Football Thursday: Miracle or not, Ravens' Jameel McClain inspires with recovery from spinal injury

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – The spot on the machine's screen had a name: "Spinal contusion."

The doctors repeated it in somber tones every time they pulled Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain from an MRI machine after that tackle last Dec. 9. Then they followed their diagnosis with vague predictions of misfortune to come.

They said the spot would never go away. They explained that it rested on the aqueduct through which flowed almost every command his brain gave to his body. They said things like "nerve damage" and "partial paralysis." And they said he might have trouble walking or breathing or picking things up.

Finally one of them, a doctor in Dallas, blurted, "I hope you saved your money because you have played your last game."

On Wednesday afternoon, McClain smiled as he sat in a chair near the Ravens' practice fields. The spot on his spinal cord has been gone for a long time now. Less than two weeks ago he played his first game since the injury, coincidentally the same day Green Bay's Jermichael Finley was carted off the field with a similar injury. And while Finley lay in a hospital wondering what was wrong, McClain started in a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He also played special teams.

He had six total tackles.

"Amazing," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees told reporters after the game.

"If the cord contusion is true, I would say this is on the verge of miraculous," said Argyrios Stampas, the director of Burke Rehabilitation Hospital's spinal cord injury program, which did not treat McClain but has followed the story of his injury.

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"Is it a miracle?" McClain asked with the practice fields stretching behind him. He laughed. "I don't know. It depends on who you ask. I think it was a mixture of both. I think it's a mixture of determination and a miracle.

"God definitely had his hands on me. He let me know, he was the one that pushed me through and said, 'Don't quit, keep going.' Then at the end he was the one who finished it off and said, 'Go back and do what you love.' "

McClain's aunt, Gloria Smith, is not one for miracles. She and her husband, Gregory, rescued McClain, his two brothers and a sister from a Salvation Army shelter when McClain was in junior high school. Smith does not buy into magical recoveries. "Miracle" to her is a word doctors use when their science fails to explain the unexplainable.

"I think things happen for a reason," she said Wednesday. "His whole purpose is bigger than his NFL career. His purpose is that he is here to help people."

Her nephew's story is one of a perseverance she can hardly imagine. So many times she worried about him only to be inspired. There were his father's constant trips to prison. And there was the year she lost touch with her sister Barbara Flood and her children, only to discover they had been living for over a year in the Salvation Army shelter. There too was an improbable football career at Syracuse and finally the Ravens, who gave him a shot when he was undrafted and unwanted by the rest of the NFL only to become a key part of one of the league's most dominant defenses.

So no, she doesn't look at McClain and see something that makes no medical sense. Rather she sees a story other people need to know. She sees millions of people without homes or fathers or a great start in life, and she knows his experience can bring hope to them all.

When the spot on the MRI screen that was supposed to be a death sentence for Jameel's football career disappeared on the 11th of his 12 MRI exams, she didn't think that was amazing or a miracle. Instead it was another platform for people to see where her nephew had been and how others can follow his example.

"He is very bright and he learns from every situation," Smith said. "His whole insight is so profound. He just gets it. Nothing that happens to him is personal. He gets angry and says, 'Why me? Why me?' But it doesn't last very long and then he gets on to the next day.

"That's why people need to hear him. They call it a miracle. I call it his destiny."

Initially, on Dec. 9, McClain needed to make a tackle. The Ravens were at FedEx Field holding on to a four-point third-quarter lead. With 3:39 left, McClain saw Washington running back Alfred Morris bursting through the left side of the line, lunging for a first down. Desperate to protect the lead, McClain launched himself toward Morris, hitting him with his helmet in such a way that he tumbled to the ground and felt nothing.

He tried his feet. They didn't move. He tried his hands. They didn't move either. Then, before panic set in, his feet tingled. His hands tingled. He could move!

