Football Writers Association of America 2011 BEST WRITING CONTEST

Jon Solomon and Don Kausler Jr., The Birmingham News

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From behind barricades at The Quad in Tuscaloosa eight days ago, Alabama fans kept crying out Rolando McClain's name.

Sparser shouts came for Javier Arenas or Mike Johnson, the other Alabama captains who joined McClain at the Walk of Fame ceremony. But then, there have been few players in school history like McClain, who waved in the direction of nearly every shout.

Tonya Malone, McClain's mother, didn't accompany her son to the ceremony. Neither did McClain's father, Roland Ervin Jr.

Don Kausler Jr.
The Birmingham News
Age: 54
College: Missouri
Background: Starting my third season covering University of Alabama sports for The Birmingham News, and now also the (Mobile) Press-Register and The Huntsville Times. I also covered the 1982 and 1983 seasons ("Bear" Bryant's memorable last season and that intriguing first season after his death). Previously I covered the Milwaukee Brewers for two seasons for the Milwaukee Sentinel. Later, I was the sports editor of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune for two years and the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald for nearly 15 years, then was the managing editor and editor of the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. In high school and college, I worked for the Columbia Daily Tribune and served as a correspondent and an intern for The Kansas City Star. I also had an internship at Newsday. I've pretty much done it all in my career. Why not a do-over? I enjoyed my first stint covering Alabama in a previous lifetime, but I left because my wonderful wife, Kathy, and I had started a family. Now that three children (Rose, Paige and Donald III) aren't children anymore. I can have fun again.

For three years, the story has been told of how McClain's skills and smarts made him the best linebacker in college, a two-time Dean's List student, and the leader of Alabama's first national championship team in 17 years. How he emerged from a troubled upbringing in his hometown of Decatur to reach wealth last week in the NFL Draft is another story.

McClain grew up dealing with a tough neighborhood, tensions with his mother, and only occasional involvement with his father. It's a situation where one wrong step, or one less helpful hand from a community, can decide NFL millions or unfulfilled promise. Thursday night, the Oakland Raiders made him the eighth player selected. His agent estimates McClain will sign a deal worth $40 million.

"He made it with the grace of God," Malone said. "He's a fighter."

To understand how NFL riches became possible for McClain, who did not respond to interview requests for this article, begin on the streets of Decatur.

A drive through Decatur presents a picture of McClain's childhood. There, in a disheveled neighborhood, is the housing project where Malone and McClain once lived.

Drugs and violence were prevalent. Gang rivalries developed between the city's two high schools. The kids at Decatur High were known as the "Homeboys," and those from Austin High called themselves "Cash Money Boys." Fights between the groups were common at a local McDonald's.

Some of McClain's childhood friends are succeeding in life, said Bruce Jones, the director of Decatur Youth Services, but others fell into jail or drugs.

Continue driving and there's the recreation center where McClain shot hoops. There's the field where McClain played baseball. There's the Decatur High School football stadium where McClain starred on Friday nights.

Sports became a ticket out for McClain, a place he could unleash emotions he rarely shares and create a different path for his life. Jones, a former North Alabama and NFL player in the 1980s before working with at-risk youths in Decatur, saw a talented boy who could be a handful at times.

"Some people would say he even had an attitude, and some will probably say he has that now," said Jones, who met McClain around his fifth-grade year. "But it takes that to be on the level he's at. It's not to say he didn't associate with some of the knuckleheads, because he did. But he was strong-willed enough not to let it pull away from his goals."

Strong-willed describes Malone, too.

"We're so much alike, it makes it difficult for us to get along," Malone said. "We love each other, but we butt heads all the time, like who he chooses as a friend, or me not wanting to let him grow up."

In December 2005, McClain received a court order to keep his mother away from him, according to court records. "We got into an argument," McClain's petition said. "My mom pushed + hit me several times. She left the room and got a knife. She threatened to kill me."

His father, Roland Ervin Jr., was awarded temporary custody and the protective order expired after one year. In an interview last week, Malone denied hitting or threatening McClain and said the incident stemmed from McClain's not abiding by her rules and wanting to live with his father.

"I don't make threats like that," Malone said. "No, no, no. That was just something because he was 16, he wanted to rebel. He was playing with varsity football players and they wanted him to hang out after games, and I was not having it."

McClain didn't stay with Ervin for long. Ervin lived in Limestone County - not Morgan County, where Decatur is located – and said he was told that McClain would be ineligible to play sports his senior year if he lived with his father.

Ervin said he arranged for some of his relatives in Decatur to take McClain in for half of his junior year and his senior year.

