For Jeremy Maclin, the year before he signed with the Ravens was painful, disappointing and ultimately, infuriating.
First, one of his closest childhood friends, whom he'd fallen out of touch with, died unexpectedly. Then, the former Pro Bowl receiver tore his groin and watched his production plummet. Finally, the Kansas City Chiefs, a team that had wooed him in free agency and for which he'd become a key voice of experience, dropped him abruptly in June.
But against the broader backdrop of Maclin's biography, not so much. This is a guy who would not let an unsteady home life prevent him from becoming one of the most scintillating high school athletes in the St. Louis area, who tore up his knee when he was about to debut as a freshman sensation at Missouri and again when he was on the cusp of NFL stardom, who lived through a cancer scare when he was just 23.
"At the end of the day, there's much more to life than just football," Maclin says, sitting down to talk after a late August practice in Owings Mills. "As much as I love football, there's a lot of stuff I have going on outside this game. The whole cancer thing and everything else made me appreciate what I have, football included but also family and friends and just my life. Having a wife now and everything, there's nothing on a football field that can break me. And that's including getting released. I go home and I'm happy, no matter what kind of day I had at work."
Maclin, 29, does not come at you with the outsized persona associated with so many star receivers. He doesn't show off with wild one-handed catches during warmups. He doesn't go by a "SportsCenter"-ready nickname. He doesn't have a signature celebration such as Steve Smith Sr.'s defiant ball twirl.
"That's just not me," he says. "And that's not a knock on guys who get into the dancing and the being extremely vocal. It's just not me."
When Ravens offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, who coached Maclin in Philadelphia, tries to sum him up, he leans on words like "smooth" and "consistent."
And that's fine with Maclin. Preferable, really. When he talks about his career, he seems proudest of his professionalism.
Reflecting on his younger self, he says: "There were times when I had a practice I wasn't necessarily crazy about and then you bring it home. And you just can't do that. … I definitely see it differently comparing year one to year nine. It's a weird business, man. Rarely ever is the truth at the front, and you've got to just take it and roll with it. I still love to play the game of football and I'm blessed to be able to, but it is a business."
It's an outlook he learned from the guy he says influenced him the most in the NFL, former Philadelphia Eagles and Chiefs teammate Jason Avant. Maclin showed up in Philadelphia as a liquid-quick first-round draft pick who'd accumulated big numbers in a spread offense at Missouri. Avant, five years his senior, told him that wasn't going to cut it. Essentially everything Maclin had ever tried on a football field had worked. But the NFL was going to snuff out that fairy tale.
"You need to learn to get open without your speed," Avant preached.
Off the field, they bonded through talks about basketball, about the importance of maintaining your good name, about always leaving something behind for the next guy in line. But in practice, Avant was deliberately hard on his young friend, urging him to stay late to study tape of cornerbacks and catch extra balls from the JUGS machine.
Maclin wasn't arrogant or closed off to advice, he says, but he didn't completely get it until he tore his ACL for a second time and missed the entire 2013 season.
"It takes failure sometimes," Avant says. "It's like farming. Until you break the ground, you can't plant any seeds."
The Maclin he saw in 2014 with the Eagles and 2015 with the Chiefs was the player he'd always envisioned, a true craftsman eager to pass along lessons to younger players.
"I would look at him some days and just smile," Avant says. "Those were sweet times for me, seeing how much he'd matured."
The youthful Maclin was, as Avant suggested, a straight phenom. Go back and read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch articles about him as a high school star for the Kirkwood Pioneers. They're basically bull sessions, with Maclin's teammates and coach Larry Frost trying to top one another as they recall his most outlandish plays.
Was it the punt return his sophomore year during which he started along one sideline and zigzagged all the way to the other on his way to the end zone? Or the 50-yard catch his senior year on which he went completely parallel to the ground? Maclin seemed partial to a one-handed interception he made to clinch the district title his junior year.
Missouri football was stuck on a treadmill of endless mediocrity, so when Maclin — an in-state star who could have played just about anywhere — committed to the Tigers, it was a fairly big deal. The excitement was blunted by the fact that he blew out his knee before he ever played a down his freshman year.
But when Maclin finally did take the field in 2007, he burst onto the scene. As a triple-threat receiver, ball carrier and punt returner, he reeled off 200-yard games as if they were nothing. "We have a lot of impact players, but that guy can do so many things," coach Gary Pinkel told the Post-Dispatch in awe.
Led by Maclin and quarterback Chase Daniel, Missouri rode its exotic spread offense to a school-record 12 wins. The Tigers won 10 the next year before Maclin declared early for the NFL draft.
With success, however, came a national spotlight on Maclin's complicated back story. The New York Times, USA Today and ESPN told the tale of how he'd essentially been adopted by the family of his youth football coach, Jeff Parres. And in those articles, Maclin and his brothers spoke candidly of how their mother, Cleo Maclin King, struggled with alcohol and became an inconsistent presence in their lives. Parres described how unsettled he was when he'd drop Maclin at his mother's home and watch the boy squeeze through an unlocked window because there was no one present to open the door.
It was raw stuff for a 19-year-old to share with the world.
"At the time, there were a lot of things hitting me at once," he recalls. "I didn't know any better. I thought that was just part of how things go on. Clearly, when you're a young guy and you're making plays, people want to know your story. I guess now, looking back, I understand. But at the time, I was kind of blind to it."
Now that he's a grown man with a new wife, Adia, and a well-established career, Maclin doesn't resist questions about his upbringing. He has two families, one biological and one not. When he goes home, he visits both. King and Jeff and Cindy Parres are all his parents. That's just his reality.
"I get the best of both worlds," he says.
Though he was the 19th overall pick in the 2009 draft and quickly became a productive pro, if not an instant superstar, for the Eagles, Maclin did not leave difficult times behind just because he made it in the NFL. There was the second ACL tear but even more disquieting was the mysterious illness in 2011 that had Maclin beset by night sweats, sudden fevers and inexplicable weight loss. Doctors feared he might have lymphoma.
"The unknown, I think, scares anybody," he says. "Even people who call themselves daredevils. Just not knowing what's happening, I think that was the most frightening part, just waiting on all these test results and lab work to come in and having no idea what the future might hold."
After six months of uncertainty, the symptoms receded. It turned out he had suffered from an uncommonly persistent inflammatory virus.
So yes, Maclin can claim an unusual array of harrowing experiences for a football star who's yet to see his 30th birthday.
Three months after he signed a two-year, $11 million deal with the Ravens, his new teammates are just now glimpsing his hard-won wisdom. That's in part because he deferred to Mike Wallace, a peer he knew and respected, when he first arrived.
"He's a pretty quiet dude," second-year receiver Chris Moore says. "Every once in a while, he'll just speak up and drop some knowledge on us that we didn't even know. He'll just sit there and something will happen on the screen and he'll just start dropping some knowledge on us, which is nice."
But those who know Maclin best suspect he'll respond to his release from the Chiefs with quiet ferocity.
"Jeremy has a lot of great football left in him," says Avant, who last played in 2015. "There's nothing more frustrating than being cut or released. But I pray he uses that as fuel and not resentment. The things he went through as a young man helped him be ready for these moments. I'm confident in him."
Maclin says that's exactly how he's looking at his recent disappointments. "If anything, it kind of put that fire back in me," he says.