OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The first thing Albert McClellan did when he got some money was buy a fishing boat.
It was a hobby his father, Albert McClellan, Sr., helped him establish. Residing in a rough area of Lakeland, Fla., McClellan's parents did the best they could to keep him on a path toward success.
Fishing became a release for McClellan, who spends time on the water in Florida during the offseason.
"Growing up in such an area where you have to stay on the right track in order to make it out, it's hard," McClellan said. "That's what makes the strong survive. You've got to stay mentally tough to grow up in my neck of the woods."
McClellan was a standout at Kathleen High School, the same place Ray Lewis attended. However, McClellan was designated a lower-star recruit and wasn't sought after by the upper BCS-level teams. He committed to Marshall in 2005, which was the beginning of a stellar collegiate career.
He finished 2006 as Conference USA's Defensive Player of the Year but redshirted in 2007 after tearing his ACL. His play picked up where he left off in 2008, making the All-Conference USA team in 2008 and 2009.
Still, McClellan went undrafted in 2010. Baltimore signed him, which gave McClellan a chance to show the 31 other NFL teams that they made a mistake.
"Anybody that knows where I really come from, or knows my family, they know I'm from a family full of great athletes," he said.
A mother's influence
Each time McClellan steps onto the football field, he thinks of his mother, Constance Barr, who passed away due to colon cancer when he was a rookie.
When it came to sports, Barr was like another coach. She'd offer advice, even when it wasn't a young child playing pee-wee basketball wanted to hear.
"I remember my mom telling me in little league basketball — and I'm blind as a bat — 'You're not a shooter, baby, but you can grab the rebounds. You're just as physical as they are,'" McClellan said.
McClellan was on Baltimore's practice squad in 2010 when a family member phoned him. He was told Barr was being moved to hospice. McClellan was excused from the team and flew to Florida to see his mother, who had been fighting the cancer for about three years.
When he arrived, she was shocked to see him considering the Ravens had a game against Tampa Bay that week.
"Why aren't you at work? What's the point in coming home? Why aren't you getting ready for the game?" Barr told him.
"Mama, I'm here, they told me I could come," McClellan replied.
"Nah baby, just go back to work, I'll be all right, I'll be going home soon," she said.
McClellan knew he had to stay. Barr wanted him to, but it was like her to always show her toughness on the exterior. When she first started feeling ill, she hid it as best as she could. She started gaining weight and feeling sluggish and was ultimately admitted to a hospital.
It was then, McClellan says, that the family knew something serious was going on.
"It got to the point that my little nephew used to tell her to wash her hands and wash her feet because she started losing feeling in her hands and feet and they started turning color," McClellan said. "Little things like that, she would laugh and play with it but we knew it hurt her. It hurt us to see her like that. It got to the point where she was so strong and wanted to show up at every game that we had no choice but to bring her to all my games."
Barr instilled her toughness and work ethic to her son. Barr, an athlete who played basketball, softball, volleyball and ran track growing up, would chastise her sons if they acted like they were hurt on the football field without it being a major injury.
McClellan stayed in Florida with his mother for about two weeks before she died. When he hits the football field each practice, her memory remains in his head.
"I know she's always watching," McClellan said, his eyes welling. "I know she would want to be watching. I gotta go out here and see her. I credit myself everyday for going out and doing this for her. I know she's watching so go out here and give it my all, every chance I get."
Competing for a starting spot
To those outside the organization, McClellan was a surprise selection for the 53-man roster in 2011. He spent most of the season participating on special teams. With Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain starting at the inside linebacker spots, it was tough to crack the defensive rotation.
But when Lewis sustained a turf toe injury, McClellan's name was called upon to start in his place. It was something he still thinks of as a surreal moment.
"I was more nervous than anything," McClellan said. "Guys like Jameel, (Dannell) Ellerbe, and even Josh Bynes — who was more comfortable at the position than I am — were telling me to relax, that I was doing good. To hear it from Ray, telling me to go out and have fun, you've been doing this all your life, go out and have fun. All the hard work's paid off, now it's time to have fun. Let the world see you have fun. Just to hear those words, coming from him, to have fun, throughout something that's so serious, it helps you relax."
McClellan moved to outside linebacker this offseason after Jarret Johnson left for San Diego in free agency and Terrell Suggs partially tore his Achilles tendon. Even though he had been with the team for two previous seasons, it was assumed rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw out of Alabama had an advantage over McClellan. That hasn't been the case halfway through camp.
“You’ve got to earn your stripes," coach John Harbaugh said. "You have to earn your position here no matter what. I don’t know why a lot of people would think that. That’s pretty presumptuous. The best guys play. The guys who are playing the best are the best.”
In Baltimore's first preseason game against Atlanta, McClellan tied for the team lead with five tackles — one of which was a sack. He started the second game and is hoping to continue that trend against Jacksonville.
"He’s just one of those guys that’s going to work hard," Lewis said. "He is going to give you everything he has, and that’s what you appreciate about him. He’s a very humble man, and he plays the game with a certain love and certain passion for it.”
Said Harbaugh: "He’s a guy that competes every single day. His work ethic is as good as anybody’s. He doesn’t say much. He just goes out there and does his job, and he is playing at a really high level.”
Time will tell if McClellan earns the starting rush linebacker spot by the time the season opener against Cincinnati rolls around. As his mother once advised him, he's found a role on this team regardless.
If he just so happens to earn a starting position, then that'll make his role that much better.
"If the team needs me to be out there on the field as a starter I'm giving my all to be there," he said. "And I must've done something to earn the respect or their trust to put me out there. So I have to keep doing my best."