CLEMSON, S.C. (BVM) – Eric Mac Lain grew up in a military family with his father serving in the Air Force since before he was born. His father had retired but re-enlisted after 9-11 and is still currently serving. Eric was raised in Tennessee as a Vols fan admiring Peyton Manning, and always dreamed of playing for the school. However, it was basketball that Mac Lain was originally most passionate about. He dreamed of playing in the NBA but his body didn’t quite fit the mold of a professional basketball player.
“I stopped growing vertically and continued growing horizontally. I started taking football a lot more seriously,” Mac Lain said. “Instead of going on vacations in the summer I was at football camps. Football was a big part of my childhood and is a big part of who I am.”
He decided that he would aspire to play football at the next level but never imagined it happening at Clemson. “I had never heard of Clemson until I was getting recruited by them,” he said.
Eric had been going to a variety of camps at Tennessee since he could walk. In fact, he received an offer from them as a freshman in high school while at a camp and at the time it was a dream come true. His father had been deployed in Africa and Eric and his mother didn’t quite understand the height of the situation.
“My mom and I called my dad, who knew how serious this was, and he told us to turn around, thank them, and accept the offer. I committed right then and there,” Mac Lain said.
However, throughout his high school career his relationship with the Tennessee football program began to dwindle. Eric had committed to the Vols who at the time were coached by Phillip Fulmer. Fulmer was fired a year later and Lane Kiffin was brought on along with an entire new coaching staff and their communication with Eric was very limited.
“I hadn’t really heard from the staff at all. And I was one of only two recruits who had committed to them thus far,” he said. “It just felt different and I didn’t like it.”
After being committed to Tennessee for two years, Eric decided to take a step back and restart the recruiting process as a junior. He was ranked the nation’s 59th overall prospect by Rivals.com and began to look at other schools such as Duke University, Auburn University and the University of Alabama, more seriously. It was only when Dan Brooks, a previous defensive line coach at Tennessee and Eric’s recruiter who had been hired at Clemson, called Eric on the way home from his Auburn visit and convinced him to stop in Clemson.
“We planned to go to Clemson for only a few hours and ended up staying three days. Coach Swinney’s passion is just so real. The first time I met him it was evident that he was different,” Mac Lain said. “There was something about him I just wanted to be a part of. I wanted to help him build this narrative that is Clemson. It was so contagious.”
Clemson was not always the football powerhouse it is today. The year before Mac Lain arrived their record was 6-7; however, in his last season with the Tigers they finished 14-1. Eric contributed much of this growth to the 2011 recruiting class, one of the best in Clemson history, as well as the changes made by their coaching staff.
“We had some five-star players: Sammy Watkins, Mike Bellamy, Tony Stewart. We had guys coming in and making a huge difference. The Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia University in 2012 taught us how to prepare for great success,” Mac Lain said. “We knew we had to do things differently. I give a ton of credit to the coaching staff for not being prideful, for not saying ‘it’s our way or the highway’. They wanted to figure out how to be the best and put our athletes in the best situation.”
Mac Lain, who was initially recruited as a tight end, saw an opportunity to be utilized in a different position when players got injured during camp. He took it upon himself to make the change from tight end to offensive guard.
“I talked to my roommates and coaches because I saw we were struggling. I wanted to impact the team in the best way I could,” Mac Lain said. “I told them that I thought I could gain more weight and help out our team if I made this transition. It was one of the toughest transitions in my life.”
Eric learned an entire new position that he had never played before at the highest stage against the best of the best.
“It was one of the most adverse things I had ever gone through both physically and mentally. People had a lot of expectations of me. I went from 265 pounds to 295 pounds in one season,” he said. “I ate six to seven meals a day and not because I was hungry. It taught me a ton of lessons about patience and adversity.”
Although a difficult transition, it was definitely the right one. Eric has logged close to 1,500 snaps played in over 53 games, and has 46 career wins at Clemson. Much of this was possible due to him never suffering an injury.
“I was super lucky. I never had any major problems which is pretty unbelievable,” Mac Lain said. “It’s really cool to look back at playing in all those games especially since we didn’t even make it to the playoffs every year and to still have been able to play in over 50 games has been incredible.”
Taking it upon himself to make this tremendous change to his body for the benefit of the team is a testament to his character. His senior year, Mac Lain was voted captain, something he knew he wanted to achieve at a very young age even before he was getting recruited.