The team athletic trainers huddled over him. He told them as long as he could stand up he was going to run off the field, which he did. On the sideline they examined him. They walked him into a room with an X-ray machine. The X-rays showed nothing.

He asked the doctors if he could go back in.

They shook their heads.

He pushed against their no. The X-rays were clean. He could feel his hands, he could feel his feet, he could run, couldn't he go back on the field?

They shook their heads again.

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At first, the doctors used the phrase "spinal concussion" to describe his condition. But spinal concussions (also known as stingers) are temporary. When he underwent his first MRI after the game and the spot appeared on the screen, the diagnosis changed to "spinal contusion" and that's when they all understood how seriously he was injured.

McClain saw so many doctors they became a blur. In and out of MRI machines he went, each presenting a different picture on the doctors' screen. Some of the doctors thought the spot was getting bigger. Others thought it was growing smaller. One was sure there were two spots and was gravely concerned. The doctor in Dallas told McClain a story about fleas and ticks, as in the possibility of issues the spot on his cord presented were like a dog that not only had fleas but ticks as well.

That's when the doctor told him he had played his last game.

"I get an injury and they tell me, 'This is it, you might as well start thinking about your next career.' I say, 'You haven't seen nothing yet,' " McClain said looking back. "You haven't seen anything. You don't even know me to tell me that. You can't know me. My whole career, all I've heard is 'no.' It's just what I took from the no that got me where I'm at right now."

He wanted to go back to the Ravens' practice facility and lift extra weights, run more sprints and watch more film – the things he had always done in the past when presented with road blocks. But there was nothing he could do. No lifting or running was going to make the spot disappear.

From what Stampas has read of McClain's injury, he is stunned the player didn't have any lingering effects. The spinal cord is so sensitive that any small blemish traumatizes the constant flow of information shooting down from the brain. Stampas' most fortunate patients still face a loss of bladder functions or the ability to walk.

"I have patients who are walking but still without some functions," Stampas said.

And yet McClain had lost no neurological function. He felt just as he did before he hit Morris. The doctors grew positive. One told him about techniques he could use in tackling to reduce the injury risk and also showed him how to open his spinal column more to give the cord more room.

The Super Bowl came and the Ravens brought him to the game, letting him stand on the field with his teammates and hold the great silver trophy when it was handed to him as glittering confetti fluttered around them. But the moment was bittersweet. He was thrilled for the team but miserable because he couldn't play.

The doctors kept telling him to be patient. He hated being patient. He started to plan for a life after football, heeding his aunt's words that he needed to tell his story. He thought about motivational speaking. He thought about coaching kids. He thought about opening a recreation center where everyone, regardless of where they lived, could come and be safe.

Then came the next-to-last MRI, the one where there was no spot. His hopes soared. He talked about playing again. He went to his position meetings. He did everything he normally would but practice and play.

The final OK came in mid-October. At his first practice he dressed at his locker, then headed out toward the field. Only something strange happened. He started sweating. He tried to jog but was quickly out of breath. He was confused. He had been running every day. He shouldn't be gasping for breath. Then he realized he wasn't tired he just wanted to cry.

Everything: his childhood, his career, the injury, the doctors, the spot on the screen collapsed inside him. After months of wondering if he would ever play again, he was walking onto the field. He was right. He did make it back.

"It caught me off guard," he said of the sensation. "I was like, man, it was way more emotional than I thought it would be to have that much adrenaline just coming out to practice."

As he stood on the field in Baltimore that first game back, McClain couldn't wait to make a tackle. He buzzed with anticipation. He hoped it would be a big open-field shot, one where he could slam into another player, one where he could show everyone he wasn't afraid.

"I'm the type of person if I'm going to do it I'm going all out, I'm going to hit this guy as hard as I can," McClain said. "He can hurt me or I hurt him. I'm not trying to physically hurt anyone but I want to physically impose my will every time. If I get away from my game I will be a completely different player."

