There was a time Jameel McClain couldn't do this. He'd search for the right words, and they'd never come out. He'd worry about how his thoughts would be perceived and that it would sound like he was making a cry for help.
And where he was from, there was nothing unique or dire about his story, or at least that's what he believed at the time. To him, it was normal to have only one active parent. McClain knew plenty of kids in inner-city Philadelphia who didn't have any. It was normal to worry about when your next meal was coming or where you'd lay your head at night. It was normal to stay awake wondering whether there was any chance of experiencing better days.
"I've seen obstacles in their purest form. I know what it's like to be face down and feel like there is no chance," McClain says, occasionally pausing as he glances around the room. "Life is about mistakes, life is about struggle. It's also about progress."
McClain taps his fist against his chest as teammates Ed Reed, Haruki Nakamura and Brandon McKinney nod behind him. There are about 300 people at the Salvation Army Warehouse on Buena Vista Avenue in Baltimore, and almost all of them are staring straight ahead and listening intently.
It's a far different audience from what McClain has confronted recently while relaying the plays to the Ravens' defensive huddle, but the inside linebacker's tone remains the same. He speaks with authority and confidence. He has something important to say, and everybody had better listen.
"I was young when I didn't want to talk about it. I was a kid, and I didn't know how selfish I was being," McClain says after a Ravens practice last week. "But my story is like everybody else's. That's what I want everybody to know. I'm just like everybody else. We all go through the same stuff. The difference is that I've learned and I've continued to grind. And I've had some luck on my side, too. There's nothing I would change. It made me who I am — good, bad and indifferent."
McClain's story has been told several times by different media outlets, and for good reason. The Cliffs Notes version is that he shuffled from home to home growing up in North Philadelphia, even settling for one year at a nearby Salvation Army rescue center with his mother and three siblings. He was taken in by his aunt and uncle, and his focus on athletics and academics while at George Washington High earned him a scholarship to Syracuse. After a solid four-year career there and a transition from playing down lineman to linebacker, he went undrafted before landing with the Ravens as a rookie free agent.
A contributor the past two seasons, McClain has blossomed this year, making 67 tackles, which is second on the team, and offsetting the extended absence of inside linebacker Ray Lewis with a toe injury. Lewis is expected to return Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
"The life expectancy in my neighborhood is like 24 or 25, so for me to run around the field and hit someone and throw my body around, that's easy," McClain says. "All of this is easy. When I went to college, I came there with the perception that this is a vacation compared to the world that I'm from. I just always took it to the fullest and knew that there was some way I could end up back where I was. That's how I approach it. It can be taken from you. It can be taken from all of us."
It's three hours before the game, and the words of Kirk Franklin's 2005 gospel song "Let It Go" pierce through McClain's headphones. The song, which he has listened to on his way to every game since his college days, is about a man's perseverance through early struggles. It might as well be McClain's anthem.
See I'm. See I'm.
Soul survivor. Soul survivor.
I just wanna let it go.
McClain, one of the Ravens' team DJs, bobs his heads, the words so familiar, so fitting.
"When you've been at the bottom, when you are literally at the point where you are sleeping in basements, football really is kind of the easy part," says Andrew Jackson, McClain's older brother and part-time trainer. "When you study, do what you're supposed to do, there's no excuses, just results. He has no choice but to shine. He's always evolving. Jameel doesn't make steps, he makes leaps."
Jackson is part of McClain's close-knit support system that helped guide him out of troubled times and set him on the right path, one that would lead him to a defense that is defined by toughness and aggressiveness, two characteristics teammates say McClain embodies.
Before every game, Nakamura approaches his teammate and close friend and reminds him of one thing: "I tell him that he's come so far,'" Nakamura says. "The hard part is already past him. He's already been through so much in his life. It's almost like he had nothing. He did have nothing. When you are just looking for a place to lay your head and you don't have that, you're going through a lot. This guy has made tremendous strides. He goes from an undrafted free agent to a starting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, one of the best defenses in the NFL. It's just a tremendous story."
McClain is humbled by the attention that his background has gotten, and he gets goose bumps at the mere suggestion that he is a role model for inner-city kids. At an event last month at the Salvation Army Warehouse where McClain provided a Thanksgiving meal for 53 families, several of the kids in attendance had McClain's number painted on their faces.
He signed autographs and delivered food, then took great pride in relaying part of his story and the obstacles he has overcome. The trials and tribulations he once kept bottled inside come out freely now.
