McClain fights his way to starting job

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

Thanks to the October Surprise that sent a future Hall of Fame wideout away from one all-time great quarterback and into the arms of another, an already intriguing Week 5 of the NFL season just got even spicier.

After a Sunday on which Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers(notes) returns to Carolina, Peyton Manning(notes) tries to take down the league's last undefeated team and Kurt Warner(notes) waltzes back to University of Phoenix Stadium (alas, Cardinals fans, he'll spend the afternoon in a FOX broadcast booth), we'll get our Monday-night matchup for the ages, with Brett Favre(notes) throwing to Randy Moss(notes) in the shadow of the Big Apple against his other former team.

Quietly, with little fanfare, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain(notes) will be doing his part for the NFL's top-ranked defense in a home game against the Denver Broncos on Sunday afternoon. And as much as I love chronicling the movements of the stars – like the guy who plays next to McClain, Ray Lewis(notes), who happens to be the best defensive player of his era – sometimes selfless players such as this third-year, undrafted free agent are the lifeblood of the sport.

Like Ravens teammate Michael Oher(notes), McClain took an unlikely path to the pros which required passion, perseverance and the overcoming of obstacles. In Hollywood pitch-meeting terms, think "The Blind Side" meets "The Pursuit of Happyness," with a touch of the "Rocky" movies (which McClain ritualistically watches to get pumped up before games).

"My life has been one boxing match after another," McClain says. "No matter what gets thrown at me, I keep fighting."

Raised in north Philadelphia, McClain was a Golden Gloves fighter from the fourth grade on; local legend Joe Frazier gave him his first pair of boxing shorts. McClain's father was incarcerated for much of Jameel's childhood, and his family struggled with poverty. There were periods of homelessness, and for an extended stretch Jameel, his three siblings and his mother lived in a Salvation Army rescue shelter.

"You'd just have nights where food was a figment of your stomach's imagination, where you would go to sleep hungry," McClain recalls. "Having the same jeans weeks at a time, sharing a room at the shelter with strangers and having to be there by a certain time, worrying that people were going to come in your room after you were asleep and mess with you … there were some tough times.

"It's not something I made public, not something I was comfortable talking about or sharing in conversation. I guess it would be embarrassing for anybody with pride, to know you don't have a place you can call home."

McClain took solace in small pleasures, such as the late-night doughnuts a local retailer would deliver to the shelter.

"They'd have leftovers at the end of the day, and they'd donate them instead of throwing them away," he recalls. "I can still remember the smell – when the doughnuts came late at night, it was a big deal."

Determined to improve his circumstances, McClain pushed himself athletically and academically, earning a scholarship to Syracuse, where he was a standout defensive end. His disappointment about being passed over in the NFL draft gave way to excitement about the prospect of joining "the defense I've always dreamed of playing for."

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who saw McClain as a prototypical inside linebacker in then-coordinator Rex Ryan's scheme, pursued him aggressively as a free agent immediately after the draft.

[Blog: Did Ravens eject couple for kissing?]

"Actually, 32 teams passed on me," McClain says, "but the Ravens gave me the opportunity to come in and show what I could do. They expressed a lot of interest. From what I heard, it was rare for a free agent to get the GM, coach and linebackers coach all calling and saying, 'We want you here. We know you're our type of player.'

"Baltimore was clearly the choice. I played the game the same way they played it, so to me it was a no-brainer. Their demeanor fit my style. I play till the whistle is blown and the play is done, completely, and I don't back off."

McClain beat the odds and made the team as a rookie. He then made an immediate impact, recording two safeties, a blocked punt, two-and-a-half sacks and 17 special-teams tackles. The 6-foot-1, 250-pounder had 33 special-teams tackles in '09 and another 29 stops on defense, along with a forced fumble.

View gallery

.
McClain listens to Ravens coach John Harbaugh.
(Geoff Burke/US Presswire)

This past summer, he took his game to another level by winning a training-camp competition with incumbent Dannell Ellerbe(notes) and former third-round pick Tavares Gooden(notes) to become the starter next to Lewis at inside linebacker. McClain has 25 tackles and a pass defended and is holding his own in a defensive unit allowing a league-low 235.8 yards per game.

