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Jameel McClain, Ravens' new assistant director of player development, starts assimilating rookies into NFL

Former Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain is back with the team as the Assistant Director of Player Development. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun video)

A flat-screen television hangs on one side and a clear whiteboard is on another. Otherwise, the walls of Jameel McClain's office at the Under Armour Performance Center are strikingly bare. His cherry wood desk is topped by a phone, a computer and a few standard office supplies. Yet, it doesn't contain a single visible memento from McClain's seven-year NFL career. There are no pictures, and the closest thing to a decoration is a list of phone numbers right near his computer.

The Ravens' new assistant director of player development has no plans to spruce the place up either.

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"My goal is to be floating around anyway," McClain said Wednesday. "I don't want to be stuck in this office. I want to be interacting with the guys. I want to be in the lunchroom. I want to be on the field or moving around."

This week, approximately two dozen wide-eyed rookies and a host of tryout players arrived at the Ravens facility for a three-day minicamp. McClain remembers how overwhelmed he felt when he walked into the building nine years ago, a college free agent trying to open eyes and earn a spot on a celebrated defense.

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McClain played six years with the Ravens, starting at inside linebacker next to Ray Lewis and becoming one of the poster boys for the organization's success in finding quality undrafted rookies. Now 31 and retired, McClain returned to the team to assist director of player engagement Harry Swayne with his programs. One of their responsibilities is helping rookies transition to the NFL on and off the field.

"He'll definitely be someone in the building that can relate to them on a few different levels," said Swayne, whose 15-year playing career ended after the 2001 season. "There are not a lot of people like that here that can cross that kind of cultural bridge, communication bridge, and really be a voice in the ear that a rookie, no matter where he's from, can trust. They don't believe I played anymore. They are in disbelief when they find out I did. … He covers some bases for us that I can't cover."

Coach John Harbaugh and his staff this week will begin molding the players on the field. Behind the scenes, Swayne and McClain will be assimilating them into the NFL culture and lifestyle. They'll make sure they've resolved their living situations and are comfortable in their new surroundings. They'll make themselves available to talk about everything from dealing with newfound wealth in some cases to changing family dynamics.

"Harry is the best that's done it. He's guided me to get where I'm at. I'll just be assisting Harry in whatever way I can to make sure everything goes smooth," McClain said. "The biggest thing that I look forward to sharing with them is just to breathe. Now it's time for this part that you've been dreaming about your entire life. So breathe and let's go through this process."

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As McClain summarizes, his job is to help young players transition into the NFL and aid veterans in their transition out of the league and into postretirement life. For the players who are established yet nowhere near retirement, McClain wants to make sure they have the necessary information about the opportunities that are available to them off the field.

"He's handled [retirement] better than I did when I was done because he really did already have his mind wrapped around the football thing being over. Now it's on to the next thing, whatever that is," Swayne said. "I think he's still discovering what it is, which is great because while he's discovering it, he's helping us. He's paying it forward really through the eyes of the next rookie class coming in."

McClain didn't need another job nor was his schedule wide open for added responsibilities when he expressed interest in the Ravens' position. He and his wife, Keisha, opened a Retro Fitness gym in Catonsville in January. McClain arrives at the gym some days right around its 5 a.m. opening and returns before it closes at 11 p.m. In between, he'll join fitness classes and interact with customers and employees, who he demands to be high-energy and personable.

The gym has gained about 1,500 members in a little over three months, and McClain and his wife, a real estate agent in Maryland and New York/New Jersey, are planning to open two more gyms locally to go along with other investments they have.

McClain is active in NEWfit Kids, a program that creates after-school sports and activities for elementary and middle schools in Baltimore City. McClain said the program is in about 75 schools, and he regularly attends games and dance competitions to provide support. On June 17, he'll host his eighth annual Football & Fitness Clinic at CCBC-Catonsville, a free camp that attracts about 300 children. His 53 Families Foundation continues to put on Thanksgiving, coat and book bag drives, Easter egg hunts and other events for area families.

"I just have to keep moving. That's the attitude," McClain said. "I can slow down when I'm older. I put everything I had in my life into football. Now, I want to put every other bit of energy that I have left into everything else to make sure that I'm trying to be a better version of myself daily. Hopefully, I can share that and that rubs off on some people."

McClain had ample time to think about his post-NFL life after he suffered a spinal cord injury late in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl season. A few doctors told him he'd never play again. McClain returned to the Ravens and started 10 games in 2013.

He signed with the Giants before the following season and played in all 16 games, starting 14 of them and leading the team in tackles. However, McClain aggravated the neck injury in a practice in August 2015. He had already decided he would retire if he had another neck problem, so he had no regrets then, nor has he had any since.

"Mentally, in a way, I was already emotionally disconnecting myself from the game a little bit," McClain said. "I had the conversation with my wife and we just were like, 'You already set yourself up to be comfortable and to make sure you can do the things that you want to do in life. You are already evolving yourself as a businessman before you make your big leap. So what is the risk really for?'

"I'm over football. I don't have that itch where I'm just like, 'I need to go out there and tackle or I can do that same drill that they're doing.' I don't have that."

What McClain does have is quite a story to share to the new crop of Ravens. As many longtime fans of the team know, McClain was homeless at times during his childhood in Philadelphia and forced to stay at a Salvation Army for food and shelter. Thanks to the help of his uncle, Greg Smith, and others, McClain made it out.

He graduated from Syracuse, became the only undrafted rookie to make the 2008 Ravens and persevered through a career-altering injury to fashion a solid career. Now, even with other demands on his time, McClain is back with the organization, working in a nondescript office and still trying to connect with as many players as he can.

"This is something that I love personally," McClain said. "This is something that I want to do. I really love this organization. I love everything that it stands for and the people that are in this building. It's my way of trying not to give back, but being part of it."

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