To fully appreciate how Raiders rookie linebacker Rolando McClain got this far, it's imperative to know where he has been.
McClain's path is one encountered by many but successfully navigated by few, making his ascension to first-round NFL draft pick all the more remarkable.
McClain left home at 15 and moved in with a friend's family because of problems with his mother that escalated into her being barred from seeing him. His father bounced in and out of his life. More than a few youths fell victim to the drugs, violence and gangs in his hometown of Decatur, Ala.
Yet, using sports as an outlet, McClain overcame those obstacles. He started as a sophomore in high school, cracked the starting lineup his freshman season at Alabama and matured into the top linebacker in the land by his junior season.
"I was a pretty mature kid," McClain said. "I've always been mature for my age. So, a lot of the decisions that I made turned out to be great decisions."
Today, he is the prize of the Raiders 2010 draft class. The Raiders are so high on McClain that they traded Kirk Morrison, their leading tackler the past five seasons, so that McClain can start right away.
"The thing that thrilled me the most is that he's playing in arguably the best college football conference there is, and he's able to go out there and direct it," Raiders coach Tom Cable said of McClain. "The more you watch this guy, it was pretty easy to feel as a football coach that, man, he's really got his hand on this thing."
It took that same focus to navigate his life outside of football.
During McClain's senior year at Decatur High, his mother, Tonya Malone, was arrested and 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.
Malone received two years' probation in February 2008 after pleading guilty to obstructing governmental operations. Before the sentencing, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Crohn's disease, and termed disabled.
In December 2005, McClain received a court order that prevented Malone from seeing him as a result of Malone pushing and hitting him, as well as threatening to kill him, according to court records.
Malone later denied making such a threat. She said the incident stemmed from her doling out tough love.
"I don't make threats like that," Malone said at the time. "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."
At 15, McClain left home and called the family of a friend from a street corner. Canitha Thomas listened to McClain tell her all he had was the clothes he was wearing and his scholarship to Alabama.
He also spent time with another Decatur family and one of his father's relatives until he graduated from high school. His mother celebrated with him the day he was drafted by the Raiders, and they are working on rebuilding their relationship.
"Even though me and my mom had our differences, when I left the house I was 15 so she had already instilled some good things in me," McClain said. "I could have done some things differently.
"But, I always knew right from wrong, I always knew I wanted to be a good person, no matter what happened. With what she (taught) me, I was able to succeed because I knew right from wrong."
McClain's high school coach, Jere Adcock, said he spoke often with his star player, yet Adcock never fully grasped the difficulty of McClain's personal life.
"He's one of those kids who would say, 'I can get through this' without you knowing very much about what's going on in his life," Adcock said in a phone interview. "His ability to stay focused in times of adversity and in spite of all the things he wrestled with amazes me to this day."
McClain's father, Roland Ervin McClain Jr., pleaded guilty to selling cocaine when Rolando was 11 and received three years' probation. He said he did all he could for his son, given the circumstances.
For instance, he gave Rolando and his sister Tequila $5 for each A they earned in school. He said he also brought along Rolando to watch him wash dishes at the Huntsville Airport one day because he wanted his son to see there are better ways to make a living.
Working hard is what got McClain this far, according to Adcock and others. They paint a picture of a young man who spurns TV so that he can watch videotape of football.
McClain was recruited to Alabama by then-coach Dave Shula. He arrived to find Nick Saban the coach after Shula was fired.
During an early meeting, McClain told Saban that he wanted to play right away. Saban said McClain had to learn the defense, and then laughed. Saban's laughter turned to astonishment in short order, as McClain quickly turned into the leader of the defense.
Kevin Steele, now Clemson's defensive coordinator, coached McClain his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide. He said former NFL standout linebacker Sam Mills is the only other player he has coached who rivals McClain's intellect and mastery of defense.
Saban calls McClain the smartest player he has ever coached and once referred to him as too much of a perfectionist. Saban oftentimes had to console McClain after he exited the field upset over making a mistake.
"That's a tremendous asset, as long as you can keep channeling it in the right direction," Saban said.
Knowing which direction to go has served McClain well thus far.
"He made it with the grace of God," Malone said in an interview with the Birmingham News. "He's a fighter."