Before every game, Nakamura approaches his teammate and close friend and reminds him of one thing: "I tell him that he's come so far,'" Nakamura says. "The hard part is already past him. He's already been through so much in his life. It's almost like he had nothing. He did have nothing. When you are just looking for a place to lay your head and you don't have that, you're going through a lot. This guy has made tremendous strides. He goes from an undrafted free agent to a starting linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, one of the best defenses in the NFL. It's just a tremendous story."
McClain is humbled by the attention that his background has gotten, and he gets goose bumps at the mere suggestion that he is a role model for inner-city kids. At an event last month at the Salvation Army Warehouse where McClain provided a Thanksgiving meal for 53 families, several of the kids in attendance had McClain's number painted on their faces.
He signed autographs and delivered food, then took great pride in relaying part of his story and the obstacles he has overcome. The trials and tribulations he once kept bottled inside come out freely now.
"He shares his story with anybody who will listen," says McClain's aunt, Gloria Smith. She and her husband, Greg, took in McClain and his two brothers after they learned that his family had been staying at a Salvation Army in Philadelphia with their mother, Barbara Flood. "He's always said, If my story will help with someone else and they see that I made it, they'll know that they can make it, too.' For him to get to where he is now, it's a testament to him and hard work. He's never given up regardless of what the situation was. Jameel is like my little underdog. He has that internal motivation that never stops."
Yet, McClain still scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps he had more obstacles to overcome. He is inspired by the backgrounds of his teammates, like linebacker and special teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo, who played outside the United States for three seasons before finally getting a shot in the NFL. He has great respect for Nakamura, who has carved out a nice role in the NFL despite being relatively undersized and having some injury issues.
His own story? He'd just rather everyone focus on the positives and not the obstacles, or on people like Greg and Gloria Smith and Al Wallace.
A father figure
Greg and Gloria Smith took McClain into their home when he was a 14-year-old brimming with athletic potential — he also played basketball and boxed, getting his first pair of trunks from legendary Philadelphia pugilist Joe Frazier — and youthful exuberance but short on opportunity. Two of McClain's siblings already lived with the family as it had become tougher and tougher for their mother to look after and provide for the kids while trying to stay afloat herself.
The Smiths had one rule: "We told him the only thing that he needed to do was behave, study and do your best and you'll get everything you want," Greg Smith says. "And he said, 'Really?' I said, 'Yes really.'"
That certainly meant a lot to a boy who barely had any clothes or shoes and almost always had an empty stomach. Yet neither McClain nor his siblings complained.
"They were so strange and odd about it. They didn't look at it as a negative that should beat you down," Greg Smith says. "They were like, 'This is what it is, I have to take it as that.' And they just blossomed. They had already been through the battles, in Salvation Army, not knowing where they were going to lay their head, jumping from one house to another. They went through the trials and tribulations at a very young age, but he always kept it together. He's my nephew, but he's kind of like a son to me. We always had that special bond. When he started playing football, you saw that extra glow in him."
Smith and McClain still talk or text every night. Their conversation inevitably touches on football, but it always ends with Smith giving McClain one final piece of positive encouragement about life.
"There's nothing like having positive people in your life. You don't know how important it is until you get them," McClain says. "Everything that he's done for me and the things that he hasn't done for me that he doesn't even know, that's the image of what a man should be. That's the way I want to represent myself. I want to raise my child in the same way that he raised his and me and my brother."
A role model
Al Wallace had a solid seven-year career as an NFL defensive tackle, playing seven seasons for the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles and collecting 23 sacks and four interceptions in 96 games. But in the Philadelphia community, he certainly wasn't a Donovan McNabb or a Duce Staley.
When Wallace showed up at George Washington High to talk to students, his presence was met with indifference by several of McClain's friends. However, McClain, then a junior, hung on his every word.