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Under the blinding lights, with the warm, fall breeze rapping against his neck and opposing linemen staring him down, high school standout Le'Ron McClain could always look into the crowd and spot his No. 1 fan donning his No. 33 jersey.
"She's my biggest supporter," beamed the two-time Pro Bowler about his mother, Gwen. "Every time I walked out on the field, I knew she was in the stands with one of my jerseys on. That's how she has always supported me."
From playing with his high school teammates in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to making plays for the University of Alabama, to running and blocking in Baltimore, McClain's motivation to excel on the field has always sprung from his family and a deep-rooted southern football tradition.
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS
Dressing in his first jersey at seven years old, McClain knew he would play football his entire life. And when his family moved from Fort Wayne, Ind., to Tuscaloosa, the eager athlete couldn't help but think about the thrilling football atmosphere that was sure to greet him in the South.
"Everybody was talking about Alabama football and how it is down there, so I just bought into it and loved it," he remembered. "Playing ball down south is like nothing else, especially in the state of Alabama."
Just by driving through Northport, Ala., on a Friday night, one could tell that the southern tradition lived up to its hype. Not a single person could be spotted more than a couple yards beyond the Tuscaloosa County High School stadium.
"Everything shuts down on game night in Northport," said McClain of the town in which his high school is located. "Everybody had their cars painted 'Go Cats.' It was great."
It was that type of local support and passion for the home team that inspired much of his success on the field.
Although, the halfback's large size and acute swiftness didn't hurt, either.
"I always stayed downhill, north to south, just running people over and wearing them down," said McClain, who was rated the nation's No. 2 fullback by Rivals.com as a senior.
With 1,070 rushing yards his final year and 1,007 as a junior, the then-235-pounder helped Tuscaloosa County secure two consecutive regional championships. Though rival Hoover High School captured the state title in each of those years, McClain recalls his favorite game as one in which he helped prove that the Wildcats could compete with their adversary.
Thinking Tuscaloosa County would be a guaranteed win, Hoover scheduled McClain's team for homecoming weekend his senior season. Anxious to overcome the boisterous crowd that greeted them, McClain and his teammates set out to silence the jam-packed stadium.
"When we played that night, I scored a touchdown that put us up by 10, and we went on to take the game away," said McClain of their 27-24 victory. "Hoover scheduling us, thinking they'd win, and us going up there to beat them was awesome"
Several years down the line, after establishing himself in the NFL, McClain still reflects on the unrivaled atmosphere of high school football and the anticipation leading up to those games.
"There is nothing like preparing for the game that Friday night – from the time the bell rings at the end of school up until the ride over to the stadium when you see the field, the lights and all the fans. I still think about that feeling today."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Though the electric, small-town environment helped further his football career, McClain's family has always served as the primary root of his success.
No matter what level he's played on, McClain has thought about his family each time he's stepped onto the turf. From the beginning, the inspiration he's received – especially from his mother – has helped him transition from prep to the pros.
"My mom is my backbone," he said of Gwen, who raised Le'Ron and his older brother, Chris, as a single parent. "She's the foundation for everything."
Gwen dedicated her time and energy to ensuring her children received a better life. This groundwork laid by his mother has given McClain the guidance to offer the same devotion to his two-year-old daughter, Alex. Now, that commitment and passion for Alex is evident in his attitude both on and off the field.
"My mom helped me through negative situations, and I want to make sure my daughter gets that support, too," McClain expressed. "That's why I take it to the max every time I hit the practice field and hit the game field. I just play hard so I can provide for her and represent my family."
McClain's three siblings also serve as a keystone to the rusher's fierce approach when he breaks out of the huddle.
"Chris is one of my biggest fans now," Le'Ron said of his eldest brother, who played a large role in the now-260-pounder's agile development. As children, the duo engaged in as many activities as they could, which simultaneously strengthened their bond and athleticism. "He calls me every Sunday morning before I wake up just to tell me good luck and that he'll be watching."
Le'Ron also frequently talks on the phone with his sister, Ashley, whom he calls his best friend, and his younger brother, Ronday, who looks up to him as a role model. Ronday's admiration for Le'Ron's work ethic repeatedly enters his mind as motivation.
"My family means a lot to me," McClain divulged. "The bond is so tight with us, and I think about them all the time. I just want to look out for them."
With that much encouragement as fuel, it's no wonder so much force and intensity emanates from just one player.
When the glare from the lights is at its brightest and McClain lines up next to his teammates, he still picks out that special jersey in the crowd. Whether it was when he was playing in Alabama, or now 800 miles north in Baltimore, the mind set Gwen instilled in him – and his will to build off of it – zealously shines through.
It almost makes you feel sorry for whoever encounters No. 33 on the gridiron.