After growing up in a Salvation Army rescue shelter, Jameel McClain didn't view going undrafted by the NFL as a major hurdle.
"I knew nothing was gonna be given to me," says the northern Philadelphia native. "I knew nothing was ever gonna be easy in life, and that's definitely the way I've been brought up."
Now 25 and in his third NFL season, he's the embodiment of the league's rags-to-riches ideal. He's a starting linebacker in the hyper-aggressive Ravens' defense, and he's thriving in coordinator Greg Matthison's 3-4 scheme. Through Week 11, he has amassed 37 tackles, which ranks sixth on a star-studded unit. He's also developed a team-first reputation, earning league-wide praise for his special teams play.
Of course, the journey to this point was full of hardships. McClain and his mother, older sister and two older brothers struggled to make ends meet during his early years. They bounced from one temporary living facility to another, lacking many of the necessities that most children take for granted.
"Looking back, I say, Man, how did I overcome those circumstances?" says McClain, who played high school football at George Washington High School in Philadelphia. But he's not looking for pity. He recognizes that a lot of people come from similarly troubled backgrounds. He does, however, believe that those tough conditions helped to shape his on-field work ethic, a quality that's shone through since he signed with the Ravens as a priority free agent in 2008.
The choice to join Baltimore was a "no-brainer" according to McClain, who was heavily recruited by a number of other teams after his name was passed over in the draft. Their defense prides itself on a physical, snap-to-whistle approach, the same mindset that he takes onto the field. Their long-standing tenure as one of the premier defenses in the league was something that he jumped to join.
It also helped that it afforded him the chance to line up alongside Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, arguably two of the best linebackers in the NFL. He is quick to credit their presence for his rapid development.
"It's definitely a stepping-stone to see what it takes to be successful in this league," he says. "To have those examples in the locker room day-in and day-out is something that's to a young player's favor."
During his three years in the purple and black, he has quickly ascended from an undrafted backup to a rising Baltimore mainstay. He powered his way to 16 tackles in his rookie campaign -- including 2.5 sacks -- and added another 30 during his sophomore 2009 effort. This year he's on pace to finish with 59.
Before his stint with the Ravens, McClain was a standout at Syracuse University. He compiled 177 tackles during his four-year career there, with his stellar junior year play earning him Second Team All-Big East honors. That recognition only served to make his fruitless 2008 NFL Draft all the more baffling.
But like his time in Philly, the setback taught him to savor every minute of his current life. It motivates him to keep working hard; to encourage others in similar situations to keep their childhood hopes alive. During training camp, he took the time to speak with a group of Baltimore youth to reinforce that message.
"Dreams don't work unless you do," says McClain. "A lot of people dream, but all they do is lie down and close their eyes at night. It's the people that are working at them, and working towards them, those are the ones that are gonna get everything that they dream of."
Above all, he's just enjoying the ride.
"Playing in an NFL game and wearing the logo of an NFL team is what most kids dream of," he says. "So to be able to go out there and run around and hit people and just be yourself, that's definitely the best part."