For Ravens' Jameel McClain, path from North Philadelphia to Super Bowl wasn't easy

Baltimore's Jameel McClain, a George Washington High standout, credits a Syracuse professor for giving him perspective on what he could accomplish.
Baltimore's Jameel McClain, a George Washington High standout, credits a Syracuse professor for giving him perspective on what he could accomplish. (         KEVIN TERRELL / AP)
Posted: January 31, 2013

As a child in North Philadelphia, Jameel McClain lived with his mother and three siblings in a Salvation Army shelter for a year and bounced between homes every few months. That was the lowest point for the Baltimore Ravens' 27-year-old linebacker.

Playing for a team in the Super Bowl was not his foremost ambition. Figuring out the next day mattered more to McClain at the time.

These days, McClain is a five-year NFL veteran who has become a fixture on the Ravens defense, though his season was halted when he suffered a spinal contusion in December.

Still, the 6-foot-1, 245-pound McClain will be on the sideline watching his teammates in Sunday's big game against the San Francisco 49ers. And while his inability to play is disappointing, it is not causing McClain unbearable distress.

McClain's perspective has been hardened by those childhood experiences, trying to earn a college scholarship while at George Washington High School, and going undrafted after playing at Syracuse.

"Nobody likes it easy," McClain said. "But I'll tell you what, I've never had it easy."

His path to the NFL, the path out of North Philadelphia, was not all that much different from that of many others who have overcome similar obstacles. He put in work, was helped by mentors along the way, and capitalized on opportunities. He earned a football scholarship to Syracuse.

George Washington football coach Ron Cohen used to kick McClain out of the weight room. When Cohen asked McClain why he worked out so late, McClain answered, "I have nothing to get home to. My friends are either in jail or dead."

During summers as a teenager, McClain left home at 4 a.m. each day to work at a salad company. This is the work ethic that helps explain how he went from a housing shelter to a Super Bowl roster. What's important to McClain is that others understand his story.

"Just define yourself. It's that simple," McClain said. "You're going to be what you want to be, not who the teacher told [you you were] . . . or what someone in the neighborhood ended up doing. It's all about defining yourself and making up your mind, and understanding you're going to live your life and live it the way you want to live."

See the world

McClain spreads this message whenever he can. He goes from speaking at senior citizen homes to speaking at football camps to working with the Salvation Army. He even spoke at a recent commencement at George Washington.

He hosts coat drives and offers turkey dinners to the disadvantaged. He wants to establish an apprentice program to partner ambitious kids with someone in an industry that interests them.

"The turning point in my perspective, as a man, happened at Syracuse," McClain said. "That, I believe, is what helped mold me into who I am and helped give me a bigger picture of the world. Up to that point, I didn't know anything else but Philadelphia."

McClain boxed as a kid, fighting in Golden Gloves tournaments as far away as Kansas and Ohio. But he did not have many more opportunities to interact with people from elsewhere, with perspectives and backgrounds different from his. His eyes were opened, he said, during his sophomore year at Syracuse, when he took a course called Organizational Simulation, taught by a professor named Rachael Gazdick, a Souderton native.

"She was my Windex. She helped me clear my window, meaning my eyes," McClain said. "She helped me see the world for more than what it was. Without Rachael Gazdick, I don't know how community-related I'd be."

The course was designed to help students learn their role in the world around them. McClain shared his personal story with his classmates. The students designed a not-for-profit organization in collaboration with a local elementary school to learn about building an organization that can help the community.

"I think it just opened up a new space, and when [the students thought] about their own accomplishments, we would talk about reaching back to other kids and families who have the same experiences they have," Gazdick said from Denver, where she is now the executive director of the Colorado I Have a Dream Foundation.

"Here we go again"

McClain's platform comes from his prominence as an NFL player, and his odds to succeed seemed tough when he went undrafted in 2008.

" 'Here we go again. It's another fight,' " McClain recalled thinking at the time. "For me, it was easy [to deal with]. I've been in a lot of fights."

He chose to sign with the Ravens when star linebacker Ray Lewis called him and asked him to join the team. He finally felt like an NFL player, he said, when he first ran out of the tunnel for a game. It was the only time, he said, that his emotions overwhelmed him.

He went on to develop from a special-teams player to a key backup to a dependable starter who signed a $10.5 million contract during the offseason.

"It's definitely been a long journey," McClain said, "and the journey is still progressing."


Contact Zach Berman at zberman@phllynews.com. Follow on Twitter @ZBerm.

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