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Jameel McClain has fought the odds all through his life, but he never thought he wouldn't make it to the NFL.
Apparently, not once.
"I knew I belonged [in the pros] the day I came out of my mother's womb," McClain said on Tuesday. "I was born to play this game. I'm born to go out there and hit somebody and play with a high intensity and a lot of rah-rah. So, it's not like I came here wide-eyed, like, 'Man, I don't deserve this.'
"I understand that you've got to work for everything in life, so I'm my biggest critic and my biggest fan. It's for me to put in the work all the time."
That's exactly what McClain has done his entire life, and now, he finds himself ready to start alongside Ray Lewis when the Ravens open their preseason Thursday against the Carolina Panthers.
The inside linebacker grew up on the rough streets of Philadelphia. He was homeless for a year. When McClain went to Syracuse, he became the first member of his immediate family to graduate from college, majoring in communications and rhetorical studies.
A fight for a roster spot?
A piece of cake for this strong-willed defender.
"Listen, I've fought for everything my entire life," McClain said. "That's something I'm proud of. But, I can still always do more, keep working and keep getting better."
McClain seems to have beaten out Dannell Ellerbe, who started five games (two in the playoffs) at the "jack" linebacker spot last year, and Tavares Gooden, who owned 12 starts, at this point in the summer.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh said it was – and still is – a good competition between the three, but McClain's consistency and attention to detail separates him from the pack.
"That's what he is, he's consistent," Harbaugh said. "He's consistent. He's physical between the tackles. He's solid in pass coverage.
"The competition at linebacker has been so good. All those guys are getting better. They're making big strides every day because they're pushing each other. That's the value of competition."
Should McClain solidify the starting spot during the season, his story would be reminiscent of Bart Scott's, the last player to consistently hold things down next to No. 52.
Both players were scrappy on the field and community-oriented off it. Scott came from a rough neighborhood in Detroit and was an unheralded and undrafted rookie. Scott then became one of the NFL's top inside linebackers, signing a lucrative contract with the New York Jets two years ago.
Coming out of Syracuse, where he totaled 170 career tackles and 11 ½ sacks as a defensive end, McClain was the only player to make the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2008.
While McClain got his shots as a rookie, he really made an impact as a special teamer last year, totaling 33 special teams tackles, second-best on the team.
In order to improve on that production, McClain worked hard in the offseason with both a speed and strength coach. And, the fact that he's not bouncing between inside and outside linebacker, which he did in the past, makes things easier.
For McClain, Thursday's start is the culmination of his singular focus.
"It's like if you go to work and your boss tells you that you've got to do five projects in one day," McClain said. "You're going to be like, 'Dang, I'm used to doing one or two.'
"So, getting to do one or two things is definitely a blessing and it has been able to narrow things down for me."