AN OLD MAN approaches a table of three young men at a Tuscaloosa Applebee's.
"Roll Tide," says the old man.
"Roll Tide," the young men say.
The old man takes a seat. He warns everyone that he's been drinking. Crown Royal Black. "Smooth as a baby's ass," he says. He wants to talk Alabama football, a random drunk guy with stories to tell. The first game that he attended: 1958, against LSU. Bear Bryant's debut as coach. Blew a lead and lost. Still gnaws at him. Then one of the young men -- the biggest of the three, with massive arms and shoulders that extend from his neck like a perfect square -- says, "I used to play here."
"What's your name?" the old man says.
" Rolando McClain."
"Rolando!" The old man turns to his family at the nearest table. "That's Rolando McClain!"
For a moment, McClain's face -- scruffy and cherubic and subtly earnest -- seems to freeze. He knows the range of images associated with his name. Some might remember his résumé as an All-SEC linebacker, national champion and the No. 8 pick in the 2010 draft, by the Raiders. Others think of him only in handcuffs, arrested three times in 16 months in his hometown of Decatur, Ala., two hours north. They remember a smirking arrest shot for the ages.
What they probably don't know or understand is the remarkable decision that put McClain back here in Tuscaloosa. Just five months earlier, under contract with the Super Bowl champion Ravens, McClain sensed that he was about to self-destruct like Jovan Belcher or Aaron Hernandez or any of the NFL's many cautionary tales. So he just walked away from football. The sports world is littered with bitter, broke or jailed 35-year-old versions of Rolando McClain. But there are few 24-year-old athletes who would have left the NFL to do what he did: McClain re-enrolled at the University of Alabama and moved back to the town that had once brought out the best in him.
The old man seems to remember it all, every twist and turn. He turns to McClain and says, "I'm glad you're here."
McClain seems relieved. "Me too."
AT 7 A.M. on an October Thursday, McClain sits in his garage with a silver revolver on his lap. Not one to fuss over his image -- it can't get much worse -- McClain holds up the gun as casually as he would a phone and opens the cylinder to show that it's filled with empty shells. "It's to kill copperheads," he says.
He has just finished running his morning sprints, up a hill on his lakefront property about 20 minutes from campus. McClain looks like he could play in the NFL tomorrow, but his diet is that of a college freshman. He puts down the gun and focuses on the most pressing thing on his mind: breakfast. He doesn't have class today -- he's majoring in family financial planning, only 16 credits short of a degree -- so he might fish. Or nap. His only to-do is a rec-league basketball game this afternoon in Birmingham. He hops into his white truck to hit a drive-thru. As he winds through the roads out of his neighborhood, a white woman waves hello. This comforts him. "You just don't see that back in Decatur," he says.