Of all the words that will be used to describe the recent retirement of Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Rolando McClain -- alarming, mystifying and disappointing will likely come to mind -- one that won't be used enough is "smart." One glance at McClain's arrest record is sufficient proof that his life is in chaos. Another peek at his three years with the Oakland Raiders is further evidence that his game is in shambles. This is a man who needed many things to go right just to have a chance at success in Baltimore. He deserves credit for realizing when enough really is enough.
The easy choice for McClain would've been to continue pursuing an NFL career that started with him being the eighth overall selection in the 2010 draft. He'd already made at least $23 million while in Oakland and the opportunity to keep receiving a paycheck had to be enticing. Professional athletes do it all the time. They push their demons aside, fully believing it's better to take the money while it's available than worry about what might happen down the road.
Former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher is the worst-case example of what can happen when personal issues don't get addressed in that environment. In one tragic night, he went from being an unassuming pro football player to a criminal who snapped after an argument, killing his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and later himself. The most troubling news reported in the aftermath of the murder-suicide was that nobody saw Belcher's life slipping into such a dangerous place. There was a fierce search for warning signs in the days that followed, none of which offered adequate explanation for the frightening act.
For whatever reason, McClain chose to pay attention to his own red flags. He somehow saw how much of an embarrassment he'd become and decided to try a radical strategy. In a statement released the same day the news broke, McClain explained that he needed to leave football because it was in his "best interest" to focus on getting his life back together. He also acknowledged that he loved the game and wasn't sure what the future held for him.
Cynics certainly will write off McClain as just another bust, given that he's quitting before he has turned 24. What can't be debated is the difficulty in this decision. Most football players have no idea what they'll do with their lives once they've finished 10 or 15 years in the league. This is a young man who's willing to walk into some dark places at a tender age, simply because he fears what might happen if he doesn't.
Think about it -- McClain has been groomed to play football since he was a kid growing up in Decatur, Ala. He was a high school All-American there, a first-team All-American at the University of Alabama and the 2009 recipient of both the Butkus and Lambert Awards. Football quite likely gave McClain the confidence, stability and power that every young man covets when they're coming of age. To give that up today means losing his identity, which is the one thing that will haunt any person attempting to make such a drastic life change.
Football also allowed McClain to escape a troubled childhood that included a father who wasn't around much and a mother who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In 2005, when McClain was only 16, he received a restraining order against his mom, Tonya Malone, because she allegedly threatened to kill him while holding a knife. McClain subsequently spent the rest of his high school years bouncing from home to home. He learned to survive off whatever resources came his way and whatever skills he could maximize.
It says plenty that McClain grew into a player who helped lead Alabama to the 2009 national championship and also became a two-time dean's list student. It's also equally sad to see how quickly he went downhill after becoming a pro. McClain seemed to be making news off the field from the moment he entered the NFL, most often when he was back in his hometown.
McClain was convicted in municipal court last May of third-degree assault, menacing, reckless endangerment and illegal discharge of a firearm in city limits. Though those charges were eventually dropped after the accuser decided to not pursue the case, the public still heard that McClain allegedly threatened to kill a man while firing a gun near the victim's head. McClain also was arrested in January for a window tint violation and providing false information to police (he allegedly wrote "(expletive) y'all" on a citation when asked to sign his name), and again in April (he allegedly yelled an expletive at police while they dispersed a crowd and twice pulled his arms away from officers as they tried to arrest him). The April arrest occurred 10 days after he signed with Baltimore.
The Ravens should be thankful McClain -- who also has two other outstanding charges for reckless driving and failing to provide proof of insurance -- took the burden of deciding his fate out of their hands. He had a reputation for being a knucklehead when he arrived in Baltimore and he wasn't going to win people over with his play. This is the same highly touted linebacker who couldn't be a difference-maker with the Raiders and also earned a suspension last November for conduct detrimental to the team after an argument with Oakland head coach Dennis Allen. By the looks of things, McClain was going to be more trouble than he was worth before he ever dressed for one Ravens game.
The only reason he was in Baltimore was because general manager Ozzie Newsome, a former Crimson Tide great, felt like rolling the dice on a linebacker who might have helped offset the losses of Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe this offseason. The biggest risk in that move was one Newsome surely anticipated. By giving McClain a fresh start, the Ravens would be sending the same message that too often gets sent in the league: Teams will take a player with any level of baggage as long as he can produce. That thinking probably factored heavily in McClain's personal issues. He probably always has been a guy who has gotten too much leeway because of his tremendous physical ability.
Now McClain is about to tackle the toughest challenge he has faced in his life. He's going to try living in a world where football isn't a crutch and the same demons are there to pursue him. He certainly will hear people question his heart, his character and his desire. What they can't knock -- even if McClain suggested he might want to return to football in the future -- is something that shouldn't be lost in midst of this shocking news: his courage.