“I always wanted to be that guy for the team. Someone they could rely on not only on the field, but in the classroom, community, etc.,” Mac Lain said. “At Clemson, captains are primarily seniors only and when the time came I wanted it to be no question that I could fulfill this role. Guys respected me for the grind and the time I put in.”
Mac Lain attributed some of what he learned in being a great captain to the Clemson P.A.W. Journey Program. An acronym for Passionate About Winning, P.A.W. Journey is a leadership initiative to develop Clemson football scholar athletes through personal growth, life skills, and professional development. His upbringing in a military family also influenced his leadership potential and overall character that his teammates valued.
“My father taught me some great life lessons and I’m very appreciative of my military background. It has helped me immensely with time management, organization and just that extra appreciation for the people that serve our great country,” Mac Lain said. “It helped me put a lot of things in perspective.”
During his time at Clemson, Eric played with some incredible talent including NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson.
“He is so electric with his play and his arm is fantastic,” he said. “He can make these crazy Houdini-like plays. He was a big reason for our success and alleviated a lot of stress and problems for us up front.”
Mac Lain captured two conference championships with the Tigers and made an appearance in the 2015 National Championship, where they fell short to Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, 45-40.
“It’s the highest scoring national championship ever and we just ran out of time. We were unstoppable and the only problem was they were as well,” he said. “That experience definitely taught them how to go back and win it the next year.”
A family affair, Eric also had the opportunity to play with his younger brother Sean. Coach Swinney called Sean and told him he had a walk-on spot at Clemson if he wanted it and the night he graduated high school he drove to Clemson and lived with Eric his first summer on campus.
Mac Lain also discussed what it was like to be coached by one of the greatest football coaches of all time, Dabo Swinney.
“The passion he has for his players as people first and then as student-athletes second is something that has resonated so well with everybody and that’s part of the reason why we’ve seen Clemson have so much success,” he said. “I’m so thankful to have been mentored by one of the best leaders of our time. By the time he’s done he’s going to be the greatest coach ever.”
He continued to elaborate on the impact Coach Swinney will have on college football.
“He’s changed the landscape of college football in the sense that it’s not just an authoritative dictatorship. It can be, ‘I love you, man. Let’s go play football,’ and you’ve seen that spread across the country with different coaches,” Mac Lain said. “One of the best pieces of advice he said to us is to treat every encounter in life like an interview. You never know who you’re going to come across. He told us to have a genuine appreciation for everyone’s job no matter if you’re the janitor or CEO. All of our jobs are important and we all have to do them to the best of our ability.”
Eric was highly admired and respected by everyone in the Clemson athletic community. He was chosen to introduce President Joe Biden when he came to speak at Clemson in support of “It’s On Us,” a national effort to bring awareness sexual assault on college campuses. To this day, Eric still isn’t completely sure why he was chosen for this job but there is something about him that people are drawn to.
Clemson has been a massive part of Mac Lain’s life for many years now. While at a leadership conference for the NCAA Student Athlete Advisory Committee which Mac Lain was President of, he was coined with the nickname “Mr. Clemson” by other attendees from various ACC schools. He arrived at the conference in what he thought was “business casual” as the conference itinerary stated. He was draped in Clemson athletic apparel from head to toe versus other attendees who wore khakis and polos. When he returned to Clemson from the conference, the name stuck. “I took that nickname with a lot of pride. Maybe one day I’ll be Mr. Clemson again, but right now I’m Mr. ACC, ” he said.
Eric now appears on the other side of the camera as a college football analyst and co-host of the Gramlich and Mac Lain podcast on the ACC Network.
“To once have been able to have represented this great conference first by wearing the Clemson paw on my helmet and now with an ACC logo on my lapel, it’s a great honor,” he said.
Mac Lain believes that having been an athlete in the conference gives him an advantage.
“I think that having played and having been the guy that’s already been asked all the questions and has experienced it all from a players perspective is interesting. I know what to ask and how to ask it to get better answers,” Mac Lain said. “It’s a unique advantage and I can relate differently to these athletes than other people can.”
Clemson will forever hold a dear place in Mac Lain’s heart. He proposed to his now-wife of three years in front of his teammates and family at the Clemson annual football banquet after his last season. His most cherished memory as an athlete was appearing in a national championship which he believes was the best game of his career.
“To have played in that game against the mighty Alabama, it’s a goal that everyone has. To know that there was nothing else I could have done to help us win the game is something I can find peace in,” Mac Lain said. “It’s truly hard to put into words what Clemson means to me. To say it means a lot is a drastic understatement.”