Moments before Cal ran onto the field at The Horseshoe to challenge No. 12 Ohio State, Christian Cornelius McCain addressed his team in the locker room.
With the fervor of an army commander heading into battle, he promised his teammates that he would fight for them and put his body on the line for them. He just wanted his team to know how he felt.
“If you’re gonna give me 99 percent of your heart, I don’t wanna play with you, so keep your ass in the locker room,” McCain said. “If you’re gonna come out here and give me 100 percent of your heart, then I’m ready to ride for you.”
Cal has ridden a road of struggles this season. Losing is tough on everyone, especially on the sophomore linebacker. As intense as McCain is, his soulful brown eyes tell a different story — one of adversity and resilience.
He has spent his life trying to prove the doubters wrong. Cynics thought Ohio State would wipe the floor with Cal, just like they thought McCain would never amount to anything other than just another hot-headed athlete.
He is still an emotional kid, but the self-proclaimed problem child has since learned to channel those emotions to become a consummate teammate and leader for the Bears.
As a child, McCain would get emotional over something as trivial a video game.
His father Tarvio remembers playing Madden on Playstation with Chris when he was five or six years old. One time, after scoring near the end of the game, Tarvio converted an onside kick to win. Chris was livid. He called his father a cheater and protested the play’s legality.
“If he was as big as I was, he would have tried to fight me that night,” Tarvio says. “That competitive edge is what has given him an edge over other kids.”
In the classroom, it was another story. He could not sit still and did not always listen to his teachers. If something went wrong, Chris would get emotional and check out.
But that was no excuse for teachers to give up on him. He says no one took the time to help him in elementary and middle school. Teachers just didn’t want to deal with him.
“Sometimes, teachers put him in a box, ‘Oh he’s just another kid in trouble,’” says his mother, Valerie. “Some teachers he had felt like he wasn’t worth their time.”
Chris may have been difficult, but he was not stupid. He just needed a chance.
“I always asked for help, I always did,” Chris says. “But nobody really wanted to help me, so I didn’t really care, because I felt like I knew what I needed to know.”
What he knew was football. Even with the build of a basketball player, Chris’ sport was always football. It was in his blood.
His competitive, emotional nature made him headstrong as a kid but a warrior in games. When he cracked a tooth playing football as a kid, he refused to come off the field. He always wanted to pull his weight, Valerie says. He would never give up on his team.
But at Page High School in Greensboro, N.C., his coach — like so many teachers before him — gave up on him. The coach told Chris that all he could do was play football. He would not make it past 10th grade, he would not make it in life.
“He said, ‘The only reason I really like you is because you’re gonna help me win some football games,’” Chris says.
Chris did not know what to say. The chatterbox was, for once, at a loss for words. He had heard it before and shook it off. But now he was beginning to realize the magnitude of the situation. He was running out of time.
His mother told him he could mess around and not attend college if he wanted to, but he would have to be prepared for a life without football. That struck a chord with Chris.
“When I heard ‘No football,’ I was like, ‘Ain’t no way in the world I can’t play football until I can’t play football,’” he says.
One day, his parents picked up the phone, and the football coach was on the other line. Chris was not getting along with the principal, either.
The McCains all knew it was time for Chris to move on.
When Northern Guilford opened in January 2008, it was the only 100 percent honors high school in the county. The difficulty of the classes presented a challenge for Chris, who enrolled there as a sophomore.
“The thing about Christian,” Tarvio says, “if you put him to a certain standard, he’ll meet it.”
He began to settle down. He set goals for himself: first was to go to college, second was to play football in college. But he knew he could not get there just by wanting it.
So, for the first time in his life, he started putting as much effort into school as football. He earned a scholarship to Cal, where he started six games as a freshman in 2011. Today, he is a fixture in the Bears’ lineup, a constant hustle and voice on defense.
“Chris is basically a fireplug, and you need one of those guys on every team,” says linebacker Robert Mullins. “He’s definitely one of the most competitive guys I’ve met.”
That fire inside Chris is still there. Those soft eyes still contain some rage. Chris lives and dies by his teammates. He would do anything for them, even walk across hot coals, his mother says, because his team is his family. They are his brothers, and family always comes first.
“If you’re not a Cal Bear and you step on the field when we do, then I don’t care about you at all,” Chris says. “I don’t care how you feel. I don’t care about how big you are. I just know you got 60 minutes to go against me, it’s gonna be the hardest 60 minutes of your life.”
The transformation is nearly complete. That emotion and desire and anger — it has all been channeled into a passionate and motivational team leader.
Before the Washington game last week, with Cal’s two starting receivers injured, McCain went to No. 3 receiver Chris Harper and told the freshman that he was about to have a big game. No one asked McCain to talk to his teammate; he just felt it was something he had to do.
He is the kind of person people look up to, the kind of player teammates want by their side. His injured ankle forces him to limp between plays, but he runs as if it is completely healthy.
“When I’m running on it, I don’t care how it feels,” he says. “If I’m on the field, I can’t leave nobody out there to dry.”
He puts 100 percent of his heart into everything he does, so it comes as no surprise that Chris is now a role model in the classroom, too. He proudly proclaims he has all B’s. After all, he is trying to get somewhere in life.
He is not worried about the NFL — once he hits 250 pounds, he will be fine. And once he gets his degree, he will be set for life.
“I’m gonna put that thing somewhere, lock it up and just wait until my career is over with,” Chris says. “Because I’m gonna pull that thing out, and it’s gonna be useful.”
Cal’s heartbreaking 35-28 loss to Ohio State on Sept. 15 had been over for hours, but McCain was still not over it.
“When he goes on the field, he’s gonna leave everything on the field,” Tarvio says. “When he comes off, he’s just emotionally drained.”
Chris has grown up, but he still hates losing, still hates giving it his all and not coming out with the only suitable outcome.
Shoulders slumped, legs limp, he began to cry. Tears of missed opportunities and frustration hit his cheeks.
“It’s tough when you battle your tail off all game,” Chris says, “when you know you could have won and should have won.
“We should have beat the bricks off of Ohio State.”
But the Bears didn’t. They came close, but a close loss is still a loss, and Chris has felt the pain of each of Cal’s seven 2012 losses, commemorated with salt water and rage of a mission unaccomplished.
There is no complaining, no name-calling, no excuses. Chris congratulates his opponents, then tries even harder the next week.
Losing is a problem, but Chris McCain is not, anymore. He’s a man now.
Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at [email protected]