Rocking slowly on a front-porch swing, the high school senior in Rolando McClain is evident.
He talks about the future that is now his reality.
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As one of six players featured in a documentary about star high school football players in Alabama’s recruiting class in 2007, McClain’s segment begins with the then-Decatur High Red Raider listing the schools who recruited him.
“I worked hard to get where I’m at, so to make myself the No. 1 linebacker in the state and No. 5 in the country so I feel like I should be rewarded with an education,” the young McClain said in the documentary “The Recruits.” It never aired on television and is now posted on YouTube.
“Linebacking is easy. Hike the ball, and I know where to go. I see it easy.”
Now entering his junior season at the University of Alabama, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound McClain is backing up his proud claims. In two college seasons, he has emerged as one of the top players nationally and a potential NFL first-round draft-pick.
A starter since the first game of his freshman season, his role has transformed to include more than disrupting offensive game plans. McClain is now the one who the young players look to for guidance.
“I think (McClain’s) maturity is not just as a football player,” coach Nick Saban said, “but what he’s been able to do as a leader.”
That new role also means more time in the spotlight, a place he hasn’t always pined for. McClain was selected as one of the two players to speak at SEC Media Days where he was loose, honest, and on occasion, humorous.
“I’m real laid back. I just like to do my job, work, and then go home, basically,” he said while surrounded by recorders, microphones and scribbling sports writers. “I don’t like the eyes of the media or the limelight. I don’t really care for it. I just like to work hard, and that’s it.”
With his rise to become one of the most feared men in college football came a reputation as a hard-hitting, cocky football player who sometimes flirts with danger.
Away from football
Ask his inner circle of friends and they’ll tell a different story about the other side of the Butkus Award finalist.
The wild man with a seek-and-destroy mission on the football field is a shy and loyal friend off it.
“A lot of people think he comes off mean,” said close friend and former Decatur High teammate Nick Beasley. “He just has to get to know you. Once he does, he’s one of the better guys you’ll ever meet.”
McClain spent the summer in Tuscaloosa taking classes and participating in workouts. On the weekends, he went back to Decatur.
Fishing is a favorite escape for McClain, who shares a secret spot with Beasley. Instead of hunting down running backs, McClain seeks out large-mouth bass in the quiet serenity that stands in stark contrast to his job on the field.
Former Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson played two seasons with McClain and was happy to say he was never hit by the Decatur native at any point in practice. He too testified to the person McClain is outside the painted lines.
“He’s just a funny, funny, goofy guy,” Wilson said . “He likes to kid around. He’s a really nice guy with a big heart, but you wouldn’t know it on the football field because he is a head hunter.”
The first signs
Jere Adcock first noticed McClain as a promising seventh-grader.
The Decatur High School football coach was impressed from the beginning, and with time and increased size, Adcock started McClain at linebacker as a sophomore when he played on the same defense as future Auburn standout and NFL draft pick Jerraud Powers.
His intelligence expedited the budding star’s growth as a football player.
“Along with the athletic ability, he understood things really well,” Adcock said. “He picked up on any change that we made.”
Decatur linebackers coach Steve Netherton also noted McClain’s strong mental approach to the game as well as his devotion to improvement. Netherton recalled struggling to get his prodigious linebacker off the field during practice because his work ethic left little time for rest.
Progress on the field, in turn, led to the flood of scholarship offers. Eventually he committed to the Crimson Tide following another successful junior season. With that came an even brighter spotlight.
“Of course, there were a lot of expectations,” Adcock said. “Anytime someone came to watch, they saw this specimen that Alabama had committed, and he didn’t have that good of a senior year. It was OK, but it wasn’t like his other two.”
Regardless, McClain carried the tag of being the second-best middle linebacker in the country with him to Tuscaloosa. Still, not everyone believed in him.
“A lot of people around here didn’t give him a chance that he’d even make it through college, especially not start his freshman year,” Beasley said. “But he knew he’d start his freshman year.”
Welcome to college
The non-believers took a hit Sept. 1, 2007, when he jogged to his spot in the middle of the Alabama defense against Western Carolina in the first game of his first season. McClain went on to start seven more times that fall, racking up 75 tackles (fourth highest on the team), including 15 in a loss to Auburn. He also landed a spot on The Sporting News Freshman All-American team.
To cap off his introduction to the football world, McClain played through a broken thumb and a separated shoulder in an Independence Bowl win over Colorado. He had five tackles and on the first Colorado play from scrimmage, he intercepted a pass to set up the game’s first touchdown.
Riding high after the breakout season, a near-tragedy almost knocked McClain off his upward trajectory.
He was home in Decatur on May 8, 2008, when he set out on his Suzuki motorcycle. As a novice on the bike, McClain lost control when the car in front of him slowed.
The driver of that Ford Explorer was Beasley.
“I thought he was dead,” Beasley said. “The way he fell off that motorcycle and was rolling — I thought he was dead.”
Beasley rushed his close friend to Decatur General Hospital. The accident left McClain in bed for two weeks with a two-centimeter deep hole on his foot.
Beasley said McClain sold his motorcycle shortly after the accident and doesn’t ride anymore.
By November of his sophomore season, McClain landed in the headlines again when he was involved in a fight at an Alabama fraternity party. Two days later, he started in a win over Mississippi State and recorded 11 tackles. Afterward, Saban stood behind his player.
The incident did not define his 2008 season as McClain went on to make a team-high 95 tackles and was named to the third-team All-American by The Associated Press.
He was a leader on arguably one of the best defenses in the nation, but losses in the final two games of a previously perfect season left a scar. It also serves as fuel for McClain.