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McClary, Tech captain in 1990, renews focus on family business

The roots of the family business started in a wooded, rural area off Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road called Buggtown, a former slave community that was home to nine or 10 families.

A dirt road led to the home of Johnnie Mae and Lonnie Harrington, whose simple street address was Route 1, Box 5. Their large family included nine children, the most well-known being Jeremiah McClary, a future captain of Georgia Tech's 1990 national championship football team.

The family didn't farm for a living, but the now 39-year-old McClary remembers having cows, chickens and pigs. He recalls slopping the pigs and slaughtering them, and most of all he remembers his mother's country cooking.

"It was all good," the Central Gwinnett High grad said. "I'd have to say her specialty was fried chicken and macaroni. And her cornbread dressing was really good."

Cooking for a family of 11 was no easy chore, but it laid the foundation for J & L Catering, a Lawrenceville-based business that has specialized in feeding the masses at weddings, dinners and family reunions for the past 18 years.

"I had eight brothers and sisters, so my mom was used to cooking for a lot of people," McClary said. "She went to what was back then Gwinnett Tech, learned the art of cake decorating and went from there."

Unfortunately, tragedy struck the business and the large family last year. On Aug. 6 the matriarch, Johnnie Mae Harrington, suffered a massive stroke and died.

The ensuing months were rough, and it forced McClary to evaluate his next step. In the end, he knew what he had to do. He gave his up his job as a global training and communications manager for Coca-Cola's IT Division to organize and improve the family business. His plan is to develop the company's first Web site and boost its corporate accounts.

"It was something I felt compelled to do," McClary said.

It's no surprise to those who know him well that McClary took a lead role in the business. He's been leading all his life, from the football field to his career.

'He played as big

as his personality'

McClary almost didn't play at Central, but the possibility opened up after his family's Suwanee home burned down when he was in eighth grade, forcing a move to Lawrenceville. He rode with two older brothers to North Gwinnett High School his freshman year, then decided to transfer to Central for his sophomore season.

His transfer was a hot topic back in 1983, when he said false allegations were made that Central had paid him to transfer. The Georgia High School Association eventually ruled that he was a migrant student, so he sat out his sophomore season.

He returned in 1984 to help Central go 10-2 and was a key player the following season when the Black Knights were 7-3-1. Both seasons ended with losses to longtime Gwinnett nemesis Clarke Central.

The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, a running back, linebacker and defensive end at Central, signed with Georgia Tech over Tennessee and Wake Forest and grew into another position. He gained 55 pounds his first year in college and eventually played defensive line for Tech at 295 pounds, earning second-team All-ACC honors as a senior.

He also was a noted leader as team captain of the '90 national champions.

"It didn't surprise me one bit that (McClary) was a captain at Tech," longtime Central head football coach Tally Johnson said. "People just gravitated to him because of his personality. He played as big as his personality. I've never seen him have a bad day. Everything about Jeremiah just radiated; it made you enjoy life."

And nothing is more joyous than a national title.

"It was truly an experience of a lifetime," McClary said of the '90 season. "It's one of those things like you're a Hall of Famer. Once you make it, you're always a Hall of Famer. Before they say your name when you go back to Georgia Tech, it's always captain of the 1990 national championship team."

After finishing his Tech career, McClary took a brief shot at NFL football. He signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but his left knee caused him to fail a physical and he was sent home. He passed on another opportunity with the Cleveland Browns, electing to finish his college education.

Family matters

McClary worked for a pair of companies out of college before working in training and development for Ford Motor Co. When his plant closed, he took the Coca-Cola job, which provided opportunities for international travel.

Despite his career, he found time to work on a book that he expects to finish later this year titled "Lessons from the Gridiron," based on his experiences in the sport. He also is pursuing a master's degree in organizational development.

He serves as an associate pastor of the New Vision Praise and Worship Center, located on Pike Street and founded by his sister Vanessa Hardin and her husband.

"I just like being able to go back to the community from which I came and share the gospel," said McClary, who is getting married later this year. "There are a lot of young athletes in the area, and I try to share with them how I did it."

Like it was in Buggtown, family is still the center of McClary's life.

All of his siblings still live in the Gwinnett area, and all of them, along with their spouses and children, pitch in with the family catering business. That's plenty of available help considering McClary has 36 nieces and nephews. The annual family gathering on Christmas Eve typically brings a crowd of close to 120.

One key member of that group is missing, but Johnnie Mae Harrington's memory still lives on with the family. So do her recipes, which are still a major part of the catering menu.

"It's been rough to get through (losing our mother)," McClary said. "But we've been a close-knit group from early on. We get together once a month to spend time together, and we see each other a lot working the catering business. It's definitely a family business."

SideBar: The McClary file

Name: Jeremiah McClary

Age: 39

Education: Graduated from Central Gwinnett High School in 1986; earned degree in business management from Georgia Tech in 1991; pursuing master's degree in organizational development at Troy State

Background: Captain of Georgia Tech's 1990 national championship football team; second-team All-ACC selection as a senior; two-year starter on the Yellow Jackets' defensive line; family has run Lawrenceville-based J & L Catering for 18 years; recently stepped down as a global training and communications manager for Coca-Cola's IT Division to help with family business; has eight siblings and 36 nieces and nephews; associate pastor at New Vision Praise and Worship Center in Lawrenceville; nearly finished writing a book titled "Lessons from the Gridiron"; engaged to Nicole Howell