He's also making a point of spending off days in the community speaking at shelters – he volunteers for the Salvation Army, among other organizations – and counseling at-risk children.

He has no patience for politicians who talk about slashing social services as a means of freeing up funds: "It's people speaking on things that they don't know anything about. To them, you exist only in their imagination, so when they talk about cutting those services, you're not really real and they don't have to consider the effect it will have on you."

McClain lives a relatively modest lifestyle because, he says, "I'm trying to be in a position so I never again have to go through what I went through as a kid."

He does allow himself a few luxuries, such as a robust collection of jeans – "enough pairs that I can't count 'em all in my head."

There is one guilty pleasure, however, that McClain is happy to resist.

"I don't like doughnuts too much now," he says. "I couldn't even tell you the last time I had one."

His stomach is no longer rumbling, but rest assured he still plays hungry.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Bills (yeah, I said it) will rise up to defeat the Jaguars, handing Trent Edwards(notes) one more defeat at The Ralph. … Two other winless teams, the Lions (vs. Rams) and 49ers (vs. Eagles), will get it done at home, leaving the Panthers (vs. Bears) as the league's lone oh-fers. … Favre-to-Moss will live up to the hype, and the Vikings will beat the Jets on Monday. night.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Arizona, where I can see the Saints for the first time since the opener through my new glasses with Transitions lenses, whether the University of Phoenix Stadium roof is open or closed. Actually, scratch that plan: I'll be leaving the Transitions at home – they don't get close to dark enough for my tastes when it's bright out – and going with the heavy-duty shades in the desert sun until I enter the stadium. And you can best believe I'll have the high-powered binoculars ready for Max Hall's(notes) first NFL start.

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Upon learning of Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie's(notes) quote that he "plays when he wants to," Moss insisted he always gives maximum effort – then called his lawyer and insisted he file a copyright-infringement lawsuit.

2. The Raiders' word is stronger than oak.

3. Peppers, who told the Panthers he wanted to play elsewhere following the 2008 season (and stayed after the team placed the franchise tag on him and paid him $18.2 million), is justified in feeling that the organization wasn't "respectful" when it declined to offer him a long-term deal after '09.

WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL

After sweating out the Saints' 16-14 victory over the Panthers last Sunday, I'm hoping for a less stressful week. So, naturally, I'm picking against the league's only remaining undefeated team, the Chiefs, who play the Colts in Indy. Five words: Peyton Manning vs. Matt Cassel(notes). (Already used: Titans, Falcons, Patriots, Saints.)

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

View gallery

.
Photo
Dexter McCluster

UCSB had its first women's basketball practice of the 2010-11 season earlier this week, and third-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb really likes her team. Unfortunately, says Gottlieb, "I'm really not loving my fantasy team," which fell to 2-2 with another close defeat last week and hasn't gotten anyone to take the Jay Cutler(notes) trade bait. Things are even bleaker for Harsh Reality going into this week's matchup against Infidels (2-2), what with two of HR's players (Mike Wallace(notes) and newly traded Marshawn Lynch(notes)) on bye weeks, so I had Gottlieb scan the waiver wire and tried to do what I could: Pick up the Cowboys defense (vs. Tennessee) and drop Miami's; snag Jags wideout Mike Sims-Walker(notes) and start him (ahead of the Titans' Kenny Britt(notes)) while cutting Jordan Shipley(notes); claim Dolphins halfback Ricky Williams(notes) (he's on a bye but could help down the road) and cut Toby Gerhart(notes). Oh, and pray that Dexter McCluster(notes) busts a kickoff return, Greg Jennings(notes) benefits from Aaron Rodgers'(notes) complaints about the Packers' offense and Beanie Wells'(notes) whining leads to more touches for the Cardinals.

(Y! Sports guru Brad Evans and I took a week off from "Fantasy and Reality" this week, but kindly send in your questions for next week's groundbreaking video segment to fantasyreality@yahoo.com.)

