By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
If it wasn’t because of his focus, Jameel McClain’s life might have turned out much differently.
Growing up homeless in North Philadelphia, he could have been, well, an unfortunate statistic. Instead, McClain, coming out of Syracuse University, signed as an undrafted, free agent linebacker with Baltimore in 2008, and would spend six of his seven seasons in the NFL with the Ravens. His final year, 2014, was with the New York Giants.
“Throughout life I was just taught to just keep working,” McClain said. “Keep working and keep going, to not worry about what’s to the left of me, not worry about what’s to the right of me, or worry about what might possibly come.
“The outside never really affected me. I think that’s one of the big things that’s been able to help me be successful in the league, out of the league, and I think it’s one of the things that made me so transparent to people because I just focused on the task and really didn’t care about the noise, ever.
“I think in general, I definitely am a self-made person. Everything I did took really hard work, a lot of studying, and making sure I was on top of it. When I was down, there wasn’t going to be anybody to pick me up, so I had to pick myself up. That’s not saying that I never got good advice because I got good advice, but I got a lot more bad advice. I’ve just always been able to draw on different things and I think that’s what made me the person that I am.”
McClain began contemplating what he would do after playing in the NFL when he began playing in the NFL.
“I knew once I got in that door, I was like, brother, you’ve got to work harder than everybody and you’ve got to be more prepared for whenever they shut these lights off,” McClain said. “So, from day one, me and my financial guy made a plan and put it on a pyramid. ‘This is your foundation and this is where we want you to end when it’s all done.’ Unfortunately, my career was cut short, but the best part is we were already at the top of the pyramid.
“I was brought up where I had to have a Plan A, a Plan B, and a Plan C, because everybody’s going to tell me, ‘no.’ I was to the extent where if the NFL told me no, I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to help people out. I wanted to try to go into all these other avenues.”
One of the avenues that McClain and his wife, Keisha, have taken is to be business owners. Earlier this year, they opened a Retro Fitness gym in Catonsville, Maryland.
They’re also heavily involved in their 53 Families Foundation. A 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization, the foundation, which got its name from McClain’s jersey number, was founded during his rookie season. Over the years, they’ve helped aid families with events such as book bag and sneaker drives, coat giveaways, Easter egg hunts and Thanksgiving dinners.
“We’ve done everything under the sun. And with my background, you can see why that’s important to me,” McClain said. “What I enjoy most about it is providing hope for what some would say are the hopeless. It’s easy to lose your will when you’re down and out. It’s also easy for people to step over the people that are sleeping on the corner. But it takes something in you special to want to put that person that’s on the ground and point him in the right direction.
“If a kid don’t remember my name 15 years from now, but they remember, man, that guy, I don’t know his name, but he really pushed me. That’s what it’s about. Your name being remembered, that means nothing. But people remembering that presence, that’s what you’ll always be able to push back on when you’re down.”
In May, McClain rejoined the Ravens as their assistant director of Player Engagement, where he’ll work with the team’s Player Engagement director, Harry Swayne.
“It is one of the best things ever.” McClain said. “To be honest, it’s so much deeper than Harry, the amazing football player. Harry, the omega-experienced person in the player development world. In my life, I’ve been able to be around good men and great men, but none really like Harry.
“And to be able to be around him daily and get his advice or his wisdom, those are the things I value so much more because those are the things that make me a better person. So instead of getting bad information like I got before when I was young, but learning to do the best with it, you get good information and then you become even better with it.
“I believe in sharing. I believe that the universe is about putting into it more than you take out of it, so everything that player development represents – guiding people, giving them the tools, showing them but not fooling them.
“Leading them to the water and if they drink it, they drink it, and if they don’t drink it, cool. But when you get thirsty, this water is going to be right here for you to drink and I’m going to be standing right here, ‘Yo, I’ve got you.’ That’s really what player engagement is to me and it’s my personality. That’s what I love about it the most.
“And the other part that’s great about it is just being with the organization. It’s a great organization from top to bottom. I’ve always loved the Ravens, I’ve always respected them. They took a kid from North Philly, that just so happened to go to Syracuse, and turned him into a man throughout that process.”