BALTIMORE — Jameel McClain needn’t reach deep into his past to find common ground with current members of the Ravens.
Just five years ago, McClain spent his weeks preparing to play middle linebacker for the New York Giants. He made a career-high 116 tackles that autumn of 2014. He’d recently celebrated his 29th birthday and already, he felt the end of his football life breathing down on him.
As the Ravens director of player engagement, McClain helps recent draft picks learn the ways of the NFL, but just as importantly, he asks them to contemplate life beyond football.
You don’t have to chat with him for long to understand why the 34-year-old former Raven is well-suited to help players through these delicate times in their lives.
“I just believe I have so much talent in me. I believe people have so much talent,” McClain said on a recent morning, munching from a bowl of pineapple slices as he sat on a plush purple chair in his office. “I’m the one who just believes, ‘This guy is here to do great things in this world.’ If somebody doesn’t see the positivity in themselves, I see it.”
His work might come in the form of financial education classes for second- and third-year Ravens, internships arranged with local tech companies or bonding events with girlfriends and wives.
In all these endeavors, McClain commands attention from players because he so recently walked in their shoes. As he moves through the locker room in shorts and a sweatshirt, stopping for brief check-ins, he feels like anything but an outsider. He has a sixth sense for where each player feels most comfortable talking.
“Jameel, he’s like a big influence to me,” third-year linebacker Tyus Bowser said. “I’m around him all the time, whether it’s in the facility or not, just learning how he goes about his business. I take all that stuff and use that to apply it to my everyday life.”
He could have been describing a big brother or an uncle.
“I feel like a lot of guys lean more toward him because he understands where we’re coming from in certain situations,” fourth-year linebacker Patrick Onwuasor said. “He can feel your vibe. If he feels like you’re kind of low, he’ll come over and try to figure out what’s going on. I feel like that’s what he’s here for. He understands a player mentality and how to lift us up.”
No sport forces athletes to confront their career mortality harder or faster than professional football. It requires tunnel-vision commitment from young men who’ve toiled half their lives to reach the NFL. Yet the statistics say an average player is lucky to hold a job for four years.
That means some of the second- and third-year players McClain counsels will face the end sooner rather than later.
“It’s always going to be a challenge to tell someone, ‘The moment you get in, you should be thinking about getting out of it,’ ” he said. “I feel like it has to come from someone who’s walked in those shoes, so what you’re saying feels realistic. And it can’t come from a negative place of, ‘You’re going be out in two years because that’s what the NFL is.’ That shuts everybody off automatically. … I don’t want to doubt anybody’s drive or ability, but I want to give them the reality and make it a little less harsh.”
By the time McClain played his first game for the Ravens in 2008, he’d already hired a financial adviser and created a pyramid of investment and entrepreneurial goals.
McClain was homeless for stretches of his youth in North Philadelphia, and those difficult years bred in him a hunger for stability. He wanted nothing more than to be like his uncle and aunt, Greg and Gloria Smith, who held steady government jobs.
“Knowing that feeling, being able to envision what it felt like to have so little, I never wanted to go back, and it really shaped my perspective,” he said.
He went into his NFL career determined to make the most of whatever money and platform he earned. He succeeded more than most, playing seven years and signing a three-year, $10.5 million contract going into the 2012 season. But he also dealt with the dispiriting turns endemic to NFL life, from a spinal-cord injury to a $1.5 million pay cut he accepted going into the 2013 season.
The injury, which cost him parts of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, taught him that as much as he’d thought about his long-term future, he really wasn’t ready to walk away from football. It was the jolt he needed to begin planning a realistic future in business.
What he recognized, and what he tells younger players now, is that many of the traits required for football are prized in the corporate world. If you can wake up at 5:30 every morning to work out, you’re already living on a CEO clock.
By the time McClain retired at age 29, he and his future wife, Keisha (the couple married in 2016), had clear plans that began with buying up Philadelphia real estate and opening the Retro Fitness gym in Catonsville. He also found himself hanging around the Ravens’ facility, dispensing advice to younger players. The team offered to formalize his role in 2017, and for McClain, the fit felt natural.
“Before I even got this position, I was doing this position,” he said.
After two years apprenticing to the Ravens’ longtime director of player engagement, Harry Swayne, McClain took over the job this year.
On Tuesday morning, less than 48 hours after the Ravens had stomped the Miami Dolphins in their season opener, 25 second- and third-year players ambled into the auditorium at the team’s headquarters in Owings Mills. McClain had asked them to fill out surveys pinpointing information they’d be interested in receiving, and many players suggested financial education. So this was the first of six planned sessions led by Edyoucore Sports & Entertainment.
Former Ravens linebacker Bart Scott took the stage as part of the presentation.
“I was sitting in these seats maybe 10 years ago,” he said. “With a pocketful of money — young, stupid and didn’t really have a financial game plan. I could have left myself vulnerable, but I was lucky I played long enough that I was able to recover from some of the bad financial decisions I made.
“Jameel was my little road dog, and now he’s here trying to give you guys the education that we wished we could have had. What could I say to my 25-year-old self, when I was walking these halls, wilding out in D.C. and all that stuff?”
The players laughed.
The $645,000 minimum salary for a second-year player might sound like a kingly sum, Scott continued. But most of that would go to taxes and essential expenses. Beyond that, a player should save 25%, or $161,250, leaving a mere $64,500 a year for indulgences such as fine clothing, family trips and nights on the town.
Then he laid out, step by ugly step, how former NBA star Antoine Walker squandered a $112 million fortune, far greater than most NFL players are likely to make in a career. That raised a few eyebrows.
McClain watched from the side, wearing a businessman’s button-down that might get him ribbed by the few remaining Ravens who played with him back in the day.
But he felt gratified to see so many players file in for the voluntary session.
“I think that’s how I’m going to able to be judge that, ‘OK, you guys want to hear this stuff,’ ” he said. “As long as they’re engaged and asking me questions.”