OXNARD, Calif. – It's not often a guy from Alabama gets a call from Turkey.
That's what happened when Rolando McClain heard from Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner/general manager, who was ready to take a chance on the former Alabama linebacker and top-10 talent whose off-field issues and decision to temporarily retire sidetracked his NFL career.
"I think he convinced me I needed to play again," McClain said. "He called me from Turkey and I figured that had to be an expensive phone call, so … it was pretty serious with me from that point."
It didn't take much convincing. McClain retired because he felt his life wasn't going down the right path and he wanted to be a better person and role model for his two boys. He needed to get settled personally, and once he was able to do that, only then did football became an option again.
McClain asked his oldest son if he wanted him to get back to playing, and he got his son's blessing. The 25-year-old No. 8 overall pick from 2010 likely still has the talent to do it. For Jones, the loss of Sean Lee immediately led to the search for an alternative, and McClain became a solution.
That doesn't mean McClain will file right in as the starter.
As it stands now, Justin Durant's taking the majority of first-team reps at middle linebacker. But getting the chance to look at a player with the upside of McClain, while surrendering almost nothing, sounded like the right path to explore.
Jones said the main difference between McClain and other players with talent who eventually realize how much they appreciate the game is that his athleticism and skill level haven't yet passed him by. He's getting another chance while he can still make the most of it.
"I have a known a lot of people, a lot of successful people, that quit and then got it together and turned it around and came back and really made something of what they quit," Jones said. "Based upon his background, his story, based upon the nature of why he's here, his health – which is good—all those things, in my mind, he's a great opportunity for our team."
McClain was a former SEC Defensive Player of the Year who was talented enough to forego his senior season and get drafted in the top 10 by the Raiders. If anyone knows what kind of hitter McClain can be, it's Jason Witten, who's lacerated spleen in the 2012 preseason was a result of a hit from McClain.
But there's no hard feelings there.
"I met with him at the physicals the other day," McClain said. "He said everything was good. It was a good hit. Just glad he's OK. Glad I'm on his side now."
The linebacker's skill was evident when it really counted in the regular season, as well. The 6-4, 259-pound linebacker brought down the quarterback five times in 15 games for the Raiders in 2011.
Unfortunately, that same year is when the majority of off-field problems began. McClain's been arrested three times since 2011, the latest resulting in an 18-day sentence stemming from an April 2013 incidence in which he was arrested for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
The judge's decision came down Friday and was one McClain said he was very surprised to hear. He appealed that ruling and was back with the Cowboys on Saturday for his first practice with his new team.
"Yesterday, I was sitting in a court room not knowing what was going to happen," McClain said. "Today, I'm here with the Dallas Cowboys with an opportunity to make a football team and fight for a position. You can't argue with that."
The Cowboys take on little risk in McClain. If he fails and doesn't make the team, they lose nothing. If he ends up being the answer and playing significant snaps at middle linebacker, at worse the Cowboys trade a sixth-rounder for a seventh-rounder.
There's much more pressure on McClain, a former first-round talent playing for his third team in five years, than there is on the team he's going to. But McClain now feels prepared to handle that.
"I just had a lot of outside distractions, and if you can't be 100 percent at your job, you're not going to be your best at it – plain and simple," McClain said. "My thing, I had to eliminate those distractions, understand football is my job, my livelihood. When you're away from the game, you realize how much you miss it, so now you take advantage of the opportunity you're given and do the best you can do."
Saturday marks not only McClain's first practice with the Cowboys, but his first with an NFL team in more than a year. Just days after getting released by the Raiders in 2013, he signed with the Ravens before the season. But he retired and never played a game with Baltimore.
Some might worry about his conditioning with all the time off, but he's not one of them.
"You have kids? I have a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old, so that's how I stayed in shape," McClain said. "I went back to the University of Alabama. I thought I was in the best shape of my life there, so why not go back? Just working out there."
That's the same place he started his relationship with one of the most influential people in his life, a coach who played a role in McClain getting another NFL chance with the Cowboys and head coach Jason Garrett.
When asked about Nick Saban on Saturday, McClain made a correction. [embedded_ad]
"It's Coach Saban, first and foremost," he said. "I know we had a pretty close relationship. I love the guy to death. When I'm in Tuscaloosa, I had to go see him at least every week. We have a good relationship. I can't let him down. I know he stuck his neck out there for me, so it's a little bit more personal for me."
Garrett's relationship with Saban led to the Dallas coach's first interaction with his new linebacker, way before McClain was a first-round selection.
"I can remember being there for spring practice and Coach Saban was talking about how much he liked this kid, this big middle linebacker that he had," Garrett said. "He literally said to me at the time, 'He might be one of the best players I've ever coached.' So when a guy like that says that, who's been around for as long as he has and has so many good players, it kind of gets your attention."
McClain said life is about struggling, getting knocked down and getting back up to grow and become a better person. Garrett said something similar about how life is about opportunity and taking advantage of the chances that are given.
After everything that's happened to McClain, he can still fulfill his expectations in Dallas.
"His slate is completely clean with us, just like everybody else's is," Garrett said. "He has got some good endorsements, so we're hopeful that we'll see a player that we like and a guy that can help our football team."