"He shares his story with anybody who will listen," says McClain's aunt, Gloria Smith. She and her husband, Greg, took in McClain and his two brothers after they learned that his family had been staying at a Salvation Army in Philadelphia with their mother, Barbara Flood. "He's always said, If my story will help with someone else and they see that I made it, they'll know that they can make it, too.' For him to get to where he is now, it's a testament to him and hard work. He's never given up regardless of what the situation was. Jameel is like my little underdog. He has that internal motivation that never stops."
Yet, McClain still scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps he had more obstacles to overcome. He is inspired by the backgrounds of his teammates, like linebacker and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo, who played outside the United States for three seasons before finally getting a shot in the NFL. He has great respect for Nakamura, who has carved out a nice role in the NFL despite being relatively undersized and having some injury issues.
His own story? He'd just rather everyone focus on the positives and not the obstacles, or on people like Greg and Gloria Smith and Al Wallace.
A father figure
Greg and Gloria Smith took McClain into their home when he was a 14-year-old brimming with athletic potential — he also played basketball and boxed, getting his first pair of trunks from legendary Philadelphia pugilist Joe Frazier — and youthful exuberance but short on opportunity. Two of McClain's siblings already lived with the family as it had become tougher and tougher for their mother to look after and provide for the kids while trying to stay afloat herself.
The Smiths had one rule: "We told him the only thing that he needed to do was behave, study and do your best and you'll get everything you want," Greg Smith says. "And he said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yes really.'"
That certainly meant a lot to a boy who barely had any clothes or shoes and almost always had an empty stomach. Yet neither McClain nor his siblings complained.
"They were so strange and odd about it. They didn't look at it as a negative that should beat you down," Greg Smith says. "They were like, 'This is what it is, I have to take it as that.' And they just blossomed. They had already been through the battles, in Salvation Army, not knowing where they were going to lay their head, jumping from one house to another. They went through the trials and tribulations at a very young age, but he always kept it together. He's my nephew, but he's kind of like a son to me. We always had that special bond. When he started playing football, you saw that extra glow in him."
Smith and McClain still talk or text every night. Their conversation inevitably touches on football, but it always ends with Smith giving McClain one final piece of positive encouragement about life.
"There's nothing like having positive people in your life. You don't know how important it is until you get them," McClain says. "Everything that he's done for me and the things that he hasn't done for me that he doesn't even know, that's the image of what a man should be. That's the way I want to represent myself. I want to raise my child in the same way that he raised his and me and my brother."
A role model
Al Wallace had a solid seven-year career as an NFL defensive tackle, playing seven seasons for the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles and collecting 23 sacks and four interceptions in 96 games. But in the Philadelphia community, he certainly wasn't a Donovan McNabb or a Duce Staley.
When Wallace showed up at George Washington High to talk to students, his presence was met with indifference by several of McClain's friends. However, McClain, then a junior, hung on his every word.
"His message was simple, but it struck me," McClain said. "It was just go to school, do all the right things. I just remember the way everyone else treated him with what he was doing for us. He was giving his time, but nobody appreciated it. Me and my high school coach, we may be the only ones that remember. This game, it's not always superstars. Everybody is trying to help. Everybody is trying to do something. Al Wallace was doing his part. He touched me and helped me get where I'm at."
Wallace, who played at Maryland, grew up impoverished in Delray Beach, Fla. His father was not in the picture, and his mother was involved with drugs. Wallace lived with his grandmother and six others in a small house, but he used football as a way out. After failing out of Maryland in his first semester, he was eventually reinstated and made the dean's list five straight semesters. He didn't get drafted nor did he even garner a Senior Bowl invitation, and he still made the NFL.
Contacted last week and informed that McClain considers him a mentor, Wallace marveled at the parallels between him and the Ravens linebacker whom he made such an impression on so many years ago.
"If you can reach one kid, that's the greatest thing in the world to hear," says Wallace, who was a high school football coach in North Carolina last year but has since retired. "To hear that and to know that our lives are almost parallel, that's what hit home to me. I met a lot of great kids, and I decided to go there because a lot of the guys were in similar situations [to] my own. My whole goal was to inspire them, show them that you can come out of some really bad situations and chase your dream. Your circumstances don't have to put a damper on your dreams."
McClain's story is proof of that, and he is now plenty comfortable telling it.
"I was blessed with the gift of being able to articulate my visions and my words so people can get it right away," McClain says. "For me, it's now easy to share because I know somebody is learning from my experience. I don't want to speak about my situation like it's any different and build myself up. The harsh circumstances aren't the only thing that make a person."