TUSCALOOSA, Alabama — He was perfectly content, back when his life was so quiet last autumn.
Most mornings, Rolando McClain, then a retired NFL player at the age of 24, would rise from the bed in his mansion on Lake Tuscaloosa and drive 20 minutes to work out and attend classes at the University of Alabama, where the two-time dean's list student was finishing his degree in family financial planning. Other mornings, he'd run up a hill on his four-acre property, over and over, trying to stay in shape in case the pull of playing football ever returned.
But the real peace for McClain last fall came when he was alone on the lake, fishing rod in hand, his thoughts free to wander wherever they pleased, from pondering the nature of God to trying to understand why he sometimes felt a torrent of anger rising inside him. Out on the water, alone on his boat, he was unburdened and absorbed fully in the moment, not running from the ghosts of the past or concerned with the future. It was, in retrospect, his therapy.
"Rolando is happiest when he's fishing," said Caleb Thomas, one of McClain's closest friends. "He could fish all day and never want for anything else. It's something he'd do every day for the rest of his life if he could. Rolando needs the quiet, especially after all he's been through."
"You give Rolando a fishing pole and a lake, and that's all he really needs," said Jere Adcock, McClain's high school coach at Decatur (Alabama) High. "He's had a tough life, and I think fishing brings him peace. He's so smart, and he takes his time to process and analyze things. Fishing allows him to do that. "
To understand Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain today—and he is perhaps the most enigmatic figure in the NFL, a 6'4", 259-pound force of nature who ranks second on the Cowboys in tackles despite missing two games with injury—you need to go back to last fall. That's when McClain, a leading candidate for NFL Comeback Player of the Year, was at a live-or-die crossroads in his life.
Why was he in Tuscaloosa? Why did things turn so bad in Oakland after he was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft? Why did he retire from the Baltimore Ravens? And why did he ultimately decide to return to the NFL?
So many questions. One problem: Rolando McClain doesn't want to talk. Not to any reporter looking to dig deep into the bedrock of his life. So our search to understand him begins in a place far from Dallas. It's a spot that McClain knows well: Adcock's windowless office in Decatur, the city of 55,000 in northern Alabama that nearly destroyed its most famous native.
The 2004 team photo of the Decatur High Raiders hangs in the school's tiny locker room, just above a row of lockers. The bright-eyed player dressed in uniform No. 8 is only a sophomore, but he's already one of the biggest players on the team. That was the thing that always stuck out about McClain at Decatur: He was big. And country strong.
"You knew Rolando was going to be something special even as a sophomore because he was so big, so fast and so athletic," said Adcock, who just completed his 19th season as the head coach at Decatur. "But we also knew that Rolando was someone who probably needed to be relocated out of Decatur as soon as he was done with high school. There was trouble here for him."
McClain had a hard childhood. He was raised by his mother in a Decatur housing project in a neighborhood filled with violence and gangs. By the time he was a teenager, he was often at odds with his mom, Tonya Malone, who worked several jobs to pay the bills. One night, Malone, who would later be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, allegedly threatened McClain with a knife, prompting him to file for a restraining order. (Malone has denied threatening her son.)
With his father out of the picture, McClain started staying with friends, bouncing from couch to couch, basement to basement. One friend was Caleb Thomas, a teammate on the Decatur football team who would eventually play on the offensive line at UAB.
"Rolando and I had seven classes together in eighth grade. I don't know if that was by design by the teachers, but we became really close," said Thomas, who is now an assistant catering manager at Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Birmingham. "The first thing I noticed about Rolando was his intelligence. He picked up on things in the classroom that most students didn't.
"He started to stay at my house in 10th and 11th grade. We'd stay up all night talking about our futures, about what we hoped to do. The thing about Rolando, he's a homebody. He likes to be in a comfortable place. He likes to be around his people. And he'll do anything for a friend."
Before his senior year, McClain was with some of his friends at a McDonald's in Decatur late at night. According to Adcock, who investigated the matter, words were exchanged with another group of young males and a fight broke out. It spilled into the parking lot and lasted several minutes before police arrived.
McClain was never charged with any wrongdoing, but Adcock came down hard on his star linebacker, who would be named a high school All-American at the end of the year. After every practice for the entire season, he had to run 10 extra minutes. Adcock also told McClain—the team leader who had already committed to Alabama—that he couldn't be a captain and he couldn't speak to reporters.
"Rolando never complained once to me about running or anything," Adcock says. "I was trying to protect him. I didn't want his picture on the news. It was a tough-love thing. I told him, 'You've got to stay out of dangerous situations and stay away from dangerous people. Be as smart off the field as you are on it.' I felt very good about him going to Alabama. Nick Saban was exactly what he needed."
In Saban, McClain found a coach with a will as strong as his own. After being on campus only a few months, Saban elevated him to the first string. But then, at a practice midway through the season, McClain changed a defensive play call.
What happened next, according to multiple players, has become a legendary anecdote inside the football complex in Tuscaloosa. Saban, at the top of his lungs, asked McClain what he was doing; he told his coach, in the bluest of language, to be quiet. He didn't start for five games.
