"I always said that I was going to be something," Rolando McClain said on April 22, 2010, the night he was drafted eighth overall by the Oakland Raiders. "I always knew I was going to be a football player."
He used his ability and strength as his ticket out of his hometown of Decatur. But, a drive into the River City and through the streets shares a glimpse of his childhood.
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"You know the areas that are tough and you don't want to go there at night," McClain's high school teammate Jesse Perrin said.
Gangs were prevalent, with the "Cash Money Boys" at rival Austin High School and the "Homeboys" at Decatur high school.
The city of Decatur his where Mcclain's NFL dreams started, and where they ended.
He went to Decatur High, graduating in 2007, before having an All-American career at the University of Alabama. His coach, Jere Adcock, saw him as a rare athlete, who played both sides of the ball, linebacker and tight end.
"I remember a conversation that Coach [Nick] Saban and I had," Adcock said. "We were down there and we were looking in their defensive room. They had all they're calls written on this huge board. Coach Saban asked me, do you think he can learn this. If he can, he can play as a freshman.
"I said, Coach, I think he can. He's very intelligent. I know you run a very complicated scheme. But I think he will be able to understand it."
"He was a good teammate," Perrin said. "If you didn't get him the ball when he wanted it, he would complain. Being a quarterback and a senior, I had to put him in his place a little bit."
McClain came from a troubled home life. Perrin said it did not show on the field or in the locker room. He had tension with his mother even going as far as receiving a restraining order against her in 2005.
His father, who lived in a neighboring county, was awarded custody. McClain did not stay with his dad long because he would have been ineligbile to play sports.
"We knew his home situation was kind of rough," Perrin said. "He actually had people that I knew he lived with for awhile. They took care of him."
McClain rotated between three families during his junior and senior years. One family was Canitha and Tim Thomas. Their son Caleb Thomas became good friends with McClain during eighth grade football.
"I did call him ‘Boo-Boo', but I thought we didn't want to embarrass the baby," Canitha said.
The first night McClain stayed with the Thomases, he got in a fight with his mother. He left the house, called Caleb Thomas and told him to meet him at the intersection of Olive Street and Point Mallard Drive.
"He called you, what did he say?"
"I need a place to stay," Caleb, a former UAB football player, said. "Yeah, sure come on. It was that simple."
"He had the clothes on his back and a scholarship offer from the University of Alabama," Canitha remembered. "That's all he brought with him."
The Thomases wanted a safe place for McClain to stay without coming between him and his mother. He chose to sleep in the same room as Caleb.
"He told Caleb one night, they talk," Canitha said. "It's like they're solving the world's problems. They would be talking about serious things. He told Caleb, ‘man, I want what you have.' Caleb's like ‘what?' ‘You've got a family, a mom and a dad.'"
The Thomases were with McClain the night he was drafted by Oakland.
"I will say this, I know that Boo did not want to go to Oakland," Canitha said. "He was not thrilled about that."
McClain stayed clean under the watchful eye of head coach Nick Saban at Alabama. Trouble didn't follow McClain to the west coast, it waited for him to come back to Decatur.
"It's almost like they're five-year-olds again," Canitha said of McClain's hometown friends. "Like, this boy picked on me, so I'm going to get my big NFL player friend to come take care of this situation for me."
He was arrested three times during the span of three years, all in Decatur. His latest arrest in April led to his retirement at the age of 23.
"I really look for him to catch his breath right here and say, let me get this thing where I need it to be," Adcock said. "I would be shocked if we don't see him playing football again one day."
Since his retirement, McClain has re-rolled at the University of Alabama to finish his degree. He's also been helping coach the Crimson Tide linebackers during practices.
(Photos courtesy of Decatur Daily and Baltimore Sun.)
(Some video courtesy of WAFF-TV.)
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