How is it Clark Lea's old Vanderbilt football helmet took center stage at SEC Media Days? | Estes

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

HOOVER, Ala. – Clark Lea was once given a jersey number at Vanderbilt.

Seems fair to point that out, especially since he has proof – and is willing to show it. 

Which is how Lea and two of his players ended up fielding questions Wednesday at SEC Media Days alongside an old Vanderbilt football helmet – Lea’s helmet. It still had the No. 29 on the back.

"Looks about right,” said offensive lineman Bradley Ashmore, peering down from the podium. “Got some scratches on the top here. I know he was lowering his head once in a while.”

"Also, his head is huge,” added defensive lineman Daevion Davis. “This helmet is ginormous.”

Vanderbilt Head Coach Clark Lea's football helmet from when he was a player is displayed during the Vanderbilt interviews in the Hyatt Regency at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Quick background: At SEC Media Days, the league rotates 14 helmets on stage, swapping out one for another during each school’s turn in the spotlight. That practice is not new. But as commissioner Greg Sankey pointed out while introducing Lea, “I’m pretty certain it is a first to have a head coach’s playing-days helmet with us.”

A former Vanderbilt walk-on and fullback from 2002-04, Lea has kept the same helmet for decades. On bookcases, mostly at home. It's in his Vanderbilt office now.

Lea called the helmet “a physical representation of what I invested here … but also the things that I came back to change about what it means to play football at Vanderbilt.”

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So it's symbolic. It often is with Lea, I’m learning.

Here’s a coach whose first months at Vanderbilt have been a diet rich in symbolism. Things like Commodores players having to earn the right to wear logos and jersey numbers. In recent days, five players – Davis (No. 9), Ashmore (70), linebacker Elijah McAllister (1) and quarterbacks Ken Seals (8) and Mike Wright (5) – were listed on the team’s roster as having earned back jersey numbers.

“I’ve got my number back. It's mine,” Davis said proudly.

Gimmicky as withholding jersey numbers seems to me (and I’ve said as much to Lea), I don't doubt that the coach sincerely believes in what he’s doing. And that it is only an early portion of an ambitious and sweeping change in the program – mentally, physically, culturally – that'll take a while, lasting well beyond Lea’s first season.

On the field and the scoreboard, there’s a good chance Vanderbilt won’t be much better in 2021 than it was in 2019, when serious struggles started under Derek Mason, or in 2020, when the Commodores flatlined and Mason was fired during a winless season.

Bad as Vanderbilt football had become, Davis said he saw Lea’s approach as “just what had to happen.”

“We were told that we were restarting – we were stripping it all – by our head man, Coach Lea,” Davis said. “He wanted a new culture, a new feel for us. He wanted us to not just slap logos on something and make it a T-shirt or a slogan. He wanted us to live it. He wanted us to make what we were saying committable and actionable. ... It's a lot more than just talking or putting it in an Instagram caption. It's who we are now.”

Could be wrong about this as it was nearly two decades ago, but I don’t recall Bobby Johnson withholding Vanderbilt jersey numbers during Lea's playing days.

Vanderbilt Head Coach Clark Lea takes the stage for his first appearance in the Hyatt Regency at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday, July 21, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

Had Johnson done that, however, it’s likely Lea would have been at the front of the line.

“Clark always worked as hard or harder than any player, even though he knew he may not get to play,” said Johnson, the Commodores’ coach from 2002-09.

Back to that helmet in Hoover, though, because I can’t get past it.

Kind of weird, right? Also kind of fitting.

If we're still looking at this symbolically, Lea’s helmet was a perfect example of the duality he continues to bring to this role. He is personifying Vanderbilt's football past while also attempting to distance the program from that past.

Perhaps Lea's greatest strength in relating to new players is that he was once in their shoes. He is Nashville guy and a former Vanderbilt student. This is his city. His university. His program. Where he always wanted to return as head coach.

Yet on Wednesday, Lea stood next to that helmet and – in a way – denied its existence. He has said repeatedly: Vanderbilt's program – his program – is starting over from scratch. This is “Team 1,” as Lea said, “this first iteration of Vanderbilt football.” The point being, these Commodores are claiming to no longer have interest in claiming a past that featured a lot more losses than wins.

And also featured a certain fullback who held on to his helmet as a keepsake.

That dinged-up gold helmet is headed back to Nashville  after a high-profile, acceptable debut in Hoover, unsure what's next for the overhauled team it represents.

Same holds true for Lea himself, actually.

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.