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With Jon Beason out, it's Jameel McClain's defense

Giants linebacker Jameel McClain speaks to the press

Giants linebacker Jameel McClain speaks to the press in the locker room during the first day of minicamp on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Jameel McClain was 13 years old and preparing to box in Philadelphia's Golden Gloves regional round, but he was missing something very important.

"I didn't have any boxing trunks," he said. "I was wearing basketball shorts."

The owner of the gym where he was training noticed and brought McClain up to his office, where he gave him a proper pair to wear in the ring. "He was like, 'Man, you can't go into a boxing match without no boxing trunks,' " McClain recalled.

The owner of the gym was Joe Frazier. Philly idol. World champ. Smokin' Joe.

"When I was young, it was like, 'Oh, man, that was nice of him,' " McClain said. "As I got older, I was like, 'That was Joe Frazier! Like, Joe Frazier gave me that!' As time went on, it meant the world to me because I understood that whatever position he was in or however the world saw him, Joe still thought enough to give me a pair of trunks."

It was one chapter in a life that provided plenty of challenges and lessons that helped shape McClain into who he is today: starting middle linebacker for the New York Giants.

He's played that position a lot since signing with the team this past offseason, but there was always an interim label to it. He was holding the place for Jon Beason while he fought through injuries and missed practices and games.

But the Giants put Beason on injured reserve this past week, ending his season, and removed the interim from McClain's business card. Against the Colts on Monday night, it will be his job.

"It doesn't mean anything how the title is," McClain said. "I really don't listen to the noise, to be honest. If my coach believes I can run the defense and take care of it, that moves me. It doesn't move me if the papers say I'm thestarting middle linebacker. That means nothing to me. The only thing that matters to me is how my coaches and teammates feel about me."

McClain grew up without a lot more than boxing trunks. He spent most nights of his childhood in a homeless shelter. He often found his only meals at the Salvation Army. The best pair of sneakers he had were ones he pulled down off utility wires, where they had been tossed.

But he found boxing. And then football. He went to Syracuse. He was undrafted but played for the Ravens. He was going to be the heir to Ray Lewis. Then a neck injury sidelined him and that transition of power.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the circumstances that I've been through -- not talking just childhood but high school, college, even into adulthood -- have made me," he said. "Having to always work and always position yourself to be among the best and always prevail regardless of the circumstance."

And always knowing there was someone to give a boost. Joe Frazier. The Salvation Army. An uncle who took him and his family in when he was in high school. The Giants, who signed him as a free agent.

He's trying to give that back on the field.

"The thing about him is it's his personality," linebackers coach Jim Herrmann said. "He has a personality that people just gravitate to. That's the way he is as a player, too."

"McClain, I've said this a number of times, has not gotten enough credit or respect for how much he has contributed to our team," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "Beason is now officially done, but he's been in and out and Jameel's stepped in every single time, no questions asked. He's moved over from one side to the other when Jon was back in, so there's no doubt in my mind that he can get the job done. He's already gotten it done."

McClain called himself "nomadic" as a linebacker earlier this year, but he doesn't like terms such as "flexible" and "versatile." He prefers to make up his own lexicon, calling what he does "team-able." He played the strong side, weak side and middle in Baltimore. He's bounced from inside to outside with the Giants.

"Learning multiple positions became natural for me," he said.

He also likes to learn the entire scheme of the defense.

"Some people look at the playbook and look at their play, they look at what they have to do," McClain said. "When I look at it, I look at all of it. What's the worst that can happen from me knowing what the corner has to do? Ultimately it makes me better."

It's an attention to detail. Like wearing proper boxing trunks. Technically it's not necessary, but it really should be.

And now that he has a firm place in the defense, a position to call his own, all of that ancillary knowledge will be even more helpful. He's not only filling in for Beason as a player but as a director. It's his defense now.

"I get a little more focus on one thing," he said. "But I always approach it in the aspect of knowing everything. The mental gymnastics become a little easier, but it's still the same focus, still the same premise.

"People may believe that I have to become this phenomenal leader or whatever words they make up, but I continue to be myself. Like I say all of the time, the players dictate what a leader is. They'll tell me what they think it is. That's that. I just go out and play and don't try to do anything extra.

"My goal is for everybody to be in the right place, because if that happens, we'll have a perfect defense."

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