Rolando McClain's self-imposed exile
Seth Wickersham [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
April 21, 2014
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AN OLD MAN approaches a table of three young men at a Tuscaloosa Applebee's.

"Roll Tide," says the old man.

"Roll Tide," the young men say.

The old man takes a seat. He warns everyone that he's been drinking. Crown Royal Black. "Smooth as a baby's ass," he says. He wants to talk Alabama football, a random drunk guy with stories to tell. The first game that he attended: 1958, against LSU. Bear Bryant's debut as coach. Blew a lead and lost. Still gnaws at him. Then one of the young men -- the biggest of the three, with massive arms and shoulders that extend from his neck like a perfect square -- says, "I used to play here."

"What's your name?" the old man says.

"Rolando McClain."

"Rolando!" The old man turns to his family at the nearest table. "That's Rolando McClain!"

For a moment, McClain's face -- scruffy and cherubic and subtly earnest -- seems to freeze. He knows the range of images associated with his name. Some might remember his résumé as an All-SEC linebacker, national champion and the No. 8 pick in the 2010 draft, by the Raiders. Others think of him only in handcuffs, arrested three times in 16 months in his hometown of Decatur, Ala., two hours north. They remember a smirking arrest shot for the ages.

What they probably don't know or understand is the remarkable decision that put McClain back here in Tuscaloosa. Just five months earlier, under contract with the Super Bowl champion Ravens, McClain sensed that he was about to self-destruct like Jovan Belcher or Aaron Hernandez or any of the NFL's many cautionary tales. So he just walked away from football. The sports world is littered with bitter, broke or jailed 35-year-old versions of Rolando McClain. But there are few 24-year-old athletes who would have left the NFL to do what he did: McClain re-enrolled at the University of Alabama and moved back to the town that had once brought out the best in him.

The old man seems to remember it all, every twist and turn. He turns to McClain and says, "I'm glad you're here."

McClain seems relieved. "Me too."

AT 7 A.M. on an October Thursday, McClain sits in his garage with a silver revolver on his lap. Not one to fuss over his image -- it can't get much worse -- McClain holds up the gun as casually as he would a phone and opens the cylinder to show that it's filled with empty shells. "It's to kill copperheads," he says.

He has just finished running his morning sprints, up a hill on his lakefront property about 20 minutes from campus. McClain looks like he could play in the NFL tomorrow, but his diet is that of a college freshman. He puts down the gun and focuses on the most pressing thing on his mind: breakfast. He doesn't have class today -- he's majoring in family financial planning, only 16 credits short of a degree -- so he might fish. Or nap. His only to-do is a rec-league basketball game this afternoon in Birmingham. He hops into his white truck to hit a drive-thru. As he winds through the roads out of his neighborhood, a white woman waves hello. This comforts him. "You just don't see that back in Decatur," he says.

McClain's world is strangely peaceful, at once structured and at his whim. He occasionally attends Alabama football practice, dropping advice to the players. He sees his toddler sons, Ma'kai and Jordyn, a few times a week. He shares his home with two longtime buddies, Marquis "Pup" Maze, a former college teammate, and Jarodiaus "Tweezy" Willingham, one of the few childhood friends who remain in his life. And he shoots whatever small animals happen to wander onto his property.

He pulls up to a gas station and turns to Maze in the backseat. "Hey, Pup, you gotta run in and get me some dip! I'm getting your breakfast, you little pansy! You got money?"

"I didn't bring my wallet," Pup says.

McClain gives him a credit card.

"Wintergreen Grizzly. Long cut."

He then cruises into the drive-thru, orders a breakfast sandwich, and 10 minutes later he's sitting at a dock on his property, with a dip in his lip and nothing but time on his hands. Months ago, he wasn't so calm. "I was feeling like Aaron Hernandez or something," he says, "like I just wanted to kill somebody." He remembers watching Hernandez get hauled out of his house in handcuffs, later charged with first-degree murder, and being genuinely scared he'd end up the same way.

The fact that he could relate to one of football's most notorious players speaks not only to how far gone he was but also to the newfound clarity with which he can now see his life. McClain was raised in a single-parent household in Decatur, surrounded by drugs, guns and violence. He describes a mother, Tonya Malone, who worked three jobs and constantly battled with him. At one point, McClain filed a restraining order against her after she allegedly threatened him with a knife. He says his father, Roland Ervin McClain Jr., was largely absent. At age 15, he ran away -- couch-surfing, getting into fights and "being a little gangster."

Football became the easiest, most acceptable way to vent. He emerged as one of the best linebackers in the country, earning a scholarship to Alabama. But as he says now, "Football was my mask. It was the cover-up. You got problems -- go break something, work it out that way. I never really dealt with the problem."

His problems followed him to Tuscaloosa. In practice early in his freshman year, McClain -- already starting at middle linebacker -- got upset that a defensive scheme asked him to cover two gaps. So he changed it, and as he tells it now on the dock, head coach Nick Saban exploded. "What the f---?" Saban screamed, throwing his hat. "Who the f--- do you think you are?"

"Why don't you shut the f--- up?" McClain fired back. "I fixed the problem."

They shouted back and forth, and Saban benched McClain for five games. At first, McClain pouted. Then he came to appreciate Saban standing up to him. Over the next few years,  as McClain became the best linebacker in the country and won a BCS championship in 2009, Saban and McClain got closer. They'd watch film together, just the two of them. For the first time in his life, McClain felt stable. He loved the college bubble: class, football, class, football. He became a two-time dean's list student. He'd always eat breakfast at Rama Jama's and then get his hair buzzed by Tate, his barber at Fatheadz on Paul W. Bryant Drive. "It was home," he says.

He left after three years, expecting NFL money to solve his family's problems. He got drafted, went to Oakland and almost immediately wished he'd never left Tuscaloosa. So here he is, trying to re-create something that he's realizing no longer exists. McClain and Saban talk only occasionally, and Saban didn't reply to interview requests for this story. Shortly after McClain returned to...
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