NFL Draft

McClain’s fire burns inside

He battles Crohn’s, opponents

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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Things have always happened fast with Rolando McClain.

And so came the news, at Alabama’s Pro Day, that the Butkus Award winner had Crohn’s disease.

On that March morning, McClain fell ill during an agility drill, leaving a lasting image of a 6-foot-3-inch, 254-pound goliath hunched over a blocking bag. Some figured it was the hamstring injury that kept the middle linebacker out of workouts at the combine a few weeks earlier.

Then, it came out.

“My Crohn’s was acting up again,’’ McClain told reporters as he came off the field that day, disclosing the gastrointestinal disorder he had known about since high school. “Been struggling with it for two or three days now, but I just wanted to come out here, get the run in, no matter what the circumstances were.’’

“The run’’ was the all-important 40-yard dash, which McClain blazed through in 4.6 seconds. It was another example of how when this linebacker sees adversity, he sizes it up, runs it down, and tackles it.

Regarded by some as the best middle linebacker coming out of college since Mississippi’s Patrick Willis became a 49er in 2007, McClain comes to the draft with big expectations.

In the past, he has responded to those with big results.

Coming to Tuscaloosa as a four-star recruit, McClain won the starting middle linebacker job in fall camp and was named a freshman All-American. By his sophomore year, he was the heart and soul of an Alabama defense that ranked third nationally. Last year, McClain entered another stratosphere.

In fact, noted defensive guru Nick Saban calls him “as good a player at his position as I’ve ever had.’’

It’s not that there aren’t flaws here. There are.

One general manager said of McClain, “Overrated. He’s undisciplined, plays high, and he’s not good with his hands. But that’s the way [Shawne] Merriman was, so it’s not a deal-breaker.’’

“You get nervous, because you have to search the tape looking for good plays. I’m not knocking him, that’s the way it is. But he’s got a big body, he’s an athlete, and his best football’s ahead of him.’’

But Saban said McClain is “almost obsessive about doing his job.’’ He is something of a football savant.

Saban’s 3-4 defense — with a front carrying heavy similarities to Bill Belichick’s system — asks much of its signal-caller, and that’s a role McClain was thrust into as an 18-year-old true freshman.

No doubt, McClain had plenty of developing to do back then, but the coaches felt comfortable enough to put him in that leadership role while he learned. And so it would stand to reason that he could grow just as quickly as a pro.

“I’ve been doing this since my freshman year,’’ McClain said. “This is something I’m used to. I’m used to being the leader on defense as a ‘Mike’ linebacker, the quarterback of the defense. The things I’ve done in college will carry over to the pros.’’

Although McClain may not be a Boy Scout (he was involved in a much-publicized fight as a sophomore), he took the responsibility given a freshman and ran with it.

What that signifies, to those around him, is impeccable football character.

“I think he really started to affect the people around him in his second year,’’ Saban said. “He was more confident, had a better understanding, and once you reach that level, you’re willing to be more assertive because of your own confidence. And he started really affecting people.’’

It was no coincidence that it happened as Saban and the Tide turned the corner, putting together a 12-0 regular season — before losing the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl — to set the stage for last fall’s perfect run to the school’s 13th national title.

And as much as 2009 was the Tide’s year, it was McClain’s year as well. He led the team in tackles. He won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

The Crohn’s disease? Obviously, it didn’t affect him much, nor did a hamstring injury suffered Oct. 24 that lingered through the season, something he chose to fight through rather than tell anyone about.

It would have been hard for anyone to sniff those things out, anyway, since McClain didn’t miss a single practice in three years on the football team.

“He was the leader on the team this year,’’ Saban said.

McClain rarely left doubt; on Wednesday, he was voted the Tide’s Player of the Decade, just months after another player, Mark Ingram, won the storied program’s first Heisman.

Next, he’ll try to erase any doubt remaining at the game’s highest level. If history is your guide, expect big results.

“I’m just eager to make a team,’’ McClain said. “I’m just going to do what I can do to prove what kind of player I am.’’

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