WESTMINSTER — Jameel McClain stared into their eyes while telling his triumphant story to dozens of overjoyed children hailing from his old neighborhood in inner-city Philadelphia.
And McClain saw himself in their reflection.
Attended their first NFL practice, the kids met star players like All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis as well as coach John Harbaugh.
They had a special connection with McClain, though.
The Baltimore Ravens’ hard-hitting inside linebacker grew up on the streets of Philadelphia and was homeless for a year.
When he was in middle school, McClain lived in a Salvation Army shelter in Norristown, Pa., with his mother, Barbara Flood, and three siblings. His father was in prison until he was a senior in high school.
McClain will never forget his roots.
“We rented a bus for them and we wanted to make sure they had a good time, so it was a positive day for Philadelphia,” said McClain, who’s in the lead for the Ravens’ starting inside linebacker job next to Lewis. “The majority of them are from my neighborhood, and some of them come from the same type of things that I’m from. I wanted them to see that the world is bigger than Philadelphia, and that you’re not a victim to your circumstances unless you make yourself one.”
McClain has never given up on his dreams despite extremely trying hardships.
Forced to mature quickly as a teenager with his father separated from the family, McClain relied on the guidance of his uncle and an older brother.
“We have a tight family,” McClain said. “We’ve always stuck together.”
McClain willed himself into becoming a Golden Gloves and Silver Gloves boxer with boxing legend Joe Frazier advising him, taking out his frustrations in the ring.
He worked his way into emerging as a versatile impact defensive player at Syracuse. He also became the first member of his family to graduate from college, completing a dual major in communications and rhetorical studies and sociology.
“I’ve fought for everything my whole life,” McClain said. “I’m proud of everything I’ve accomplished, but I’m not satisfied.
McClain was the lone undrafted rookie free agent to make the Ravens’ active roster three years ago.
Now, McClain has emerged as the early frontrunner to win the inside linebacker job.
McClain entered camp as a darkhorse candidate to start behind Dannell Ellerbe, who finished last season as the starter, and former third-round draft pick Tavares Gooden.
However, McClain’s grit, pass-rushing ability, steadiness and intelligence have caught the coaches’ eye. He has taken virtually every meaningful snap with the first-team defense in training camp.
McClain’s status might be a surprise to others, but definitely not to himself.
“That’s the story of my life, I’ve always been an underdog,” McClain said. “When you understand that you’re an underdog, there are no surprises. Everybody that knows me or has heard anything about my story knows I’ve never been picked first for anything. I always fight for everything that I get. It’s my job to hold to it, and it’s my job to prove I belong there.”
So far, McClain hasn’t looked out of place with the starting defense.
McClain has been hustling all over the field, aggressively tracking down running backs.
He’s also arguably the top blitzing inside linebacker since Bart Scott was in Baltimore.
Not as gifted athletically as Gooden or as big a hitter as Ellerbe, McClain just keeps grinding.
“That’s what he is, he’s consistent,” Harbaugh said. “He’s consistent. He’s physical between the tackles. He’s solid in pass coverage.
“The competition at linebacker has been so good. All those guys are getting better. They’re making big strides every day because they’re pushing each other. That’s the value of competition.”
As a rookie, McClain immediately flashed potential after choosing the Ravens over free agent offers from the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns and the New Orleans Saints.
He recorded a safety, sacking former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell.
“Jameel is a true Raven,” Lewis said at the time. “He is always after the ball. He comes to work with his hard hat every day. You just love to see kids step in and make plays like that.”
As a rookie, McClain set a franchise record by recording two safeties, blocked a punt and posted 2 ½ sacks and 17 special teams tackles.
Last season, the 6-foot-1, 250-pounder registered a career-high 29 tackles on defense with 33 special-teams tackles and a forced fumble.
His instincts and desire are what sets him apart.
“I keep working hard, I just keep plugging away,” McClain said. “Everybody makes mistakes, but it’s how quickly you recover from. Keep working hard, that’s all I’m being told. I bring intensity to this defense.
“I’m not downing the competitors. It’s a good competition with a lot of good players. If I’m their choice, I’m going to bring everything I have with 110 percent every play. I will rush the passer. I will play special teams. I’ll do everything under the sun.”
Nothing has been promised to McClain. No one has told him he’s guaranteed a starting position.
Essentially, he’s been told to keep up the good work.
In that respect, this opportunity is a reflection of his entire life. And he’s taking nothing for granted.
“I won’t be happy until it’s all said and done, not until I’m running out there with my name being called with the defense,” McClain said. “I’ve been through a lot, and I just want to enjoy every minute. This is my dream and I feel blessed.”