And yet, this was a defining moment in the relationship between the coach and the linebacker. A boundary was set. McClain understood he had crossed a line and he learned his lesson. He wound up starting the last three games of the season as a true freshman in 2007. The following year, he was first-team All-SEC.
Saban grew to adore him. Saban likes big linebackers—one of his pet phrases is, "Heavyweights knock out middleweights"—and in McClain, he discovered a player who was as much of a film junkie as he was. Several times, they watched game film for hours on end, just the two of them, their minds firing with strategies and ideas for how to defend different offenses in certain down-and-distance situations.
"I'm a perfectionist, and I think he's a perfectionist," Saban said of McClain. After Alabama won the national title in 2009, Saban proclaimed that McClain was one of his all-time favorite players.
McClain, a first-team All-American in '09, left school a year early to enter the draft. The Raiders picked him eighth overall. The marriage was destined to fail from the start.
According to several of McClain's friends, he made it clear to the Raiders organization before the draft that he wasn't interested in playing for Oakland. California may as well have been a foreign country to him; he wanted to be on a team closer to home.
But the Raiders were desperate for a run-stuffing, athletic linebacker who could anchor a defense for a decade, and so they selected McClain. After he signed a five-year, $40 million contract in June 2010—$23 million was guaranteed—he flew to the West Coast to begin a new life.
His friends say one of the first things he realized was that it wasn't anything like Saban's Alabama, where perfection is aggressively chased every day and complacency is considered an Old Testament sin. In his three seasons in Oakland, the Raiders went 20-28, and the losing siphoned every drip of joy out of the game for him.
McClain didn't do himself any favors, though. He had few friends on the team, according to two of his buddies in Alabama, and his attitude soured with every defeat. His growing unhappiness translated into uninspired, ambivalent play, as he often acted like someone who didn't want to be an NFL player.
Eventually, the linebacker who couldn't watch enough film at Alabama basically quit studying his opponents. McClain was bound to explode, and he finally did in late November 2012.
After sleepwalking through a drill during a practice in late November, then-Raiders coach Dennis Allen chastised his starting middle linebacker. McClain talked back—breaking the golden rule of professional sports—and the two got into a heated argument.
The Raiders suspended him for two games. In effect, his spirit to play football had been broken.
"The Raiders were a losing organization, and it was a long way from home for Rolando," said one of McClain's childhood friends, who requested anonymity out of fear of upsetting him. "The losing drove him crazy. It was the opposite of Alabama. Guys on the team didn't care, and it just soured Rolando on football. It got to the point where he just couldn't take it anymore. He wasn't happy. Not at all."
After the 2012 season, McClain returned home to Decatur, his anger riding shotgun with him. On Jan. 8, 2013, McClain was pulled over in Decatur for a window tint violation. He then provided the police officer with a fake name, which prompted his arrest.
It was the second time he had been hauled to jail in Decatur as a Raider. On Dec. 1, 2011, McClain, in town for his grandfather's funeral, was at a friend's house when a fight erupted. McClain allegedly pointed a gun at a man and fired it next to his ear. He was arrested and charged with third-degree assault, reckless endangerment and discharging a firearm. (The charges were eventually dropped as part of a financial settlement.)
McClain was arrested a third time in Decatur in April 2013. He was at a local park when police were called because of a disturbance that began when someone allegedly spit on his car. Once they arrived, the officers told the crowd to disperse. McClain allegedly yelled, "F--- the police." He was put in the back of a police cruiser on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
He sensed his life was skidding out of control, and he told friends he needed to figure out why he felt like he was a ticking time bomb, why his anger could flare to life seemingly out of nowhere, why he feared his next interaction with the law could be his last.
He returned to the one place that always made him happy, Tuscaloosa, and vowed to those close to him that he would do everything in his power to avoid setting foot in Decatur again.
In Nick Saban's corner office in the Mal M. Moore Athletic Facility, the shades usually are drawn, as if to conceal secrets. There are three national championship rings on a coffee table; even in the dim light, they glitter brilliantly. McClain helped win one of those rings, and over the years, he and Saban have had dozens of heart-to-hearts in this office. But the most important talk may have occurred last fall, when McClain was searching his soul for what to do next in his life.
"You have to do what's in your heart," Saban told his former player. "You have to do what you want, not what anyone else wants you to do. You'll only play well when you're ready to play. Figure out what your passion really is, then just go for it. If it's football, great. If it's something else, that's fine too. Just follow your heart."
McClain rarely watched NFL games. At the urging of Saban, he contacted a therapist. But still, there was turmoil in his life. In the span of five months, he was married and divorced to Capri Knox, a former Alabama track and field athlete with whom McClain has two small children. Nothing, according to his friends, brings him more joy than being with his two boys.
And yet McClain's most productive time last autumn may have been those hours on the dock behind his house, alone, casting and reeling, thinking about his past mistakes, trying to understand where his anger came from. Introspective by nature, McClain, in the stillness of those moments, reviewed his entire life, according to friends, examining his broken childhood for insight into his emotional fragility.
