‘Dangerous’ double-threat


POSTED: Thursday, July 09, 2009

George Lumpkin is good at keeping his mouth shut.

He could and he would this time, for sure. No way was he going to let Dick Tomey and the offensive assistant coaches know what he'd seen.

Lumpkin, a former Hawaii cornerback, coached his position at his alma mater in 1978. And he wanted this kid from Venice High School in SoCal all to himself.

Dana McLemore would be a cornerback.

“;I made sure no one else saw the film of him running with the ball,”; says Lumpkin, who heads into his 37th season on the UH staff this fall. “;His coach said he was the best player he'd ever had, in 15 or 20 years of coaching—on offense and defense. Nobody (from UH) knew he was as good on offense as defense except for me. I kept that one a secret.”;

It eventually got out, but Lumpkin did not lose his best player. Instead, McLemore became one of the Rainbows' best all-time players at two positions: cornerback and punt returner.

“;DANGEROUS”; DANA McLemore wasn't very imposing. He was smaller than average for a college football player at 5-feet-11 and 185 pounds. He wasn't blazing fast. But he was smooth and quick, smart and tough—and a hard worker.

It didn't take long for him to begin dominating games in two ways—by shutting down the opponent's best receiver, and changing the momentum and the scoreboard via the roller-coaster ride called the punt return.

Double-duty was standard fare for him. “;I'd always done that since Pop Warner, when I was 9 years old.”;

A dependable punt returner was crucial to the defense-based teams of the Tomey era. McLemore hung onto the job for three years because he hung onto everything that came his way.

“;We were looking at two or three other guys,”; says Bob Wagner, who coached the secondary and the punt return team in those days. “;We charted them, and even though Dana had an awkward catching motion, he caught everything.”;

And, then, he was electric with the ball. But Lumpkin already knew that. That first year when the job was his, he returned kicks for TDs against New Mexico and Santa Clara. The momentum-turner against the Lobos was a key to the 6-5 Rainbows finishing with a winning record.

MCLEMORE CONTINUED to improve with the entire Rainbows team in 1980 and 1981, as UH went a combined 17-5. He was to the defense what Gary Allen was to the offense, the small but dynamic star. There were plenty of great linemen, too, starting with Jesse Sapolu on offense and Niko Noga on defense. Hawaii was loaded, putting together an 11-game winning streak including the first seven of 1981, McLemore's senior year. That got Hawaii noticed.

Then a 13-3 loss to Brigham Young. Bye-bye ranking. Bye-bye Sports Illustrated story. Bye-bye Holiday Bowl. But McLemore doesn't consider it a wasted effort.

“;Oh, I definitely think we made a difference. From my freshman class, four guys got drafted. We set the standard, we were ranked for the first time in something like 34 years.”;

THE PHONE RANG at 2 a.m.

“;Mr. McLemore, this is the New York Jets.”;

He'd dealt out his share of practical jokes over the years, so he could take one. Dana McLemore went back to sleep.

The real call came a few hours later. At first, it made him wish the first one had been real. It was from the San Francisco 49ers.

In the early '80s, the Niners were flush with defensive backs like Waikiki is with bikinis: overflowing with eye-catching young talent. Ronnie Lott, Carlton Williamson, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks. They were coming off a Super Bowl XVI win.

“;How am I going to make this team as a 10th round pick?”; McLemore thought. Then he remembered, “;I'm a return guy, too.”;

McLemore thrived his first three years—a punt return touchdown each season, and he ran back kickoffs, too. He also worked his way into that crowded secondary at times, intercepting five career passes, taking one back all the way. He played six seasons, nearly all with the 49ers.

Now he lives in San Mateo, Calif., with his wife, Karyn, and children, Mailey, 9, and Daylin, 7 (”;You'll hear from him in 10 years,”; says Dad). Eldest son DeFrance, 22, is a pilot for Continental.

“;I sell electrical supplies; we're hanging in there. Consolidated Electrical Distributors,”; McLemore, 49, says.

HE SEES old teammates now and then, usually goes when the Warriors play at San Jose State. The guy he credits the most for his success is the first Rainbow he met.

“;I got recruited by the Oregon schools, UNLV, and I felt most comfortable with George Lumpkin. I grew up without a dad, and he was like a father figure to me,”; McLemore says. “;He really cares about young athletes. He made sure we had summer jobs, was always there to help us. But he was always there to make sure we did the right things, too. He made sure we went to class and study hall. He made my college days a lot better.”;

And not to say he might not have made it as a receiver, but George Lumpkin's ability to keep a secret guaranteed Dana McLemore a shot at the NFL—of which he took full advantage.


Dave Reardon is the Star-Bulletin's sports columnist. Tomorrow we unveil No. 21.