Training camp is hard. It’s physical. It’s tiring. It’s heat and humidity. It is tension filled. It is scrutinized to the highest level.
And Jameel McClain yearned for every second of it.
“When my teammates practiced and lifted their weights, I would work alone. I spent so much time in our indoor field, training by myself. One day late in camp I went in there, and the lights were off,” McClain explained. “It was something that small, and a sensation came over me. Not only was I alone on the field, I was in the dark. I’m alone in the dark, fighting because I believed – when others didn’t – that I could come back. I felt alone in the dark, literally and figuratively.”
McClain, a sixth-year inside linebacker, had not missed a game in his career that began in 2008 when he signed with the Ravens. However, while making a tackle against the Redskins last Dec. 9, McClain injured his back and had to leave the game. While he insisted that he could go back in that game and argued he could play the following week against the Broncos, MRI tests showed a contusion on his spinal cord, ending his consecutive games streak.
“I saw a doctor in Dallas, and he asked me if I had saved my money, because this injury ‘is going to be the end for you.’ The doc had a certainty to what he said.
“He said my chances of playing again 'were slim to none.'"
“That flight back from Dallas was also a dark time. You’re in a plane by yourself, and there’s something about isolation on a plane,” McClain continued. “So that examination, that meeting, just imagine your heart dropping to the floor. Seriously, this guy was telling me it’s not possible.”
Some doctors underestimate the human will. Jameel McClain had been doubted for a long time before this injury.
The Undrafted Rookie
When Jameel joined us as an undrafted rookie free agent in May of 2008, he arrived as an athlete without a position. At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, he had played as an undersized stand-up defensive end on some not-very-good Syracuse teams. But, our scouts noted that he made a lot of plays, that he showed courage, intelligence and toughness, that his effort was off the charts … that he played like a Raven.
When he made the team that August, McClain rented an apartment. He had one picture on the walls of his new home. It was a picture of a Christmas tree with one present underneath it. That was his family’s Christmas one year.
“I put it up to remind me where I’ve been,” McClain explained. “To remind me that I don’t want to go back there. So every day, you’ve got to fight for what’s yours, because somebody wants to take it. You fight to stay on the Ravens, to survive and to get things done by giving everything you have.”
The picture sits in his office today.
“I’m not supposed to be in the NFL. I’m not the right size, not tall enough, not big enough. From growing up homeless, living in Salvation Army shelters, to fighting my way to college and then through college – I know how to fight my way through things,” said the former Philadelphia-area Golden Gloves fighter. “This was just another fight back for me. If I can define what I do, it is that I fight to accomplish what I believe is important. If I slow down, God slaps me in the back of the head and says, ‘Get going, you have work to do.’”
McClain doesn’t brag about his history. You have to twist his arm a little to get him to reminisce. Nor could you detect the “dark” times he was going through as he re-habbed his injury. “I’m working. I’m getting better” is what he said when you asked him. But, there was no doubt how hard he was working.
"His fortitude, his drive. He was not going to let his career be done."
Determined is the word I would use to describe his work,” Bob Rogucki, the Ravens’ strength and conditioning coach, said on Wednesday.
“The things I can control are my mental state and how much I work. The doctors could say what they wanted. I focused on being ready to play if they said I could play,” McClain added.
Coaches will now decide when he is “football” ready, but he is clearly happy to be back at practice.
“I missed so much being a part of the team. When you’re injured, you’re really not part of it. I missed the trash talk at practice. Going back and forth with Joe (Flacco) and Ray (Rice). No one wants to hear from you when you can’t help with the next game. I couldn’t really be myself, even with our new players. I couldn’t really give them pointers. I was the injured guy not practicing.
“It feels so good right now, even better than I expected,” McClain continued. “When I got on the practice field (on Wednesday), my heart just started pumping. I was sweating, and my adrenaline was going so high. I was saying, ‘Why am I out of breath?’ because I was just walking. I know I was in good shape. It was a little more emotional than I thought. That’s out of the way now, and I’m happy – and will be even happier when they put me in a game.”
Not sure when that will be for the exceptional Jameel McClain. When it does happen, you might want to keep your eyes on him for a few plays. He might celebrate with some big plays. We certainly can’t underestimate him.
Ravens/Steelers: The NFL’s Best Rivalry
In recent years, by consensus, the Ravens/Steelers rivalry has been selected the best in the NFL. There are a number of reasons why. The games are brutally physical, testing the manhood of every player in these contests. Both teams have been annual playoff contenders with a lot riding on each game.
(Baltimore is the NFL‘s only team to gain the playoffs each of the last five seasons – of course, winning the Super Bowl in February and gaining at least one postseason victory in each of those five years. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh made the playoffs three of the past five seasons, appearing in two Super Bowls, winning in 2008 and losing to the Packers in 2010.)
How about these numbers from the last five regular seasons: five wins for the Ravens, five for the Steelers; all five games played at Heinz Field have been decided by three points. Incredibly, eight of the last 10 games played between these archrivals have seen a margin of three points.
It could happen again. We know what we are in for. So do the Steelers. Both teams realize the importance. Many of us could give the inspirational speeches to the teams – although not as well as John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin.
When the “team” portion of practice started on Wednesday, my windows started vibrating as the giant speakers on the practice field exploded with Styx’s “Renegade.” As you might know, that’s the song the Steelers play when they need big defensive stands at Heinz Field. The fans rock; the towels wave. It can be intimidating to some teams.
It’s going to be a ferocious game. For sure. High stakes. Always when we play the Steelers. Yes, it’s Ravens/Steelers.
Since Wednesday, I can’t get that song out of my head – nor the sight of some of our players dancing to it. Thanks, Coach.
Let’s beat the Steelers.
Talk with you in a week,