Many players in the NFL have risen through tough circumstances to make it with the pros, but Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain may have them all beat.
You just would never know it by speaking with him.
The 23-year-old has lived a life that is fit for a classic movie. From being homeless at a young age from the streets of Philadelphia to making Baltimore's roster as an unlikely and undrafted free agent, McClain is now a critical piece of the league's second-ranked defense.
Looking back on his story during this holiday season, McClain does not revel in his progression, however. Instead, he chooses to give back, having teamed up with the Salvation Army as a proud spokesman, lending his wide smile to help those who were just as challenged as him.
"Christmas is a big time for the Salvation Army, and with my experiences in the past, being associated with this organization was big thing for me," McClain said on Christmas Eve. "I wanted to reach out where I can."
McClain grew up clawing his way up from the hardscrabble streets of inner-city Philadelphia. His father was incarcerated since he was 17, and times were difficult just to make it.
When he was in elementary school, he actually lived in a Salvation Army location in nearby Norristown, Pa., for a year with his mother, Barbara Flood, two brothers and his sister.
"It was a real tough time, living by other people's rules," McClain reminisced. "There were so many things you have to go through that people don't realize. You had to be there at a certain time to eat, because if you weren't, you might not get any food.
"I had an incredible learning experience at such a young age."
McClain fought his way out of poverty. He boxed as a Gold Gloves competitor as a teenager and thrived on the gridiron, eventually earning a scholarship to Syracuse.
He brought his philanthropic heart to upstate New York, where he starred as a defensive lineman for three years and at linebacker as a senior.
When the NFL Draft approached, the Ravens were interested in the 6-foot-1, 250-pounder that could potentially thrive in Baltimore's versatile defense.
That's exactly what he has done. The Ravens marked him as their top rookie free agent prospect, a move that has since panned out. McClain, who was a dual major in communications and rhetorical studies and sociology, owns 2.5 sacks from scrimmage and is third on the team with 17 special teams tackles. In addition, he has tallied two safeties.
"We threw the big hitters at him," said defensive coordinator Rex Ryan. "And we were fortunate to get him. We like the way he plays the game. We never realized he was going to be this smart and could learn our system."
But while those are gaudy numbers from a player 31 other teams failed to locate, McClain is just as proud of his accomplishments off the field, something he has remained committed to throughout the year.
"It's not just about Christmas," he said. "It's just something I've always remembered my whole life. At Syracuse, they made an effort to get us out in the community. Seeing what I've seen, why not lend your hand and show them that you can come out of anything."
On behalf of the Salvation Army, McClain spent time on Monday at the Boys & Girls Club in Glen Burnie, Md., to motivate the youths in attendance to strive for more in life.
It was part of a program that he joined earlier this season, at the urging of Major Roger Coulson, the Salvation Army Baltimore Area Commander.
When Major Coulson first met McClain in November at the Salvation Army Red Kettle kickoff, he was not only delighted that McClain had agreed to become a spokesperson for the organization, but he was thrilled with his excitement and eagerness to give back to the Baltimore community
McClain was equally excited.
"I think this is such a great organization," McClain explained. "They helped me and my family, and now it's my turn."
McClain is anxious to spend a free day at home in Philadelphia for Christmas, with the family and friends he knew during his childhood. And even though he has certainly come a long way from taking shelter at the Salvation Army, McClain maintains neither he nor his family will ever change.
"I'm looking forward to going home and relaxing with my family, seeing my brothers and sisters and cousins, and eating some mac and cheese," he stated with his trademark wide smile. "It's the same thing when I go home. Nothing changes. They are proud of me, but they're never going to change who they are, and that's what makes this season so special." Some More Notes from the Baltimore Community
By Lindsay Melvin, BaltimoreRavens.com contributing writer
Tasha is a 30 year-old single mother, who is being forced to leave her apartment within the next few months because of state safety requirements. Due to unfortunate circumstances, Tasha must raise her five children and her three nieces alone.
The children of the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House hail from all over the world, and their illnesses or diseases are being treated at area hospitals. The house offers families a way to stay together, in proximity to their doctors, and be comfortable and cared for during their stay.
Tasha, Major Coulson and the children of Ronald McDonald House all have very different stories and backgrounds, but they do have one thing in common. Along with many others this holiday season, they were touched by a Raven.
Ravens cheerleader Tara C. has been part of the Ravens family for 3 years. As a past Americorps member, Tara continues to volunteer in the Baltimore community. Over a month ago while volunteering at a glaucoma screening at a local church, Tara met Millie, a representative from the Pen Lucy Action Network (PLAN). Through Millie, Tara was introduced to Tasha's family, and decided to get her teammates involved by adopting the family for the holiday season.
On Friday, December 19, Tara and members of the Ravens cheerleading squad visited Tasha's household bearing several gifts for Tasha, her children and nieces.
In the past, cornerback Chris McAlister has brought gifts to the children at the Baltimore Ronald McDonald House. This year, McAlister not only brought gifts, he brought the party. The evening started with a full holiday meal which was worked off by the dancing and karaoke that followed. As the children approached McAlister and WR Marcus Maxwell, Santa's helpers quickly scurried under the tree to grant them their Christmas wishes.
In addition to the gifts given by the cheerleaders, McClain and McAlister, many other Ravens were involved in holiday events this season.
On Tuesday, Dec. 16, Ravens LB Ray Lewis hosted his annual Holiday Gift Marketplace, where children "shop" for themselves and their families from an assortment of gifts provided by Lewis.
One week later, on Monday, Dec. 22, Ravens DE Marques Douglas and NT Haloti Ngata hosted the "Shop with a Raven" event at the Hunt Valley Dick's Sporting Goods store. Children from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation went on a shopping spree with a $200 gift certificate provided by Dick's, Douglas and Ngata.
The Ravens are true believers that it is much better to give than to receive. Happy Holidays from the family here at 1 Winning Drive!
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