Dallas Cowboys: Rolando McClain’s Road to Redemption

Oct 5, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA; Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) is hit after he throws the ball by Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Rolando McClain has found a new life with the Dallas CowboysNFL: Dallas Cowboys-Training CampJul 31, 2014; Oxnard, CA, USA; Dallas Cowboys linebacker Rolando McClain (55) at training camp at the River Ridge Fields. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

(C+P) — Redemption. It’s a theme often seen in movies or thrown around in endless motivational speeches, but rarely is it more than that, rarely is it something one can see play out before their eyes. Yet at the age of only 25, redemption truly is the theme that exemplifies the life of Cowboys starting linebacker Rolando McClain.

Born and raised in Decatur, Ala., McClain had a troubling childhood that included his mother beating him and threatening his entire school before she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 16. From there, his estranged father was granted custody but McClain didn’t stay with him, and instead bounced around from house to house so he could continue playing football for Decatur.

Like many before him, football was seen as an outlet for pent up emotions, as well as a way out. And for McClain that is exactly what it became when he soon found himself being recruiting by Nick Saban at the University of Alabama. Once there he continued to impress, winning the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker, and helping the Crimson Tide to the 2009 National Championship with a win over the University of Texas.

Coming into the NFL Draft, the hype continued to build, and many believed him to be one of the best linebackers to come out of the draft in years. Ultimately, it was the Oakland Raiders who took the All-American with the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft.


NFL: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders
Dec 18, 2011; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) warms up before the game against the Detroit Lions at O.co Coliseum. Detroit defeated Oakland 28-27. Mandatory Credit: Jason O. Watson-USA TODAY Sports

Soon there after, he signed an enormous five-year deal worth $40 million that included $23 million guaranteed. He went from nothing to a millionaire in the span of only a few years. Maybe this is where the shift began, the shift from promising young talent to a player who found himself tackling legal trouble more than opposing running backs.

“I was on a bad path,” admitted McClain to Dallas media after a game earlier this season.  “I was just running around like I had all the answers with no consequences.”

It was a path that including multiple arrests as well as a two-game suspension for arguing with head coach Dennis Allen, and ultimately it was a path the Raiders no longer wanted to be on as they released the once prized draft pick in April 2013. Even his statement after the release left much to be desired, it was politically correct but arguably lacked any sense of remorse.

“I’d like to thank the Raiders for giving me an opportunity to play in the NFL,” McClain said in a statement following his release. “I’m disappointed that it hasn’t worked out better, but I’m very excited and thankful for the Raiders allowing me to get a fresh start. I will miss my teammates and wish them and the Raiders organization good luck going forward.”

Despite all of this, it took only a week for another team to sign McClain. The Baltimore Ravens brought in the former first-rounder in hopes he could sure up a linebacker corps that was reeling in the wake of Ray Lewis’s retirement. It took eight days for McClain to be arrested again, marking his third arrest in 18 months.

October 4, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) during warmups before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at O.co Coliseum.  Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
October 4, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) during warmups before the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

That arrest also marked a turning point in McClain’s life. Less than a month later May 15, 2013, at the age of 23, McClain informed the Ravens that he would retire from the NFL to focus on his personal life.

“I didn’t deserve to play football,” McClain said. “I needed to take time to get myself right.”

McClain cleaned up his life, and with exception to lingering legal issues that haunted him from years past, he for the most part steered clear of trouble. In March 2014, he hinted at a comeback, and the Ravens offered him the chance to work out for team officials. Despite the workout reportedly not going well, the Ravens activated the linebacker off the reserved/retired list.

However, adding yet another turn in his long and winding journey to redemption, McClain once again retired telling the Ravens this time it was for good in April 2014.

“If football made me complete I would play,” McClain told ESPN.com in a text message at the time of his retirement. “But whenever I think of it my heart pulls me away for whatever reason… This means I’m done.”

McClain was set on finishing his degree at Alabama and starting a life outside football. That was until he got a call from one Jerry Jones.

“He made the initial call,” explained McClain. “I was retired. He called me. Asked me to come play. That let me know I had the support. You got the support of the owner.”

This outreaching of support seemed to be enough as McClain told his agent he was ready to play football again, and the Cowboys orchestrated a trade with the Ravens that saw Dallas only give up a sixth-round pick.

The questions were soon raised by many, ‘Why will this time be any different?’, ‘What has changed?’

“I had to get a better foundation, and that started with my relationship with God,” said McClain candidly. “I just wanted to become a better role model, a better person, a better husband, and a better whatever it may be.”


Oct 5, 2014; Arlington, TX, USA;  Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) is hit after he throws the ball by Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Houston Texans quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) is hit after he throws the ball by Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain (55) in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

While six weeks into the season is a small sample size, he has proven to be all that and more for a Cowboys franchise that was in need of redeeming themselves, albeit on a much smaller scale in the grand scheme of things.

Less than a year ago, McClain had retired for the second time. He convinced himself that he would never be able to play the game he once loved and live a life he could be proud of at the same time. On Sunday, as he has done all season, he proved that he could. In a game the Cowboys were unanimously picked to lose to the Seahawks, in Seattle, McClain sealed the 30-23 win with an interception to end the game.

A defense that was called a liability, an embarrassment, and potentially the worst defense in NFL history prior to the season, held the defending champions to only 206 yards of total offense. All led by a man who was out of football for 20 months prior to joining the Cowboys in 2014. Redemption.

“Football wasn’t my main goal,” let on McClain to those questioning his decision to return earlier this pre-season. “You move on, you reassess your life and get things back in order how they are suppose to be. Now that I’ve figured that out, I’ve got my foundation set, and I am excited to be a Cowboy.”

It seems safe to say that Dallas, sitting at 5-1, is excited the rejuvenated McClain is a Cowboy as well.

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