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Give and receive: Rough childhood shapes Ravens' McClain

These streets were tough. Not tough like the Ravens defense. Not tough like a goal-line stand or a hard hit on a wide receiver darting across linebacker Jameel McClain's path. These streets were tough in a way that made a football field seem safe.

How did McClain define a good week as a child in Philadelphia?

"Nobody even knows this story," McClain said. "But when I was a kid, I got one of my better pairs of shoes off a telephone wire. People would throw their old shoes up there. Well, I got those shoes down, and I wore those things. A pair of Reebok Classics. Black Reebok Classics."

A good week included the times when he'd get a few meals a day at the Salvation Army Rescue Shelter, a place McClain often considered home. Or the time he showed up to a boxing match wearing raggedy basketball shorts, only to have Philadelphia's own Joe Frazier supply him with some new trunks instead.

A good week now? Fifteen years later?

With Ray Lewis sidelined Sunday in a 31-24 win against the Bengals, McClain led the Ravens with nine tackles. And that wasn't even the biggest contribution he made to the city. Five days earlier, he headed to Baltimore's Salvation Army, the foundation that once provided him shelter, to instead provide nearly 300 people with a hot meal and 53 families with a turkey to take home for Thanksgiving.

"What are the odds of that?" said Andre Odom, McClain's best friend since sixth grade. "Helping out a place that helped you get you where you are today? If it wasn't for the Salvation Army shelter, who knows where he would be at today. Who knows what direction his life would be headed in."

Show thanks by giving

McClain will spend his Thanksgiving this year lining up against the 49ers in a Thursday night showdown on NFL Network, when he'll get the chance to continue proving his worth as Lewis' eventual successor whenever Lewis' Hall of Fame career comes to an end.

Undrafted out of Syracuse in 2008, McClain's three-year rise in the NFL has been an inspiring one. But it's the story that originally led him to the NFL in the first place that's truly motivating, especially during a Thanksgiving week when he gets to show his thanks by giving. But his message isn't one aimed at trying to yield sympathy from those who hear it.

When McClain returned last week to the Salvation Army to talk to children and families who are in the same position he was in as a child, he wanted people to hear from someone who once lived how they live. He wanted to show them that, despite impoverished circumstances and a life spent bouncing between homes or shelters, their future isn't destined for failure.

"He bounced around sometimes without a home, but it wasn't a big deal to him as a kid," said Greg Smith, McClain's uncle who eventually brought him into his home permanently at age 14. "As a kid, he had three meals and some shelter, so he thought it was fine.

"He took everything that was a negative, and he turned it into a positive. That's really hard to do when you're surrounded by a whole lot of negative at a young age."

That might be McClain's biggest message of all: He never lamented his situation partly because he didn't really understand it. When you don't realize most kids don't need to pull down their shoes from a telephone wire to put something on their feet, you don't realize your life is difficult. Instead, McClain devoted his energy elsewhere.

"I never wanted more than I had because I didn't know what was even out there, but I always expected myself to be better than the next person," McClain said. "It wasn't because I wanted to get out of there. I wasn't trying to escape. I just wanted to be better than everyone around me."

Through competition -- first in the form of boxing and eventually in football -- McClain began to find his efforts paying off. He and Odom started to see a life different than the one they were used to living.

Then, when Smith and his wife entered the picture, offering to help McClain's mother in a time of desperate need, the opportunities became even brighter.

"We didn't know how serious it was until we found them at the Salvation Army," Smith said. "We would always talk to them. We knew they didn't have a father figure. So we'd tell them, 'Look, this is what you need to do to be successful: You need education. That's No. 1. Without education, you go nowhere. Beyond that, you need common sense.'"

Who is Jameel McClain?

McClain bio:
Born: July 25, 1985

Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.

College: Syracuse

NFL experience: 4th season

Did you know:
» McClain has played in every game since being acquired as an undrafted free agent in 2008, mostly on special teams for the first two years. He didn't take over the starting role until the first week of the 2010 season.

» No other rookie free agents made the Ravens roster in 2008. In a limited role, he still set a team record with two safeties in a season (one blocking a punt; one on a sack).

» When McClain was originally fined $40,000 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Heath Miller in Dec. 2010 (which left Miller knocked out on the ground), teammate Ray Lewis said he planned to help pay part of the fine since McClain's contract was so minimal. The league later reduced the fine.

» 2010 was a breakout season for McClain, who finished third on the team with 91 tackles. He has made a viable case to become Ray Lewis' replacement whenever Lewis retires. Since the Ravens run a 3-4 scheme, it appears McClain will be around a long time, even if not as Lewis' direct successor.

There will always be struggle

An education and common sense eventually led to opportunities on the football field for McClain, but he understands that's not a path every child in his situation can take. But that doesn't mean their path can't lead them down plenty of other successful avenues while keeping those same priorities in mind.

That's the message McClain wants to spread this holiday. It's the message he got to share last week.

"It's simple," McClain said. "Frederick Douglass said without struggle there is no progress. Life is a struggle. It's always going to be a struggle, whether you're rich, poor or somewhere in between. Some people let their shortcomings hold them back. They let it be their crutch.

"But you need to realize there's always going to be bad times. The tough times make you stronger. It's just a matter of what you do with those experiences."

Only when he looks back in retrospect does McClain realize the significance of enduring part of his life with three siblings and a mother living in one small room inside a shelter. Only now does he understand why it was so important to be there by a certain time each night -- since otherwise the family could be locked out with no place to sleep.

"He's a millionaire now," said Odom, now a defensive graduate assistant coaching football at Temple. "But he never forgot where he came from. He's always giving back. We're always talking about helping other young kids. That's truly, without a doubt, a humbling experience. It's a great feeling. It's amazing.

"Man, we came from this -- and now we have a chance to give back. Nobody would trade that for the world. Giving back is everything. Giving back is how life should be. When you make it, you are required to bring others help."

A living example

By returning to the Salvation Army, McClain has found a way to bring his life full circle. But he doesn't want it to end there. He plans to reach out to charitable organizations, just as he has already done, to continue to impact the lives of anyone he can. The Ravens linebacker realizes he can provide children with a real-life example of overcoming hardship.

McClain has walked in their shoes before. And he remembers exactly what they looked like: Black Reebok Classics.

"I hope they get something out of hearing me talk," McClain said.

"People always say it on TV: Work hard and you can live the American dream. All of that stuff. But when you can give them an example in the flesh, when you can touch me and hear my story, you'll know I walked the same path."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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