When the 2015 NFL season started, former UConn Huskies cornerback Robert McClain was not on a roster.
Drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the 7th round of the 2010 NFL Draft, McClain had already beaten heavy odds by playing four seasons in the league. But he knew his journey was not yet over.
He played 16 games his rookie year for Carolina, but was released on the last day of roster cuts in his second preseason. He had a short stint with the Jaguars that year but was mostly out of football.
The Atlanta Falcons signed him the next season. He ended up staying there for three years, playing in all but one game while racking up 20 pass deflections and three interceptions as their nickel corner. It seemed like he had found a home but unfortunately the end of his contract coincided with a coaching turnover in Atlanta. He lacked advocates at the top and found himself in unrestricted free agency after the 2014-15 season.
McClain signed with the Patriots in March, earning praise from the head coach Bill Belichick for his performance through minicamp and most of the preseason before being released, once again, in the final roster cut.
"I never decided I was going to be done," McClain told the Washington Post. "I was just staying patient."
He returned to his home in Atlanta, where he continued working out and getting in contact with teams. Despite going to 10 tryouts across the season, he couldn't find his way onto a roster.
Still, he had come a long way from arriving at UConn in 2006 as a lightly-recruited running back from Patuxent High in Maryland. He ended up at Storrs in part because a former high school teammate, Terry Caulley—part of a vaunted two-headed rushing atttack with Donald Brown—opened his eyes to the opportunity.
"I remember taking my visit to UConn for a game during Thanksgiving break," McClain told The UConn Blog. "Terry told me that there were good guys up there and I felt the same way after my visit. I was a running back like he was and things were going pretty well for him."
He still keeps up with his hometown pal, even though McClain made a position change in his sophomore year at UConn.
"Some things happened to the team roster-wise and Darius Butler kind of persuaded me to play nickel corner," he explained. "I always played both sides of the ball in high school so it wasn't difficult for me."
McClain and his former UConn teammates still keep in touch, including fellow NFL cornerbacks Butler, Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Breh-Wilson. Looking back on his time at UConn, where he was a captain his senior year, it was tough for him to pick out one defining memory. But the 2010 PapaJohns.com Bowl win stood out as a meaningful end to a trying roller coaster of a season.
"All the stuff we went through, ups and downs on the season and with Jasper passing away, still having that courage, that fight, getting to a bowl game and beating our first SEC team, that was big for us," he said.
McClain was extremely close with Howard, who was senselessly murdered at an on-campus event mere hours after a UConn win over Louisville. He rarely goes very long without thinking about his fallen teammate.
"Any time I'm doing something football related," McClain said. "I have the tattoo on my body for a reason. I think about him every day. It still hurts."
Howard's memory also serves as inspiration.
"I try to play how he played. I'm positive he would have been in the NFL."
Though making it in the NFL was always a goal, McClain was fairly uncertain of the possibility during his college career. In fact, he was planning on joining the Marines after UConn.
"I come from a military-affiliated family," he explained. "My brother's in the army, father was in the army, my mother and father work for the Navy side of the federal government. It's something I've always loved being around. I did ROTC when I was younger and just always liked the attention to detail and commitment to something bigger."
He didn't get in touch with agents until pretty late in the game.
"I didn't think about any of that stuff until after football season," he said. "My senior year, preparing myself for Pro Day, is when it hit me that I could make it a reality."
Though he wants to spend a few more years in the NFL, McClain is strongly considering joining law enforcement after his playing days are through.
"I want to be doing something where I'm still active," he said. "Like SWAT team, or police force. I have a lot of plans."
"I'm hoping my art develops to the point where I can get it in galleries and sold around the world," he said in an interview in 2014. "I want to go really far with art, but also with football. I'm looking to play for at least ten years. It's been my goal since I first came into the NFL. If I can make it ten years, it's a blessing."
Through 14 agonizing autumn Sundays Robert McClain, a finely-tuned athlete with 70 NFL games on his résumé, was still a free agent and couldn't even bear to watch any games. He knew he belonged back on that field. All he could do was keep working out, believing in himself and knowing that if he got a chance he would make an impact.
It would have been so easy to let himself go, or decide to move on. But his diligence was rewarded when the Carolina Panthers called, needing help at corner after slot man Bene Benwickere broke his leg. They signed McClain on December 15.
It was a much different team than the Panthers which drafted him in 2010 and finished 2-14. They drafted Cam Newton the next year and, to put it lightly, things were working out pretty well. The Panthers held a 13-0 record at the time of signing McClain.
"It felt good to be back on a team, back playing football," he said. "I was thankful to be on a team that was winning, a team I was familiar with."
McClain became the starting cornerback after two-time Pro Bowler Charles Tillman went down with an ACL injury. In a matter of weeks, the former UConn star went from unemployed to starting in the NFC playoffs for the top-seeded team.
Luckily, he had learned a lot from Tillman and was embraced by the other veterans in the secondary.
"I learned so much from Peanut," he said, referring to Tillman's nickname. "He's a guy who's had a very nice long successful career. Just watching him out there in practice during a game, how he approaches a game... I've always respected him as a teammate. Going on the other side of him (while with the Falcons), I've always followed his career.
"Same with Cortland Finnegan and Roman Harper. I couldn't have chosen a better family to be a part of. Being able to have that opportunity when he went down and coach gave me that opportunity I was confident because a lot of those guys helped me out."
That family made it all the way to Levi's Stadium for Super Bowl 50 before falling at the hands of the Denver Broncos. Though the loss was obviously disappointing, McClain knows the experience will make him a better player.
"It's giving me a lot of motivation because now I know what it's like to be in the Super Bowl," he said. "It's the biggest game in the world, just about. Everyone in that (Panthers) locker room is going to be working hard (to make it back)."
McClain, who signed a two-year deal with the Panthers through next season, will be working hard this offseason to stay in shape and improve his game, while spending as much time with his daughter, who turned 13 months old on Super Bowl Sunday, as possible. He's also hoping to make a visit to UConn, perhaps for the Spring Game, since he hasn't had much time to be around since his time as a student.
"I haven't been to campus in a while, I heard it looks really different now" he said. "Haven't met the new coaches either but I've heard good things."
He still looks back very fondly on his time at UConn.
"There was one year, 2007, where we were ranked 16th in the nation," he recalled. "Everyone likes to call it a basketball school, but when you look at all the guys in the NFL, guys who have lasted, it tells a different story. We were all underrated guys coming out of high school and bonded over that to reach success.
"The best part is the people I’ve met up there, the players, coaches, friendships I’ve made. It’s so many great memories. We had some really good seasons up there and some really good people have been a part of my life."