been lost, how could he be sure the 2021 season would be held? He had already graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s in agriculture business. After he spoke with Washington and former Aggies in the NFL, McCain decided to enter the draft.
“I’ve been overlooked my whole life or put on the back burner,” McCain said. “But every time I got an opportunity, I capitalized on it. I know when that one NFL team gives me a chance, I’m going to get everything I came for out of it.”
McCain left his mark on A&T beyond the field. He became a trusted mentor of younger teammates, and in his studies he developed an interest in the problem of food deserts. When he read about people who lacked access to fresh food, he remembered the taste of vegetables from his grandmother’s garden. After football, McCain wants to work on the issue for the Department of Agriculture.
“There’s a lot of places around the country, especially in the Black areas of cities, it’s harder to get fresh food or get to a grocery store for people that are handicapped, older people,” McCain said. “They can’t walk down the street to get food. They might have to go miles away. They might have a corner store or a gas station by their house, but they won’t have fresh food at a Publix or Food Lion. I want to make their life easier. I just want to put myself in position where I can help people.”
During the summer, McCain interned under Archie Hart, a former Aggies quarterback who is now the special assistant to the commissioner of agriculture in North Carolina. McCain observed lawmakers at work, expanded his network and met legislators. He spoke at a conference of more than 300 Black farmers, many of whom he had reached out to with invitations.
“A lot of times people can’t rise to the challenge of the names of their families,” Hart said. “But I think he rose above and beyond the challenge of his name.”
‘Life is repeating itself’
Over the past year, McCain watched as America again grappled with its treatment of Black citizens. George Floyd’s death in police custody — and the ensuing protests and backlash — cast his grandfather’s work in new light.
“It really shows that life is repeating itself,” McCain said. “It’s still a lot of things that needs to be done, that needs to be worked on. We still need to take steps forward. It’s a lot of things that’s still going on that were going on when my grandfather was here in 1960.”
Franklin McCain frequently spoke of the sit-in as a personal choice. He changed the world out of a desire to change his own life, by demanding freedom and dignity to make his own choices. He worked for social justice his entire life, devoting countless hours to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund board, but he also excelled as a chemist and executive. He made clear that helping others did not necessitate sacrificing your own dreams and desires. He defined freedom as the ability to be oneself within society.
“Manhood and dignity,” Franklin McCain once said. “That’s what we were trying to get. We didn’t go down to Woolworth to try and save the world.”
Frank McCain sees pieces of his father in his son. They share the same drive and intentionality. McCain does not care what others think of him, another trait from his grandfather. When others would party, McCain would turn down invitations so he could wake up at 4:30 a.m. to train the next day.
The hard work may be about to pay off, but being a McCain means achieving success in more than one way. Shortly before he died, Franklin McCain gave his final interview to Taylor McCain, Mac’s sister, then a journalism student at North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
“There are all kinds of responsibilities that you’ve got, that we have in this family,” Franklin McCain told his granddaughter. “It is not enough for us to have personal success or just success within the family. … What I expect you to do is to take a larger view and believe and act as though you know that you’ve got responsibilities outside of this family. You’ve got responsibilities in your community, in your state, in this nation. There are things that you are uniquely suited for. And no one else can do those things as well as you.”