His born identity

The Baltimore Sun

So much of Le'Ron McClain's life is about balance. It's a word that has multiple meanings for the Ravens' second-year fullback.

In the physical sense, it is one of his greatest strengths. The 260-pound pile driver has emerged this season as the Ravens' most consistent, most effective offensive weapon.

But what most people didn't realize about McClain is that he was still figuring out a different kind of balance in his life: the delicate dance so many NFL players must learn of how to handle the dueling responsibilities of fatherhood and football.

McClain and his girlfriend had their first child, a daughter named Alexzondria, in November 2007, late in his rookie season. When he held his little girl for the first time, he had tears in his eyes. Every time he looked at her while he was back home in Alabama, it was hard to focus on working out and preparing for camp. He loved her in more ways than he could ever describe.

"She changed my life completely," McClain said. "I know that when I get up in the morning, she's right there. I was putting her first and my workouts second, and when I got to camp, I knew that had caught up with me. But I felt like I had to go through that."

There have been plenty of surprises this season for the Ravens, among them Joe Flacco, who is trying to become the first rookie quarterback to win two straight playoff games. But Flacco's steady improvement wasn't nearly as unexpected as the emergence of McClain, 24, who led the team with 902 rushing yards on 232 carries.

And when gusts of wind are knifing across the field at about 20 mph tomorrow afternoon in Nashville, Tenn., you can bet that the Ravens will turn to him as they try to knock off the No. 1-seeded Titans in the AFC divisional round of the playoffs.

In 2007, McClain carried the ball just eight times, and when he showed up in training camp this season overweight and out of shape, it didn't look as if his role would change much.

Unbeknown to most people, the Ravens had big plans for McClain this season, and they were confident he could handle another kind of balance: playing the role of both tailback and fullback.

Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron called him and told him to be ready for a bigger workload, which was surprising considering McClain hadn't run the ball much since high school. In four years at the University of Alabama, McClain had just 37 carries. Even in the Crimson Tide's jumbo package, McClain was a blocker for another fullback.

"I felt like I could always do this," McClain said. "One of the other running backs, Ken Darby, and I would always joke about it. I'd be like, 'Man, I wish I could get the ball!' I went to the [Alabama] coaches and asked them to give me the ball, but they really wanted me to be a blocker."

In that respect, Willis McGahee's lingering offseason knee problems turned out to be a blessing for the Ravens. For much of training camp, McClain and Ray Rice were the only two running backs the team had, and because McClain was out of shape, he was going to get as many reps as physically possible, no matter how exhausted he was.

"It was disappointing, especially for a new coaching staff, to see him come to camp out of shape," Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. "But once he got going and made that commitment, that's when we saw the changes in Le'Ron. It was just down to him and [Rice]. I remember one day, the two of them took almost 200 reps in practice. When I saw, right then and there, that there was no sign of waver, that's when he became a player."

McClain can still block with the best of them, delivering that devastating blow to a linebacker to free up a teammate for a crucial yard, but the Ravens have been leaning on him significantly as a ball carrier late in the season.

In the past seven games, including the playoff victory over the Miami Dolphins, he has scored six touchdowns and averaged 21.7 carries and 86.6 yards. He was one of five Ravens named to the Pro Bowl, and his 82-yard touchdown run at Dallas finished off their biggest win of the regular season.

"He's a real good player," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "He pushes the pile, he's a north-south runner, he's got good vision and he's tough. That's what you need if you're going to take the approach they take with their run game. They create a lot of third-and-ones and third-and-twos, which makes it hard to get off the field."

That doesn't mean McClain is anything close to a polished product. He still drives Montgomery a little nuts with his lack of focus at times. Last week's first-half fumble against Miami was a good example. Most running backs would have read the play, seen that it wasn't working, put two hands on the ball and accepted a short loss. McClain tried to switch the ball to his left hand and stiff-arm a defender, and Miami's defense poked the ball out.

"I still get frustrated with him," Montgomery said. "Sometimes it's like talking to a jackass. He's so stubborn about things. You think you've covered everything, and you find out it's not enough. It's never enough. ... On a scale of one to 10, I'd say he's at a two right now. He's got a lot of room to improve at this given stage."

McClain isn't shy about putting in the work to get there, which he says is something he learned from his mother, Gwen McClain. She became a single parent with two kids when McClain's father died in a car accident when McClain was 6 months old.

"She was really my backbone, my hero," McClain said of his mother, who worked as a housekeeper, cleaning hotel rooms, for most of his life. "Just seeing how hard she worked for me and my older brother, that's one reason why I push myself so much now. I remember plenty of nights when she didn't eat just so we could eat."

McClain lived in Fort Wayne, Ind., through the fifth grade, and then his mother moved the family to Northport, Ala., to a neighborhood McClain still refers to as "the projects." She taught him if he really wanted something in life, he had better be willing to work for it, and so McClain's senior year at Tuscaloosa County High, he took a job at McDonald's for a few months to save enough money so that he could attend his senior prom.

"I knew my mom couldn't pay for prom, and I really wanted to go because I hadn't been my junior year," McClain said. "I worked as a cook, whipping up those double cheeseburgers."

Occasionally, when McClain drives past a McDonald's or when he visits his old neighborhood in Northport, he can step outside himself and think about the journey he has been on from past to present. He visited his old community last offseason for the first time in several years and was struck by how much it reminded him of the days when he used to dream of playing in the NFL.

"I parked and just walked around," McClain said. "I just wanted to see where I was at then, staying in the projects, places where I used to play, and talk to some of the older people who are still there, still doing the same thing."

Football, McClain understands, wasn't just a way out of the projects for him; it's also his chance to give his daughter a childhood with far more comfort and stability than his own. One of the few times he got to see her this season, when she and McClain's girlfriend traveled to Baltimore, they watched a SpongeBob SquarePants movie together.

"She loved it," McClain said. "It's about the only time she's still right now."

Alexzondria is walking now, he said. Like her father, she's learning her own delicate version of balance.

RAVENS (12-5) @TITANS (13-3)

AFC divisional round; tomorrow, 4:30 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 1090 AM, 97.9 FM

Line: Titans by 3

Trying to repeat: Offensive line looks to hold Titans without sack again. PG 2

Ravens Beat: Similarities between Ravens and 2005 Steelers. PG 3

Oh, behave: Titans seek to hold tempers and avoid penalties. PG 4

On the line: Tennessee relies on line to pressure quarterback. PG 4

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