Chris McCain was embarrassed. And angry.
That’s an explosive mix for a young player who would sometimes speak before considering the consequences.
It was the fall of 2013, McCain’s junior year in college, and he already didn’t trust new California coach Sonny Dykes. The relationship got off to a rocky start when, shortly after being hired, Dykes told some of McCain’s close teammates to transfer because he wanted to recruit his own guys, according to McCain.
But the relationship hit a breaking point when McCain thought Dykes didn’t seem upset after a 39-point loss to Oregon in late September.
And so, he spoke up.
“He really didn’t say anything to us [after the game], just ‘Pack up and leave and let’s just get ready to go,’ ” McCain told the Miami Herald on Monday. “We didn’t feel like he was there for the team. I said something about that and my attitude came out about that.”
A day later, he was off the team. Dykes called McCain into his office. The conversation lasted 10 seconds.
I think we should part ways, McCain remembers Dykes saying. The university later announced McCain had been dismissed for conduct detrimental to the team.
And just like that, a once-promising football career was on life support. Not only was he without a team, McCain also earned the wrong kind of reputation — in college circles and with NFL scouts.
“I had a really bad attitude back then,” McCain said. “My attitude is about football. You hear a lot of stuff, ‘Chris did this, Chris did that.’ It’s about football, just because I’m passionate about it. Back then, I felt like someone came in and was sort of threatening my career.”
Fast-forward two years, and the only one who can derail Chris McCain’s career is Chris McCain. The Dolphins envision a big role for McCain following a quiet rookie season, and the versatile defender is currently atop the team’s depth chart at strong-side linebacker.
McCain, undrafted out of college, always had the talent. But he barely saw the field last year because he struggled to absorb the playbook.
He sacked Tom Brady and blocked a punt in the 2014 opener but fell out of favor shortly thereafter; he had just a handful of tackles the rest of the season. And like his playing time, his confidence faded.
“I was just struggling really bad last year with it,” said McCain, a Greensboro, N.C., native. “You start to see how things are going, you start to lose your confidence and you kind of start thinking, ‘Damn, am I made for this?’ I had those thoughts. ‘I don’t know. I don’t want to go back home.’ ”
Weeks would pass and McCain wasn’t even on the active list. It got so bad, he worried that the Dolphins would cut him.
But a conversation with Cam Wake helped got his mind right. Wake, who like McCain took a circuitous route to the NFL, reminded the rookie that he had the talent to play in the league, but needed to put in the work.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is,” Wake told McCain. “If you can play, you can play and they’re going to put you in.”
Inspired by the four-time Pro Bowl defensive end, McCain redoubled his efforts.
He didn’t much drop into zone coverage at Cal; he’s now much improved at that and broke up a pass during practice Monday.
“Everybody on the roster has to earn playing time,” coach Joe Philbin said Monday. “Friday night [in the team’s scrimmage] he made a couple of plays and he’s going to get plenty of reps in the preseason, both in games and he’s gotten a lot of reps in practice. I think the consistency and the playmaking, he’ll have a lot of opportunities.”
McCain is also learning what it takes to be a professional. In May, he caused a dust-up by saying the league should strip the New England Patriots of their Super Bowl championship due to their alleged involvement in a ball-deflation scheme.
Once again, McCain got called to the principal’s office. This time, the conversation with his head coach wasn’t nearly as heated.
“He told me to be mindful,” McCain said. “He said, ‘You’re not doing anything wrong, but be mindful of the stuff you put out there and how you put it out there.’ I was just young, young-minded. It was a little mistake. An innocent mistake.”