Ben Gardner and Rolando McClain are two very good football players. I don’t know if they know each other and I won’t pretend that they do. One of them is in his fifth year at Stanford, will have a college degree when he leaves and is out for the rest of the season and an NFL combine with a torn pectoral muscle. The other started day one as a true freshman at Alabama, was a unanimous All-American and left college in his junior year for the NFL Draft.
Both of them should be on an NFL team; neither of them is right now. While Gardner has the draft ahead of him, McClain spent three years with the Raiders before leaving the game, realizing that his life was going off the rails.
Rolando McClain is a microcosm of Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” A recent profile by ESPN shows him running away from the past entirely. Arrested repeatedly in his hometown, he has vowed to never set foot in Decatur, Ala., again. He has cut off nearly all of his childhood friends. He chooses to live in Tuscaloosa, Ala., near his old college stomping grounds, a pleasant town where everybody knows his name.
I don’t mean to hold up Rolando McClain as a cautionary tale of when “keeping it real goes wrong;” I have never met him. I also will not argue that Ben Gardner is perfect, and I doubt Gardner would either. I can and will say, however, that the circumstances of the two could not be more different.
Gardner wrote after his injury, “Although this injury will undoubtedly make my transition to professional football more challenging, I have never been one to back down from a challenge, and I like my chances. People have doubted me for my entire career and they will continue to do so, but I trust that my experiences at Stanford have put me in a position where I cannot fail.”
Watching Gardner play, it’s clear that the high school recruiting services that awarded him just two stars out of five were wrong: physically and mentally, he can bang it with the best of them. For all the uncertainty that overshadows Gardner’s return to the field, he at least gets to see the path he must take–harrowing and difficult but clearly outlined. He knows what he needs to do; the NFL is in sight.
Conversely, nobody knows if or when McClain will understand what inside him derailed his shining promise–and only with understanding comes rebirth. That takes wisdom and perspective. Both of these things don’t come easy. For the time being, ignoring the past may be an acceptable solution. McClain is only 24 years old and entering his prime, but he can’t sit out forever.
McClain is not entirely without perspective; he did leave the NFL, after all, an unthinkable decision for most. But, despite his sabbatical, he is not put together in the same way that Gardner is. ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wasn’t going to pillory McClain, but the writer took care to put a jarring scene of McClain’s recklessness at the piece’s very end.
Once envisioned by Baltimore as the successor to Ray Lewis, the former Oakland Raiders starter agreed to an interview in order to pave the way for his NFL comeback. But as the linebacker careens his truck through the Alabama roads, texting while driving, shunning a seatbelt, blithely stopping in intersections and taking shortcuts over the sidewalk, I’m not sure he’s ready to re-enter the real world. Dwelling on this point, Wickersham seems to agree. At the end of the day, you wonder whether McClain has truly learned anything at all.
The actions McClain has taken show awareness of his symptoms but ultimately offer no cure. After the Alabama standout returned to Tuscaloosa, his old coach Nick Saban suggested a therapist, but McClain refused; today, McClain regretfully explains his mistakes by saying, “Because I’m me.” Some NFL team will take a chance on him anyway. Some team always does.
Not that it makes the injury worthwhile, but Gardner’s uphill battle seems more perfect. McClain is lost, and while being lost is par for the course, it’s too typical; it’s not as good of a story and there are no convenient ways out. Hobbled, Gardner nevertheless takes his cues from the great soldier Daniel Daly, sure of who he is and what he stands for, defiantly hopeful, shouting, “For Christ’s sake men–come on! Do you want to live forever?”
Two men will be in the NFL someday. One is able to play but won’t for his sanity, and one wants to play but for the time being can’t. I sincerely hope both of them will play on Sundays for a long, long time. Considering what I’ve seen from the two, however, it certainly seems that physical scars are much less crippling than psychological ones. The healthy player is by his own admission stuck in the past, trying to find something in his old college days that he accidentally left behind. The injured player has a sense of who he is and where he is going, and from that has all the hope in the world.
Winston Shi is betting on Gardner’s eventual success in the NFL and that McClain won’t read this column. Let him know if he’s being too optimistic at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.