A slow climb from rags to Ravens
WTOP's Greg Bianco
Greg Bianco, wtop.com
OWINGS MILLS, Md. - People have done it countless times before: They want to see their dreams become reality, but in the end, those dreams feel unattainable and they lose sight or give up hope.
Jameel McClain is an exceptional exception, though.
"To see where I've come and to see what I've been through to face as an individual, it's definitely fulfilling in that aspect that nothing can break me, literally," says McClain.
He was born and raised in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. While he is loved by his mother and three siblings, they struggled to find a place to live. They eventually found shelter in the Salvation Army for some time. As they fought for survival, he embraced the idea of tough love.
He started boxing as a kid and finished his grade-school boxing record with 6 wins in 7 tries, before football began making more sense in high school.
"Boxing turned into football because I love the aggression of the game. I always loved aggressive sports," McClain says. "I was always smaller, but I always tried the biggest. If it were me getting hit, it would be like, ‘He got the best out of me this year, but I'll get him the next time.'"
That mentality, in and out of the locker room, earned him a scholarship to play at Syracuse University. He was named to the second team All-Big East as a junior and senior.
Despite those successes, his path to the NFL was grueling and humbling.
He heard 252 names called through seven rounds of the 2008 NFL draft, including Joe Flacco and Ray Rice by the Ravens. McClain's name wasn't called by any team.
Belonging in Baltimore was a circuitous crusade. Growing up in Philadelphia as an Eagles fan, he marveled at the defense of Buddy Ryan, the father of former Ravens defensive coach and current Jets head coach Rex Ryan.
He watched John Harbaugh spend nearly a decade as a special teams coordinator under head coach Andy Reid.
When Harbaugh came to Baltimore, the Ravens signed McClain as a special teams player. He was the only undrafted rookie free agent to make the roster in 2008 and has now blossomed into a starting role alongside Ray Lewis at linebacker on a consistent, smothering defense.
"Birds of a feather do flock together," he jokes.
While Joe Flacco, Ray Rice and John Harbaugh are linked as the three most visible figures that remade the Ravens in 2008 to perennial playoff contenders, Jameel McClain was given an opportunity and seized it.
He is the only player in Ravens history to record two safeties in a season as a rookie. When Ray Lewis missed a month last year with a toe injury, McClain was the signal-caller on defense.
"There aren't that many second chances in life and especially in football," he says, both in reflection about himself and to the younger Ravens now. "When you get it, you gotta own it."
As he joins the trio in a fifth season here, he sees maturity and experience playing a key factor as they try to get the Ravens into the Super Bowl for the second time in team history.
"We all got smarter, we all got older through those years," he says introspectively. "The older you get, the more you see things a little differently as a team and we know what we can do to maximize all of our abilities."
Then there's the development of Joe Flacco.
"He went from a reserved, quieter type to being more outspoken," McClain says. "There's definitely no limit to where Joe can go."
Where Flacco goes, McClain will gladly join him there. And he wouldn't dare think of hoping what could be or might be.
"Everything that happened has been a part of my journey and everything made me into who I am," he says. "I always tell myself I never want to be satisfied until I'm at the end of my journey, until it's complete. I'm nowhere near the end."
Monday night at home against the Bengals is just the start of the latest season and chapter of opportunities to seize.
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