"I made sacrifices for him to get where he's at," Ervin said.

When McClain was not living with his mother, he rotated between Anne Irvin, a relative of Ervin's, and at least two other Decatur families during his final two years. Greg and Tammy Hawkins, and Tim and Canitha Thomas all opened their doors to McClain during times he didn't know where else to turn.

"I don't know what would have happened had we not all pooled together," said Canitha Thomas. "It really does take a village to raise a child."

McClain first stayed with Canitha and her husband, Tim, during his junior year. Tim played on the same Ole Miss basketball team as Sean Tuohy, whose Memphis family took in Michael Oher, the subject of the book and movie "The Blind Side."

Said Canitha, "I'm just like, 'What is it with you guys?'"

McClain knew the Thomases because in the eighth grade he became friends with their son Caleb, now a UAB offensive lineman. McClain, who lived three blocks away from the family, called during dinner from a street corner one day and asked if he could stay with them.

"All he had with him," Canitha said, choking up at the memory, "was his scholarship offer from Alabama and the clothes he was wearing."

McClain, known as "Boo Boo" to Canitha, could have slept in a king-sized bed; he chose instead to stay in Caleb's room. Canitha would find them watching cartoons together on Saturday mornings.

"Boo Boo is like one of ours," Canitha said. "He's a good kid."

Caleb, Canitha said, was McClain's guiding hand.

When McClain lost his temper at school, it was Caleb who told him to walk away. When McClain couldn't clean himself after suffering injuries in a motorcycle accident, it was Caleb who bathed him.

McClain doesn't open up to a lot of people, Caleb said, but they have a close relationship. "I'm just normal around him," said Caleb, who spent last Monday morning fishing with McClain. "I don't try to sugarcoat anything."

The next time McClain stayed with the Thomases was between his junior and senior years. Canitha said McClain became sick and couldn't swallow, resulting in an emergency adenoidectomy and tonsillectomy.

Canitha spent the night in a hospital bed next to McClain. She recalled them talking at 3 a.m.

"We talked about life, about God, about the importance of having God in your life."

Stressful case

Senior year should have been a happy time for McClain. But Malone was arrested in October 2006, accused of threatening to kill "everyone at Decatur High School as well as everyone at the Morgan County Courthouse that had anything to do with her son," according to a sworn affidavit by a police officer. The incident led to a modified lockdown of the high school.

Malone pled guilty in February 2008 to obstructing governmental operations and received two years' probation.

According to a mental evaluation in 2007 on whether she could stand trial - a judge eventually ruled she could – Malone suffered then from a bipolar disorder and Crohn's disease, and has been considered disabled since 2006. Crohn's disease is a digestive disorder that McClain was diagnosed with in high school but now says he doesn't have.

Last week, Malone expressed regret for pleading guilty in 2008 and said she made "a bad mistake by trying to fight people with money, and I had nothing but God." Malone said she did nothing wrong and believes powerful people in Decatur wanted her out of the picture so McClain could remain a star player at the high school.

"If you're not at the country club, you're nobody," she said.

Malone took a guilty plea, she said, because fighting the charge was too stressful for her children, including McClain, who was a freshman at Alabama when the case ended.

Malone, who didn't finish high school but became a certified nursing assistant, said she has changed "110 percent" since the case ended, but the case still affected McClain. "I just really think he didn't – and still don't – know how to talk about it."

Canitha Thomas said she and her husband encouraged McClain to keep in touch with his mother. Malone later thanked the Thomases for taking care of McClain, according to Canitha. "I was very thankful she made that acknowledgment because I didn't want there to be any harsh feelings toward us," Canitha said.

On Thursday night, Malone was at McClain's side to celebrate his draft selection.

Hard lessons

Ervin, McClain's father, had trouble with the law, too. When McClain was 11, Ervin pled guilty to selling cocaine in Madison County. He received three years' probation.

"It was a mistake I made," Ervin said. "I learned from it. I ain't never done that again."

Ervin, who like Malone was 18 when McClain was born, said he tried to do the best he could for his son.

He remembers McClain in diapers in Ervin's summerschool class as he finished his high school degree. "He's been going to school since he was a baby," Ervin said. "I guess that's where he gets a lot of his smarts from."

After high school Ervin had a basketball scholarship offer from Snead State Community College in Boaz but turned it down, he said, for a construction job to help provide for McClain.

"You have your own dreams and aspirations, but I don't regret it at all. Now I'm living my dream through him. He's doing what I wanted to do. That's why I'm so proud of him."

