When Jameel McClain readies for the snap behind the New York Giants' defensive line, the imposing 6-foot-1-inch, 250-pound linebacker knows his task is to stop some of the most talented offensive players in the league. To do so, he draws on an unlikely advantage over his opponents: his past.
"Every time I'm lined up, I think they just don't want this as bad as me," McClain says. "They really haven't been through what I've been through or seen the things I've seen to have the same feeling at that moment."
As depicted in the above Bravery Tapes episode, numerous misfortunes marked McClain's childhood in the crime-ridden area of North Philadelphia. His father was incarcerated, his peers were caught up in drugs, he and his family lived for a time in a homeless shelter, and he often didn't have enough money for food or new clothes.
For many people, those hardships might be insurmountable. But McClain saw them as an opportunity, an impetus for success. Not only did he ultimately pull himself out of poverty, but he achieved his dream of becoming a professional football player, helped the Baltimore Ravens to a championship in 2012, and is now playing in his seventh NFL season.
"My past motivates me beyond anything," McClain says. "I've been to the darkest part of dark. I've been down like most people have never been down. I've overcome all of that and I'm still fighting for a dream."
Middle school was no exception. One afternoon, McClain arrived home to discover the windows and doors of his house boarded up and his belongings scattered on the street. The city had evicted his family and so they moved into a homeless shelter at The Salvation Army.
After that, on his way home from school, McClain would get off the bus before his stop and walk the remaining distance so that other kids wouldn't see that he was living in a shelter. "I was completely embarrassed," McClain says. "It's not something I would wish on anyone -- the lack of privacy, the lack of ownership. You can't even hang up a poster."
The family eventually pieced enough money together to get an apartment, but they couldn't afford much else. Sometimes, chips and a dollar hoagie would be McClain's only meal for an entire day. He once salvaged a pair of shoes hanging from a telephone line because he couldn't afford to buy new ones. "That pair of Reebok Classics lasted me months," he remembers.
McClain barely knew his father, who remained in jail for the majority of his childhood, and his relationship with his mother was tepid at best. He was able to find support from stronger parental figures such as his aunt and uncle and, once he made the high school football team, his coach.
Indeed, on most evenings at George Washington High School, McClain would remain under the florescent lights of the weight room long after the last classroom bell had sounded and most students had gone home. He trained as late as he could, and his coach Ron Cohen stood by in patient admiration.
"I just started asking him some questions, and I said, 'Jameel why do you stay so late? Why don't you go home and be with your friends?'" Cohen recalled. "He said, 'Coach, I don't have any friends. My friends are either dead or in jail.'"
McClain wasn't the most talented player Cohen had ever seen, but he had the best work ethic, which he regarded as even more valuable. "Jameel is like 'The Little Engine That Could,'" says Jameel's aunt Gloria Smith. "There's something inside of him that just won't let him quit."
Soon, McClain earned a scholarship to play football at Syracuse University, where he led the Big East Conference in sacks as a defensive end in 2006. Even with that kind of success, the setbacks didn't stop. When he graduated, he was bypassed in the NFL Draft despite predictions that he would be picked.
Yet he persevered and was eventually signed as an undrafted free agent by the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, soon to become a key part of a solid defense that included legendary linebacker Ray Lewis. He started all 16 regular season games in 2010 and recorded 84 combined tackles in 2011.
He was on pace for another solid year in 2012 when he withstood a spinal cord contusion in a game against the Washington Redskins. Not only did doctors think the injury would end his career, it also came at a most inopportune time, forcing him to miss the Ravens' Super Bowl appearance that season. "It was bittersweet because I was so much a part of that journey," McClain says. Remarkably, he was able to recover and play again. This year, he was cut from the Ravens and signed by the Giants.
Through all of the hardship and success, McClain has maintained the value of helping others. He's become a key figure for the Salvation Army's charity events, hosting Thanksgiving dinners for families in need and drives to supply children with winter coats.
True to form, McClain houses his motivation in a series of quotes that he composes and keeps in his phone. "Mountains were built for men to climb and overcome," reads one of them. Indeed.
Visit the Bravery Tapes website.
Follow Bravery Tapes on Facebook.