A ghost in Rolando McClain’s stunning flight from the NFL

There is no way to read ESPN’s disturbing magazine feature about linebacker Rolando McClain without asking whether — to choose a snarky metaphor — his mental and emotional elevator is capable of stopping at all the right floors in the building.

It seems wise that this troubled millionaire elected to retire from the game at the age of 24, rather than end up on the wrong side of a rap sheet in which someone was dead. You know, like the infamous case involving Aaron Hernandez of the New England Patriots. It seems appropriate that he fled back to the classrooms of the University of Alabama, seeking some sense of peace and familiarity far from the hyper competitive and tempting world of the National Football League.

So he’s doing better. But his revved up personal engine is still firing on some troubling cylinders, as this long passage makes clear.

In this scene, McClain is out killing time, cruising and relaxing with Marquis “Pup” Maze, a former college teammate:

Pup exits the freeway. Most buildings are boarded up and lined with bars. He stops at a red light, next to a car cranking music. McClain perks up, itching for a bass-off. He’s having a little fun or flirting with trouble, depending on how you look at it. From the back middle seat, he stretches his leg so that his toes hug the stereo knob, turning it up until the truck vibrates. The light turns green and both cars zip off the line, thumping and speeding through neighborhood streets. It’s easy to see how they could be pulled over and trouble could escalate, the familiar slippery slope. But Pup peels right as the other car drives away.

They pull up to McAlpine Recreation Center. McClain exits the truck, urinates in the parking lot, then buries a dip in his lip. “Game time! Gotta load up!”

Inside, the gym is packed. McClain’s team is up first, and he plays basketball like you’d expect a linebacker would, relentlessly banging, with perhaps a little too much confidence in shooting NBA 3s. His team loses, and everyone piles back into the truck for the ride home. This time, McClain drives. He misses a freeway entrance, then pulls into the wrong lane of traffic, hoping to hop a curb. He seems to recognize quickly that this is a poor decision. He stops hard, then reverses into an intersection in the middle of traffic. Maze jokes that he wants to live to see his son that night. McClain laughs, blazing away.

On I-59, McClain speeds and weaves between lanes. His seat belt is off. He reads texts. Still, he considers this no more reckless than retiring from football and putting up walls between himself and everyone else: I’ve got it.

I included that long passage to make it perfectly clear that, while there are improvements that McClain has made in his life, he is still struggling with familiar demons. Oh, and he hopes to be back in the NFL next year, after passing up a chance for a comeback with the Baltimore Ravens.

So what, pray tell, does this have to do with GetReligion?

To be blunt about it, the only thing in this story that is clearly linked to religion news is the passage in which McClain openly admits that he has made stupid mistake after stupid mistake and then says that he plans to, well, repent.

How dark did his life get, with all the arrests and the so-called friends and alleged loved ones constantly hitting him up for money?

Alone at night, he even weighed the merits of raising a gun to his head. “You sit there and think, ‘Why am I even here?’ ” he says. “If I’m gone, all this s— will go away.”

In a rare moment of clarity, he made a list of goals:

Get better with the Lord.

Be the best father I can be.

Finish my degree.

Football, McClain says, “was at the bottom of my list.”

And what was at the top of this highly personal reformation list? Right. The God card.

Now, this fabulous long read includes all kinds of color and details about the practical, personal and professional elements of this young man’s troubled life. It’s clear that in-depth, informed, nuanced journalism was the goal and, with this one glaring exception, it appears that the ESPN team reached its goals.

But did ANYONE bother to ask any factual, journalistic questions about that McClain statement that his first priority — soon after contemplating suicide and turning his back on the NFL — was to strengthen his faith? Does he have a church? Does he have a pastor (who could be interviewed)? Does he see any ironic connections between his ongoing temptations and a life of faith? How about his trouble past? Was there a church in his dysfunctional childhood.

So many questions to ask and the man himself declared that they are relevant.

So many questions and it appears that none of THESE questions were asked. Did ESPN folks simply assume he was joking?

Yes, I am surprised and disappointed. Honest.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Julia B

    Sure seems like he was ready to answer questions about his faith.

    • tmatt

      I don’t know about that. What we do know is that HE raised the issue.

      Did ESPN ask? We don’t know for sure.

      But the silence is glaring.