Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images Before he turned 25, Rolando McClain got drafted 8th overall, signed a $40-million contract, got cut, got arrested three times, got traded, and retired (twice).
Now, in a late, unexpected twist, McClain is playing the best football of his life for a Dallas Cowboys team that looks like one of the best in the NFL through six weeks.
His teammates and coaches are raving about him.
"He’s got rare ability," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli told the Dallas Morning News. "He is really a terrific leader in his own way. Guys seem to rally around a guy like that, physical presence. He hits. He runs. He likes to practice. He practices hard. He leads by what he does."
As recently as April, when he announced his second retirement, it would have been hard to imagine McClain getting that sort of praise.
McClain was drafted at No. 8 by the Oakland Raiders in 2010 after a fantastic college career at Alabama.
His first two NFL seasons were relatively quiet, but things began to unravel in 2012. After beginning the year as the starter, he was demoted in Week 8 and only played about 50% of his team's snaps that year.
The whole thing fell apart in November of 2012, when McClain got kicked out of a practice. After that, McClain posted on his Facebook, "Officially no longer an Oakland Raider!! Well technically I am. But I'm mentally done. Just waiting on my papers."
He also got arrested twice as a Raider. His first arrest, in December of 2011, produced a viral photo of him getting led into the squad car, which became the lasting image of Rolando McClain in the public consciousness:
Before the NFL Draft in April of 2013, the Raiders cut McClain with two years left on his contract.
"McClain never lived up to his billing on the field. He was out of shape, slow and often out of position. He didn’t show the instincts expected from a top-10 pick," ESPN wrote at the time.
McClain signed with the Baltimore Ravens two weeks after the Raiders cut him, but things very much did not work out.
In mid-April of 2013 he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest in Alabama. A few weeks after the arrest — and a total of 33 days after signing with the Ravens — McClain announced that he was retiring at age 23 .
He re-enrolled at Alabama, majoring in family financial planning, and later told ESPN's Seth Wickersham he needed to quit football to deal with his anger issues and work on his life off the field.
In the spring of 2014, after Baltimore reactivated him and it looked like he was going to rejoin the team, McClain announced a second retirement. On the day he was supposed to show up to a Ravens offseason workout, he instead texted ESPN saying, "I gotta follow my heart. It ain't football. If football made me complete I would play."
The Ravens eventually put him back on the reserve-retired list. In July, they traded him to Dallas along with a 7th-round pick in exchange for a 6th-round pick.
He was a throwaway player in a small-time trade.
Things are very different three months later.
He's now he's playing like one of the best linebackers in the league.
Pro Football Focus — an analytics site that grades every player at every position — has him as the third-best inside linebacker in the NFL. The much-maligned Cowboys defense has gone from 30th in the NFL last year to a respectably 16th this year, even after losing DeMarcus Ware to the Broncos and Sean Lee to injury.
His teammates are over the moon about him.
From the Dallas Morning News:
“He’s like a created player,” whose overwhelming skills break the balance of a video game, said Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr.
“Just his presence is intimidation,” safety J.J. Wilcox added.
Nick Saban, McClain's coach at Alabama, said McClain has always had the ability but it took some time to get his personal life in order, "He was a great leader here and a great player here, a very mature guy. But again, some things sometimes take priority. Before you can really focus on what you’re trying to do as a football player, you have to get those things right in your life."
If he can stay on the right track for the rest of the season, this will be one of the more unusual redemption stories in recent years.
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