OWINGS MILLS - Jameel McClain knows what it means to literally be hungry, fighting every day of his life for everything he's earned.
The Baltimore Ravens' starting inside linebacker overcame being homeless growing up in inner-city Philadelphia. McClain, his mother, Barbara Flood, and his brothers and sisters spent an entire year in a Salvation Army shelter when he was in middle school.
Now, his considerable labor and struggles are about to be rewarded. McClain will officially become an unrestricted free agent Tuesday afternoon.
And a significant raise could be in the offing for McClain, who prefers to remain with the Ravens after finishing second on the team in tackles last season behind All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
"I had to get it the hard way," McClain told the Times during a telephone interview from California where he's conducting his offseason training regimen. "Nothing was given to me. Nothing is still being given to me to this day. It's so fulfilling to know that you did it on your own. So many people had a strong influence on me, the ones who said something negative pushed me, or the ones who contributed something positive.
"It's exciting. It's been a lot of work getting up to this process. I was a defensive end who had to learn how to be a full-time linebacker. The experience I've had with the Ravens, the knowledge I've gained, it's been so great to now be a starting linebacker in this league. It's been so good for me."
The Ravens are expected to allow McClain to determine his own value on the open marketplace. If another team makes a legitimate offer, the Ravens could decide to compete or move on.
No deal is in the works at this time with the AFC North franchise, but they are staying in touch with McClain.
McClain, 26, played last season under a $1.85 million restricted tender. That didn't include a signing bonus, though.
So, McClain is waiting to see how the Ravens and the rest of the NFL regard him in terms of financial value.
"Baltimore is home," McClain said. "It's a great organization with a lot of great players. Staying there would be the ideal situation. We all know how this game goes. This game shakes up in many ways. It's a business. If it was totally up to me, I would choose the Ravens. I'm hoping that phone rings for me, but there's only one call I really want to hear."
That would be a telephone call from Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, and McClain remains hopeful that he gets to stay in Baltimore.
Asked if McClain is wanted back, Newsome replied during the NFL scouting combine: "We would like to have Jameel back, yes."
For McClain, it's never been strictly about the money. He loves the game of football, playing with passion, intensity and a hard-nosed style.
As a rookie, the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder was given a modest $3,000 signing bonus and a shot to make the team.
Four years later, McClain is coming off a season where he recorded 81 tackles, one sack, his first NFL interception, five pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.
"Jameel is a hard-working, blue-collar leader, just a football player through and through," said Sean Howard, McClain's agent. "He's someone who has never been given anything in his life and has always worked for what he has. He has succeeded and excelled.
"My impression is that whatever team picks up, and hopefully Baltimore retains him, he'll continue to grow as a football player, a locker room leader and a valuable member of the community."
McClain beat out Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden for the starting inside linebacker job two years ago, and he hasn't relinquished his grip on the position.
He had 91 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery in his first season as the starter, and he's piled up 209 tackles, 4 ½ sacks and three fumble recoveries in four NFL seasons.
Regardless of where he winds up, McClain expects to be a heavy contributor.
"They're going to get somebody that goes all-out and pushes themselves and everybody next to them to the limit," McClain said. "I'm an all-around player. I'll be a leader in the community who will represent the organization well on and off the field."
His hometown Philadelphia Eagles could use an injection of toughness at middle linebacker and have been frequently linked to Boston College standout Luke Kuechly and Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Dan Connor.
McClain would seem to fit what the Eagles need. Has he thought about going home to play?
"To be honest, I haven't looked that far ahead," McClain said. "I know it's ironic. I believe everything in my past has led to this point. Baltimore is what I'm thinking about right now. Everything else is speculation.
"I don't get into those conversations. Patience is a virtue, I've learned that throughout my life. I'm focused on being a better Jameel McClain, a better player, a better person, everything."
It's never been easy for McClain.
His father was incarcerated in prison until he was nearly done with high school. And he overcame a bleak outlook through the counsel of his mother, his uncle, Greg Smith, and his older brother, Andrew Jackson.
McClain never let it stop him, developing into a Golden Gloves boxer who only lost once after being given his first pair of boxing trunks from the legendary Joe Frazier. He earned a scholarship to Syracuse where he became the first member of his family to graduate from college.
And McClain beat the odds to make the Ravens' roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.
"The toughest moment was being homeless or not having a bed to myself until I got into college," McClain said. "It was ironic when I saw the movie, 'The Blind Side,' and they showed that little part with [Ravens offensive tackle] Mike [Oher] and he said, 'I never had a bed.' I remember being in college and finally having my own room and my own bed. It was definitely tough growing up, but my story is no different than what a lot of kids go through now and in the past.
"Life, I understand it. You can go one or two ways where I'm from. You can go in a good direction of a bad direction. Most people chose a bad direction. For me, I've always chosen to stand out in a different way than what everybody else was doing. I knew the world was bigger than where I was at. I was fortunate enough to understand the big picture and I had good people in my corner."
Active in charity efforts and offering guidance to children, McClain will be honored by the Salvation Army later this month in Baltimore with its Compassion and Action award.
McClain has hosted Thanksgiving food drives, attended school assemblies and provided holiday dinners and gifts for students.
If he lands a big contract, McClain will be able to give even more back to those in need.
"Of course, the community is me," McClain said. "That's something that's entrenched with me regardless of where I go. That's always going to be what I stand for. Accolades are nice, but the people I affect are the most important part. I've had people come up to me and tell me that what I said really changed them. That's the stuff that really touches me, the looks on people's faces.
"I'm excited to be able to set my future up in a way that will benefit me and generations beyond me. As far as what I give and do in the community, that will be tripled now. I'll have more resources to do more and build more. That's exciting to me, but I keep my head down. I feel like I've created a beautiful path."