Rather than a big booming tackle, the first hit was on the Ravens' first punt. Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown caught the ball on his 22 and ran up near the 40 when McClain pulled him down. Not a rattling smash but a good test nonetheless.

And it felt great.

But as he sat on the edge of the practice field on Wednesday, he talked less about the first game as he did about the past and the Salvation Army shelter near Norristown, Pa., where his mother had moved them from their previous home in North Philadelphia. He told his story of growing up with almost nothing and how the failures of those he saw in his neighborhood pushed him to get to the NFL.

He talked about people he knew who were going to jail for $10 drug sales and wondered how someone could throw their life away over something so trivial. He talked about ignoring problems and focusing on success. He said the story of his career was nothing compared to the story of his life. He said he was proud of the fact that once he made the Ravens roster he played in every one of the team's games until last Dec. 9.

"It is complete pride for me," he said of the now-broken streak." But it's still the same feeling of: 'How is he still doing it? We told him from the beginning he wasn't good enough to make it. We told him from the beginning to quit. We told him even before the injury, we told him the moment he walked on the football field it wasn't for him. And he's still there.'

"There's a million people out there like that who [are] consistently being told no. I guess I need to be the example for them. I guess there are a million other examples in the world, don't get me wrong, but the more I'm out there playing, the more they know I can do."

As Gloria Smith said: "Life is the best teacher."

And as he sat beside the practice fields he is allowed to roam again, Jameel McClain smiled on Wednesday afternoon. The sun peeked through a cloudy day.

"I always thought I would be back to be honest," he said. "I always believed I had the faith to persevere through any situation I've been through in life so this situation was no different to me. I had to believe mentally and physically that I could be back."

Now he is.

A miracle or not.

Arizona Cardinals – The Tyrann Mathieu gamble is paying off.

  Atlanta Falcons – Harry Douglas did all he could in another Falcon disaster.

  Baltimore Ravens – Bye.

  Buffalo Bills – Thad Lewis just for the beating he endured from the Saints D.

  Carolina Panthers – Very quietly Cam Newton is having a nice year.

  Chicago Bears – Bye.

  Cincinnati Bengals – Andy Dalton with a huge five-TD game.

  Cleveland Browns – Jason Campbell was victimized by drops in a game the Browns could have won.

  Dallas Cowboys – Lost in nightmare of loss was Tony Romo's excellent day.

  Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning dominates, even with two sprained ankles.

  Detroit Lions – Calvin Johnson had the game of the year for anybody, anywhere.

  Green Bay Packers – As receivers fall, Aaron Rodgers keeps pulling the team together.

  Houston Texans – Bye.

  Indianapolis Colts – Bye.

  Jacksonville Jaguars – Cecil Shorts had a productive game on a dreary evening.

  Kansas City Chiefs – Alex Smith with yet another effective, efficient day.

  Miami Dolphins – Lamar Miller with a solid rushing day.

  Minnesota Vikings – Erin Henderson tried to hold the Vikings defense in the game.

  New England Patriots – Logan Ryan made plays when the Pats needed him.

  New Orleans Saints – With 5 TDs it has to be Drew Brees.

New York Giants – The Peyton Hillis revival gets better and better.

New York Jets – Nick Folk had 3 field goals, including a 50-yarder.

Oakland Raiders – Terrelle Pryor had a lousy passing day but his 93-yard TD run was something.

Philadelphia Eagles – Mychal Kendricks with 11 solo tackles on another day the offense disappeared.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Ryan Clark had a few hits on another rough afternoon for Pittsburgh.

St. Louis Rams – Zac Stacy had 134 rushing yards against a strong defense.

San Diego Chargers – Bye.

San Francisco 49ers – Frank Gore, though you could have chosen almost any Niner.

Seattle Seahawks – Taunting or not, Golden Tate was the difference.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Lavonte David was goat in the opener but is having a good season.

Tennessee Titans – Bye.

Washington Redskins – Alfred Morris with more of an Alfred Morris day.