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

George Dohrmann, my friend and former Sports Illustrated colleague, who is celebrating the release of his fantastic and fascinating book, "Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit and the Youth Basketball Machine." Dorhmann, one of the nation's great investigative journalists, spent eight years absorbing the inner workings of a Southern California AAU basketball team – I'm thrilled to report that one of its alums, Gary Franklin, is an incoming freshman point guard at Cal – and came through with a mind-blowing, thoroughly entertaining narrative that is the written word's answer to "Hoop Dreams." I'm going to stop telling you how great this book is now so that you can rush out (or click rapidly) to buy it and dig in for yourselves. It will make you wiser and happier, I promise.

Speaking of killer sports books, I'd like to do a shot for Harper Collins editor extraordinaire David Hirshey, who edited my Kurt Warner book, "All Things Possible," and, in his words, made me "the woman that I am today." Hirshey's latest awesome offering, "Badasses" (by badass author Peter Richmond), details the glory days of the '70s Raiders, and I can't wait to immerse myself in the well-written prose.

Finally, I'm lining up a shot for Dave Zirin, one of smartest most courageous sports journalists around. Zirin's latest book, "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love," tells you what really happens to your entertainment dollars and cuts through about 27 layers of b.s. in the process. These books should keep you busy through the holidays. De nada.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

As senior striker Alex Morgan closes out her outstanding Golden Bears career, she's taking little breaks to plot her post-collegiate career path, like the side trip she made to Chester, Pa., Wednesday night. Playing for the U.S. women's national team in a friendly against China, Morgan gathered a nice ball from star forward Abby Wambach and buried it in the 83rd minute to give the U.S. a 1-1 draw. Hopefully she saved a few goals for the 16th-ranked Bears, who open Pac-10 play at No. 13 UCLA Friday and at No. 19 USC Sunday. Congratulations are also in order to Cal women's swim coach Teri McKeever, who was chosen to lead Team USA at FINA's Short Course World Championships in Dubai this December (former Golden Bear greats Natalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer are on the squad). And if you want to see a couple of other ex-Spieker Pool studettes strut their stuff, check out bare Bears Elsie Windes and Heather Petri of the U.S. women's water polo team on one of ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" covers.

Two other things: I'm contemplating a trip to Memorial Stadium Saturday to see the Bears beat down our little brothers to the south, and I absolutely remain committed to helping Cal rugby's push to get its varsity status restored. For those who want to aid in this very noble cause, get involved at Save Cal Rugby.

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

On a day when some people might have questioned whether the nickname could also apply to him, Favre welcomed the wideout known as "Super Freak" back to Minnesota and undoubtedly started daydreaming about all the beautiful music they'll make together. You know, like Favre is the NFL's answer to the late, great Rick James. Let the party begin:

He's a very lanky dude
The kind that no DB can cover
He will never let his teammates down
Unless you don't throw him the ball, ow Tom

He liked Randall, Pep and Jeff
He says that I'm his all-time favorite
When we made our move to get him ‘twas the right time
We're gonna kick some tail

Cause Moss is pretty wild now
The dude's a super freak
The kind of guy you read about
In Friday Offerings
And Moss is pretty dangerous
The dude's a super freak
He's gonna beat the pants off
Every team we meet
He's all right, he's all right
Randy's all right with me, yeah
Hey hey hey hey
He's a super freak, super freak
He's super-freaky, yow

Everybody sing
Super freak, super freak

He's a very special dude
For every ball you want to throw
From short hitches to the go routes
Loves to go deep, yeah
And he scripted his exit from New England
In the locker room
On the phone with Belichick
And this is home to him, he says
"And 84, I'll be wearing"
Chilly's breakin' out the incense, wine and candles
It's such a freaky scene

And Moss sometimes gets cranky
The dude's a super freak
The kind of guy you talk about
With Charissa and Tiki
Cause Moss blew up the Raiders
The dude's a super freak
He's gonna beat the pants off
Every team we meet
He's all right, he's all right
Randy's all right with me, yeah
Hey hey hey hey
He's a super freak, super freak
He's super-freaky, yow

Patriots sing!
Ohhhhhh
Super freak, super freak
That dude's a super freak
Ohhhhhh

He's a very lanky dude
The kind that no DB can cover
He will never let his teammates down
Unless you don't throw him the ball
Go, Randy!