Each week, we bring you a Q&A with a Ravens player to help you learn more about him and the team. Today's guest is inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who was the only undrafted free agent to make the Ravens' roster in 2008 and who earned a starting job this season. McClain talks about how growing up in a tough neighborhood in Philadelphia helped shape his perspective on life.
Question: How difficult was it when you went into a Salvation Army shelter in Philadelphia with your mother and three siblings when you were 8 years old?
Answer: It was difficult — it [would be] difficult for anybody not to have a home, or to not have your own comfortable environment where you were just free to do whatever you wanted to do. Other than that it wasn't too crazy, because there wasn't anything there I knew that was something bad. It was just a different part of life.
Q: Does the commitment you have now to give back to the community stem from that?
A: It stems from my experiences in life. It definitely stems in large part from my Syracuse experience. I had a professor by the name of Rachel Gazdick and the class was organizations in the community. She definitely influenced me to get out into the community more and basically give people a chance to learn from the things I've been through, so they see that without struggle there is no progress.
Q: As a young boxer, you were 6-1 in the Golden Gloves. Could you have fought professionally?
A: I don't know. That remains to be seen. I was fortunate to be around a lot of people that were pretty good. One went on to the Olympics, two are pro now. So I may have been, but that isn't the path I walked down.
Q: When you weren't playing sports growing up in Philadelphia, what were you doing?
A: I was chilling. I was being a kid. I was ripping and running, having fun with my friends, just relaxing. Sports and school were my life.
Q: When you moved in with Greg and Gloria Smith, your uncle and aunt in Northeast Philadelphia, at age 15, how did they shape your life?
A: It made it a little more comfortable. I didn't have to do so much looking over my shoulder. It was in a different neighborhood when I got an opportunity to relax with them. And then it gave me a chance to focus more on school, but by the time I moved in with them, I was at a point where I already knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was pretty focused, but it just made it more comfortable.
Q: When did you know what track you were going to take?
A: I would say it was around my sophomore year of high school, when I just knew that football was going to take me there. Because at some point, I had to step away from boxing. I thought football was going to take me to school, and going to school was what I wanted to do. It was around that time I decided I'm just going to dedicate myself to this and get myself right — academics, athletics, the whole nine yards — and just be an all around person.
Q: What other sports did you play?
A: I played basketball, but I was into everything — music, I acted, I sang, I did everything. I was fortunate I have a lot of skills.
Q: You have a deep interest in music. What attracted you to music?
A: The same thing that attracts me about movies — it takes you to another place. It takes you out of your current situation. … Music and movies are the same to me. They take you away and sometimes through music, you get words that you can relate to.
Q: Where did you sing?
A: I was in a church choir before, and I was in theater, in school plays around middle school. Nobody knows that. I actually acted with Jazmine Sullivan in middle school. We went to LP Hill together. She is a popular R&B singer. I was in "Oliver Twist" with her. I was Bill Sikes and I was a beast, too. She embarrassed me when she cried. She was talented as a kid; she had the most beautiful voice as a kid.
Q: Is that something you would like to have pursued?
A: No, man, I'm too big to be out there in theater and prancing around on the stage. I was fortunate to be able to try whatever I wanted. It was always in me to be like, if it was in my face, I'll try it. Why not? I tested the water with everything.
Q: If you were willing to try anything, where did that come from?
A: Life, man. Just living for the moment because the next day is never promised. I always just lived life abundantly. I know everybody says it, but I really just lived it like that. I always knew that I never wanted to grow old and regret anything, so it wasn't going to be like, 'Man, I should've tried this' or 'I should've went harder.' I went hard in eveything I did and if I failed, I failed successfully — according to me.
Q:You graduated with a double major, you finished on the dean's list. Did studying come easily or was it something you had to work at?
A: Studying is something I had to work at. In high school, I wish I had the same dedication I had in college. But it just didn't come. I got into it because I understood if I could study the playbook and go through all of those things they were putting me through, why couldn't school be just a simple? I just put the time into it, and I was fortunate to be in communications. I don't have any problem talking, or writing papers or getting my point across. So I was fortunate. It all just landed in together.
Q: Did you have any regrets about choosing Syracuse when you weren't drafted in 2008?
A: No, I don't live with regrets, I just go through it. I believe it all has a purpose.
Q: How comfortable are you now as a regular on the Ravens defense after playing so many positions the first two years?
A: I'm good. I don't like the word 'comfortable' because comfortable seems satisfied, it seems like you're stuck at the one point. I'm OK with where I'm at, but I want to excel more. Obviously, it's good to actually be one of the components of the defense, so that's something that I'm good with — but not comfortable, because I want my role to expand.
Q: What do you learn playing beside Ray Lewis?
A: I learn to be patient with the game. I learn that although you love it and it's a sport, you still have to be professional on and off the field. You got to treat the film room the same way you treat running around on the field. I learned the professionalism, the main part.
Q: What's your vision for what you're capable of in the NFL and how long might you play?
A: I don't have a vision. It just goes. My path is going to be created as I go. If my day [to leave] is tomorrow, then that's my fate. Then I've got to come up with something else. I'm not putting no period at the end of my career, I'm just still going.
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