And where he was from, there was nothing unique or dire about his story, or at least that's what he believed at the time. To him, it was normal to have only one active parent. McClain knew plenty of kids in inner-city Philadelphia who didn't have any. It was normal to worry about when your next meal was coming or where you'd lay your head at night. It was normal to stay awake wondering whether there was any chance of experiencing better days.
McClain taps his fist against his chest as teammates Ed Reed, Haruki Nakamura and Brandon McKinney nod behind him. There are about 300 people at the Salvation Army Warehouse on Buena Vista Avenue in Baltimore, and almost all of them are staring straight ahead and listening intently.
It's a far different audience from what McClain has confronted recently while relaying the plays to the Ravens' defensive huddle, but the inside linebacker's tone remains the same. He speaks with authority and confidence. He has something important to say, and everybody had better listen.
"I was young when I didn't want to talk about it. I was a kid, and I didn't know how selfish I was being," McClain says after a Ravens practice last week. "But my story is like everybody else's. That's what I want everybody to know. I'm just like everybody else. We all go through the same stuff. The difference is that I've learned and I've continued to grind. And I've had some luck on my side, too. There's nothing I would change. It made me who I am — good, bad and indifferent."
McClain's story has been told several times by different media outlets, and for good reason. The Cliffs Notes version is that he shuffled from home to home growing up in North Philadelphia, even settling for one year at a nearby Salvation Army rescue center with his mother and three siblings. He was taken in by his aunt and uncle, and his focus on athletics and academics while at George Washington High earned him a scholarship to Syracuse. After a solid four-year career there and a transition from playing down lineman to linebacker, he went undrafted before landing with the Ravens as a rookie free agent.
A contributor the past two seasons, McClain has blossomed this year, making 67 tackles, which is second on the team, and offsetting the extended absence of inside linebacker Ray Lewis with a toe injury. Lewis is expected to return Sunday against the San Diego Chargers.
"The life expectancy in my neighborhood is like 24 or 25, so for me to run around the field and hit someone and throw my body around, that's easy," McClain says. "All of this is easy. When I went to college, I came there with the perception that this is a vacation compared to the world that I'm from. I just always took it to the fullest and knew that there was some way I could end up back where I was. That's how I approach it. It can be taken from you. It can be taken from all of us."
It's three hours before the game, and the words of Kirk Franklin's 2005 gospel song "Let It Go" pierce through McClain's headphones. The song, which he has listened to on his way to every game since his college days, is about a man's perseverance through early struggles. It might as well be McClain's anthem.
See I'm. See I'm.
Soul survivor. Soul survivor.
I just wanna let it go.
McClain, one of the Ravens' team DJs, bobs his heads, the words so familiar, so fitting.
"When you've been at the bottom, when you are literally at the point where you are sleeping in basements, football really is kind of the easy part," says Andrew Jackson, McClain's older brother and part-time trainer. "When you study, do what you're supposed to do, there's no excuses, just results. He has no choice but to shine. He's always evolving. Jameel doesn't make steps, he makes leaps."
Jackson is part of McClain's close-knit support system that helped guide him out of troubled times and set him on the right path, one that would lead him to a defense that is defined by toughness and aggressiveness, two characteristics teammates say McClain embodies.
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."