NEW ORLEANS — — Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain seems an unlikely victim of bullying – as an adult, that is. But as a child, he was mocked for his threadbare clothing and the place he called home for about a year — a Salvation Army shelter.
"People always think about bullying [as] … the big guy, the big brute, the guy that's just pushing people around," said McClain, who at 6 foot 1 and 245 pounds has done his share of that on the football field. "But mentally, verbally abusing someone is the thing that has the longest effect.
"You're bruised. You hit people. My bruise is going to heal. I can put some ice on that. What do you do if you're verbally abused? How do I get beyond that? That's what I think is the most damaging."
McClain is one of four players featured in "NFL Characters Unite," a new USA Network documentary that probes their experiences with childhood bullying and discrimination, and how they were each paired with children going through similar issues today. McClain is in good company, with NFL stars Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals and Justin Tuck of the New York Giants.
McClain was paired with an 8-year-old boy, Jesse, whose last name is withheld for privacy reasons. His family is going through the kind of housing difficulties that the now-27-year-old Raven faced.
Though they shared problems, it took a couple of hours for the boy to warm up to McClain, who has a kind, gentle-giant quality despite his size and fearsome tackling abilities. At their first meeting, Jesse declared his favorite Raven was not McClain but running back Ray Rice.
McClain, injured with a spinal cord contusion and not playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday, said he and Jesse ultimately connected as they talked.
"He would be like, 'That happened exactly to me,' " McClain said. "So once we struck that common ground, he loosened up."
McClain said he knew where Jesse "was coming from, because when you've been through so much, it shuts you off automatically." And, in fact, McClain said it was a little hard to share his own story on camera because the memories still sting. But he knew it helped Jesse to learn that others have faced and survived homelessness.
"He also stayed in a shelter, and his family moved from house to house," McClain said. "He lost his clothing in the transition."
The linebacker, who signed with the Ravens in 2008, remembers how he tried to hide where he lived with his mother and siblings for about a year, to avoid being further teased by kids who used to make fun of his secondhand clothes.
"It was bad enough, the clothes that I had, but to have the kids see me walk into where I was [staying] was one of the most difficult parts," the Philadelphia native said. "I would take a roundabout route to make sure nobody would see me going in."
Still, McClain tries not to make his experience the focus. "Everyone gets joked on at some point," he said. "When you are a child, other kids can be cruel."
He has become a big supporter of the Salvation Army, giving back to the group that helped his family during that difficult year of homelessness, as well as other charities.
In the film, which airs Friday, the four players discussed their childhoods and how they related to the kids.
The soft-spoken Fitzgerald, for example, recalled how he watched as people shunned his mother when she lost her hair during cancer treatments, trying not to touch door handles after her, as if the disease were contagious. He was paired with a girl who has cancer and taught her photography so she could take beautiful pictures of other kids with the disease who may not be feeling particularly attractive.
Tuck shared how he was bullied for being a smart boy who worked hard in school. He was paired with a boy who wants to be a writer.
McClain took his protege shopping, but rather than simply giving the boy new things, they also looked for items that Jesse thought other people he knew might need.
"That was the idea we came up with ... to show how to give to others," McClain said. "I believe that truly is what empowers you."
McClain made sure that when he led a winter coat drive recently that he included Jesse and his family.
It's bittersweet for McClain as his team plays in the Super Bowl without him, but he hopes he's supporting them off the field.
"It's difficult to be here and know that you want to be a part of this so badly. You've been part of the journey, and not to finish the last part — it's like you're having a piece of cake, and you get to the last piece, and you drop it on the ground," McClain said. "And you think, 'I wonder what it was really like.'
"It's hard. I never missed a step with my teammates, I've been there the whole way," he said. "That's the type of family we have."