Malone said Ervin stopped coming around when McClain was around 4 years old, but Ervin said he had custody of McClain for many summers. "I wasn't there as much as I could have been," he said. "When I was there, I made the most of it."

He sought to teach life lessons. McClain and his sister, Tequila, got $5 for each A in school. "I always stressed a good education," Ervin said.

When he washed dishes at a restaurant in the Huntsville airport, he brought McClain there to show how hard he worked. "I told him I never wanted him to work this hard."

Money has always been tight for McClain's parents. As McClain entered the 11th grade, Malone and her husband at the time declared bankruptcy.

Court documents show that as of November 2008, Ervin owed Malone $35,824 in child-support payments.

"That's basically true," Ervin said. "Once you get behind, it's hard to get caught up. I've always given him (McClain) what I could give him."

Ervin said he hasn't worked for about 18 months after holding jobs mostly in electronics and assembly lines. He lives in Triana to care for his sick father. "We get by," he said.

Ticket out of Decatur

By the time he was a teenager, McClain had developed a determination to succeed in sports. In the summer, rather than shooting baskets, he ran sprints in his yard in 95-degree heat.

"He's been in the pro mind-set since he was 14 years old," Ervin said.

At one time, McClain could have been headed for a basketball career. He often told his father he planned to jump straight to the NBA out of high school.

Decatur High boys basketball coach Jamie Lee believes McClain was a Division I-caliber basketball player. As a sophomore, McClain made a last-second 3-pointer to defeat Sparkman, a rival of Decatur's and one of the best teams in the state.

"He was the only guy in the gym that I think was willing to take that shot," Lee said. "I knew then we were dealing with somebody special."

Decatur High football coach Jere Adcock saw in McClain a rare athlete who understood the way a game unfolds, no matter the sport.

"When he sat in front of film, he was studying it; he wasn't goofing off like other guys," Adcock recalled. "It was always very important to him that he'd be the best that he could be, and even then he wasn't satisfied."

Even in high school, McClain had a soft spot for kids. Decatur High offensive coordinator Kenny Morson remembers holding a cookout for some players at his house one night and losing track of McClain.

"We went back to the playroom and there's Rolando, sitting in the playroom with my (4-year-old) twins, playing with their toys and just keeping them occupied," Morson said. "What a good heart he had. My kids love him to this day."

Jones, the director of Decatur Youth Services, saw hopeful signs with McClain, such as attending church with his mother and her efforts to keep him playing sports. Jones believes Malone doesn't get enough credit in Decatur for her son's success.

"Her way of talking to him and dealing with him, some people felt it was more her problem," Jones said. "I know as he got bigger, she felt she had to do and say harsher things to try and keep him under control.

"There was no man in that house to deal with that big old boy. She was trying to wing it and keep him from hanging out in the street. Maybe she did push him a little too far. Maybe he did feel it was a little too much. But I just saw a mother's love. She truly did not want to lose her son."

Jones hasn't talked to McClain much since he went to Alabama. In one of their last lengthy conversations before McClain went to Alabama, Jones told McClain he would be a millionaire one day if he would stop jeopardizing his future by acting as a "bouncer-type" on behalf of friends in troublesome situations.

"But that's Rolando. He's true to his friends," Jones said. "Even now, when he's here, he's hanging with his buddies. When you say, 'You might have to separate yourselves from these guys (to protect his future),' with Rolando, that's probably not going to happen. Maybe at some point, but probably not right now."

Lee, Decatur's basketball coach, said he reminded McClain a few weeks ago when he was back in Decatur that many people will want a piece of his success and that he needs guidance.

"I hope he understands that," Lee said. "His intelligence is going to help him."

Ervin described his current relationship with his son as "really good." He said they talk about once a month, though he has to get his son's ever-changing phone number from Tequila.

"I'm going to support him any way I can," Ervin said. "Whatever he asks me to do, I'll be there for him."

Malone said she will not follow McClain to his NFL city but won't stay in Alabama, either.

"He's still a baby and he's going into a grown man's world," Malone said. "It's a little frightening. I'm afraid of him being around older people who I don't know anything about."

Canitha Thomas sees McClain gaining wisdom.

"My husband and I talked to Boo that life is all about choices, and you have to make the right choice because you can never alter the past. He's grown up a lot."


Comment by the judge, Steve Richardson: The writers went behind the scenes and performed the difficult task of putting together a picture of a star player’s unsettling past when the principal wouldn’t talk.

• Second Place: David Hall, Freedom ENC Newspapers
• Third Place: Kevin Armstrong, New York Daily News
• Honorable Mention: Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune; Dave Matter, Columbia Daily Tribune