EDGEWOOD – Jameel McClain peered into the gym bleachers, his eyes met by a crowd of curious, budding football players as he delivered a message about the importance of education.
And the Baltimore Ravens’ starting inside linebacker saw a reflection of his own past through the children attending his fitness and football clinic Saturday at the Edgewood Boys & Girls Club.
McClain recalled his arduous path from homelessness growing up in inner-city Philadelphia to earning a scholarship to Syracuse University and beating the odds to make it to the NFL as an undrafted rookie.
"Man when I see these kids, I definitely see myself," McClain told 24×7. "I see them running around having fun. They’ve got the passion. When I was young, I was so active that you couldn’t get me to stop moving."
Moving was a huge part of McClain’s childhood, and it wasn’t usually a positive thing. The family battled severe poverty.
Along with his mother, Barbara Flood, and his brothers and sisters, McClain spent a year in a Salvation Army shelter in Norristown, Pa., outside of Philadelphia when he was in middle school.
"How did we turn it around?" McClain said. "Once you struggle, all you can do is look up. When you’re at the ground, the only place to go is up from that point. My mother did a great job getting us out of that situation. She’s a wonderful woman. To go through what she went through with her kids, it’s a crazy experience.
"I couldn’t imagine that now. I’m blessed. It makes you appreciate life. It makes you appreciate where you come from, where you’ve been and what you’re doing now. Everything I have will never be taken for granted."
With his father incarcerated until he was nearly done with high school, McClain overcame a bleak outlook through the guidance of his mother, uncle, Greg Smith, and older brother, Andrew Jackson.
McClain thrived in athletics, developing into a Golden Gloves boxer who lost only once and received his first pair of boxing trunks from the legendary Joe Frazier
And he became the first person to graduate from college in his family.
"The toughest moment was being homeless or not having a bed to myself until I got into college," said McClain, who recorded a career-high 91 tackles last season as he started all but one game. "It was ironic when I saw the movie, ‘The Blind Side,’ and they showed that little part with [Ravens offensive tackle] Mike [Oher] and he said, ‘I never had a bed.’ I remember being in college and finally having my own room and my own bed. It was definitely tough growing up, but my story is no different than what a lot of kids go through now and in the past.
"Life, I understand it. You can go one or two ways where I’m from. You can go in a good direction of a bad direction. Most people chose a bad direction. For me, I’ve always chosen to stand out in a different way than what everybody else was doing. I knew the world was bigger than where I was at. I was fortunate enough to understand the big picture and I had good people in my corner."
During the clinic, which included Washington Redskins and former Ravens outside linebacker Edgar Jones, St. Louis Rams wide receiver Dominique Curry and a Washington Wizards cheerleader, McClain preached the need for physical fitness instead of spending too much time playing video games.
"I used football to get an education," McClain told the kids. "It was my platform to get to Syracuse University."
One large young man challenged McClain to an arm wrestling match, but he politely declined.
Predictably, McClain was asked about the unresolved labor dispute and if there will be football this fall.
"I hope we will," he said. "I hope we get an agreement done."
Another youngster wanted to know where was All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, and McClain assured him that the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year was undoubtedly hard at work in Florida preparing for the season.
Being asked about Lewis reminded McClain about when he was a sophomore in high school and former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Al Wallace visited his school.
"He came to talk to us and nobody else paid attention to him," McClain said. "Everyone was asking him, ‘Where’s Donovan McNabb?’ I thought, ‘This man has got it on track and he came to see us and dedicated himself to make to the NFL.’ I shaped what I did off of Al Wallace. He helped me."
Curry was a sophomore on the George Washington High varsity football team when McClain was an all-state performer.
Years later, Curry hasn’t seen any noticeable changes in his old friend.
"Jameel was like he is now, funny, but serious and hard-working with great leadership," Curry said. "He beat the odds by where he came from, being homeless, sleeping from house to house and making it to Syracuse. It’s a very rough neighborhood. It’s a lot of crime, drugs, and a lot of kids doing the wrong things.
"He shows the community what you can do with a positive attitude. He’s always up. If he’s ever down, you wouldn’t know it. Even back then, he gave me words of encouragement and we remain friends. I told him anytime he needs me, I’ll be there."
For McClain, the camp is intended to provide more than just football skills instruction and tips on speed work.
It’s intended to give the children something to think about.
"This is basically along the lines of what Michelle Obama is doing, keeping kids active," McClain said. "We want them to make positive choices in life. It’s not just running around. This is teaching them to be a complete person and citizen. I’m deeply entrenched in this community. This is what it’s all about.
"Football has affected my life tremendously. Without football, there would be no college and more than likely I wouldn’t be the man I am standing in front of you. Football can be taken away from you and I didn’t want to lose football. I knew what it could bring to me in the future."
Aaron Williams covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times