"Rolando never had a chance to really get a grip on his life, and that goes all the way back to his high school years," said Adcock. "He was a high school All-American, and people have always wanted something from him. He needed to figure out what he wanted and what was important to him. He needed to get control of his emotions. And he needed to get right spiritually. Tuscaloosa was the perfect place for that, a safe place for that."
Then, last summer, Dallas owner Jerry Jones called McClain's cell phone, asking if he'd give the Cowboys a shot. Dallas' starting middle linebacker, Sean Lee, had torn his left ACL on May 27 during the Cowboys' first day of organized team activities, and Jones was determined to win McClain over.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett had talked at length with Saban about McClain—Garrett was Saban's quarterback coach at Miami in 2005 and 2006, and the two remain close—and Saban explained how he had helped McClain flourish at Alabama and that, with proper guidance, he could prosper in the NFL.
Dallas is relatively close to home for McClain (it's a two-hour flight from Birmingham), and a distinctive family atmosphere pervades the entire organization—two major selling points to McClain. He eventually said yes to Jones' offer. On July 1, Dallas orchestrated a trade for McClain, acquiring his rights and a seventh-round pick from the Ravens in exchange for a sixth-round pick in the 2015 draft.
"There weren't many teams that I would have left the couch for," McClain told reporters after making seven tackles in Dallas' 26-10 win over Tennessee on Sept. 14. "This is one of them."
He knows I'm here. The Cowboys PR staff informed McClain I was coming to the team headquarters at 1 Cowboys Parkway in Irving, Texas, specifically to speak to him. But once the locker room is opened to the media on a recent fall afternoon, he is nowhere to be found.
McClain's teammates and coaches gush about him. The day before, he had his two boys in the locker room, and players swear he looked like the happiest man alive as he doted on them.
"You should have seen that smile on Rolando's face. It was gigantic, man, GIGANTIC!" said backup running back Ryan Williams, who played at Virginia Tech.
"Rolando is a beast. It took about one day of practice at training camp for Rolando to show that he belonged here. He's an eyesore. By that, I mean he sticks out because he's so darn big," Williams continued. "Linebackers in the NFL aren't supposed to be that big. But he comes in, he's in shape and, man, he just is making plays all over the place. We're like, 'Whoa! Look what we have here.' And man, he studies harder than anyone. He loves the game again.
"I think it was good for him to get away from football. We've known each other since college, and sometimes you just need a break. It's like he needed to fall back in love with the game. And now, man, it's unreal how much he loves it. He'll be sitting at his locker before games just chanting to himself, 'I love this game. I love this game. I love it.' He's got all the passion in the world."
"The time away from football brought Rolando back to football," said backup linebacker Will Smith. "It helped him. It cleared his mind, made him realize what he loved and why he loved it. You just look at him and he's a massive human being with unbelievable athletic ability. He was born to do this, to play football. He's our leader, and I look up to him. I really do."
"What impresses me most about Rolando is that he's so smart and aware of where everyone on the field needs to be," said Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. "Rolando really likes football. He studies it like the great ones, like [Brian] Urlacher did when I was in Chicago. ... Rolando's body of work this year has been outstanding."
I wander out of the locker room and walk through the football complex, determined to find the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker. I finally spot McClain. He's lounging in the equipment room, relaxing in a chair and watching television. He has zero desire to speak with me.
I approach. I tell Rolando that I've traveled here from Birmingham, that I covered him for Sports Illustrated when he was at Alabama, that I'm just trying to understand him.
"No more stories about me," he says. "I'm just tired. It's not about me. I'm not talking. I'm done talking."
I ask him, through the chain-link wire that separates us, if stepping away from the game ultimately helped him.
"It didn't help me become a better football player," he says. "But emotionally and mentally, it helped me tons. It was something I had to do. I just feel better at where I am in life. "
Suddenly, as he speaks, his demeanor lightens. His face softens. The storm clouds in his eyes disappear. "OK," he says, "you can ask me some questions."
Did you stop loving the game?
"Retiring had nothing to do with love of the game. Nothing," he says. "It had to do with how I felt about myself. I needed the break. Definitely needed it. I was so tired of losing [in Oakland], so tired of everything."
Why did you come back?
"My relationship with God," he says. "That's it. My relationship with God."
I think for a moment back to meeting McClain during Alabama's 2009 championship season. He spoke then about always trying to stay close to his Higher Power, that even in the darkest hours of his childhood, his mother always told him to lean on his faith. Back then, it was his beacon, his lifeline, and it clearly is now.
I ask him: Are you happy? Are you at peace?
"Yes, yes, I am happy. Very happy," he says. "I'm excited to get up every day. I'm excited about football. I'm excited about life. Really, I'm lucky. Just so, so lucky."
McClain rises and walks into another room. I watch him and see his face as he turns a corner some 50 feet away.
He's smiling, big and bright, glowing like someone who's found home.