AN OLD MAN approaches a table of three young men at a Tuscaloosa Applebee's.

"Roll Tide," says the old man.

"Roll Tide," the young men say.

The old man takes a seat. He warns everyone that he's been drinking. Crown Royal Black. "Smooth as a baby's ass," he says. He wants to talk Alabama football, a random drunk guy with stories to tell. The first game that he attended: 1958, against LSU. Bear Bryant's debut as coach. Blew a lead and lost. Still gnaws at him. Then one of the young men -- the biggest of the three, with massive arms and shoulders that extend from his neck like a perfect square -- says, "I used to play here."

"What's your name?" the old man says.

"Rolando McClain."

"Rolando!" The old man turns to his family at the nearest table. "That's Rolando McClain!"

For a moment, McClain's face -- scruffy and cherubic and subtly earnest -- seems to freeze. He knows the range of images associated with his name. Some might remember his résumé as an All-SEC linebacker, national champion and the No. 8 pick in the 2010 draft, by the Raiders. Others think of him only in handcuffs, arrested three times in 16 months in his hometown of Decatur, Ala., two hours north. They remember a smirking arrest shot for the ages.

What they probably don't know or understand is the remarkable decision that put McClain back here in Tuscaloosa. Just five months earlier, under contract with the Super Bowl champion Ravens, McClain sensed that he was about to self-destruct like Jovan Belcher or Aaron Hernandez or any of the NFL's many cautionary tales. So he just walked away from football. The sports world is littered with bitter, broke or jailed 35-year-old versions of Rolando McClain. But there are few 24-year-old athletes who would have left the NFL to do what he did: McClain re-enrolled at the University of Alabama and moved back to the town that had once brought out the best in him.

The old man seems to remember it all, every twist and turn. He turns to McClain and says, "I'm glad you're here."

McClain seems relieved. "Me too."

AT 7 A.M. on an October Thursday, McClain sits in his garage with a silver revolver on his lap. Not one to fuss over his image -- it can't get much worse -- McClain holds up the gun as casually as he would a phone and opens the cylinder to show that it's filled with empty shells. "It's to kill copperheads," he says.

He has just finished running his morning sprints, up a hill on his lakefront property about 20 minutes from campus. McClain looks like he could play in the NFL tomorrow, but his diet is that of a college freshman. He puts down the gun and focuses on the most pressing thing on his mind: breakfast. He doesn't have class today -- he's majoring in family financial planning, only 16 credits short of a degree -- so he might fish. Or nap. His only to-do is a rec-league basketball game this afternoon in Birmingham. He hops into his white truck to hit a drive-thru. As he winds through the roads out of his neighborhood, a white woman waves hello. This comforts him. "You just don't see that back in Decatur," he says.

McClain's world is strangely peaceful, at once structured and at his whim. He occasionally attends Alabama football practice, dropping advice to the players. He sees his toddler sons, Ma'kai and Jordyn, a few times a week. He shares his home with two longtime buddies, Marquis "Pup" Maze, a former college teammate, and Jarodiaus "Tweezy" Willingham, one of the few childhood friends who remain in his life. And he shoots whatever small animals happen to wander onto his property.

He pulls up to a gas station and turns to Maze in the backseat. "Hey, Pup, you gotta run in and get me some dip! I'm getting your breakfast, you little pansy! You got money?"

"I didn't bring my wallet," Pup says.

McClain gives him a credit card.

"Wintergreen Grizzly. Long cut."

He then cruises into the drive-thru, orders a breakfast sandwich, and 10 minutes later he's sitting at a dock on his property, with a dip in his lip and nothing but time on his hands. Months ago, he wasn't so calm. "I was feeling like Aaron Hernandez or something," he says, "like I just wanted to kill somebody." He remembers watching Hernandez get hauled out of his house in handcuffs, later charged with first-degree murder, and being genuinely scared he'd end up the same way.

The fact that he could relate to one of football's most notorious players speaks not only to how far gone he was but also to the newfound clarity with which he can now see his life. McClain was raised in a single-parent household in Decatur, surrounded by drugs, guns and violence. He describes a mother, Tonya Malone, who worked three jobs and constantly battled with him. At one point, McClain filed a restraining order against her after she allegedly threatened him with a knife. He says his father, Roland Ervin McClain Jr., was largely absent. At age 15, he ran away -- couch-surfing, getting into fights and "being a little gangster."

Football became the easiest, most acceptable way to vent. He emerged as one of the best linebackers in the country, earning a scholarship to Alabama. But as he says now, "Football was my mask. It was the cover-up. You got problems -- go break something, work it out that way. I never really dealt with the problem."

His problems followed him to Tuscaloosa. In practice early in his freshman year, McClain -- already starting at middle linebacker -- got upset that a defensive scheme asked him to cover two gaps. So he changed it, and as he tells it now on the dock, head coach Nick Saban exploded. "What the f---?" Saban screamed, throwing his hat. "Who the f--- do you think you are?"

"Why don't you shut the f--- up?" McClain fired back. "I fixed the problem."

They shouted back and forth, and Saban benched McClain for five games. At first, McClain pouted. Then he came to appreciate Saban standing up to him. Over the next few years, as McClain became the best linebacker in the country and won a BCS championship in 2009, Saban and McClain got closer. They'd watch film together, just the two of them. For the first time in his life, McClain felt stable. He loved the college bubble: class, football, class, football. He became a two-time dean's list student. He'd always eat breakfast at Rama Jama's and then get his hair buzzed by Tate, his barber at Fatheadz on Paul W. Bryant Drive. "It was home," he says.

He left after three years, expecting NFL money to solve his family's problems. He got drafted, went to Oakland and almost immediately wished he'd never left Tuscaloosa. So here he is, trying to re-create something that he's realizing no longer exists. McClain and Saban talk only occasionally, and Saban didn't reply to interview requests for this story. Shortly after McClain returned to Tuscaloosa, the coach did introduce McClain to a therapist. They spoke a few times, but McClain hasn't worked up the courage to commit. "I'm scared of what he might figure out about me," he says with a forced laugh.

What does he not want to know? "I don't know if I'm ready to know, man, why I was so angry. I don't know if I'm ready to know what triggers my anger. I just feel like I figured out on my own how to stay calm, how to enjoy life, how to be happy. Eventually, I might find the source of the problem, get over it. But right now …"

He sounds like someone who's already had counseling, with self-awareness and smarts that are rare in any 24-year-old. And yet there's another piece of him that seems to drift.

Gazing at the lake, his eyes suddenly get big. "I wish I had my gun, man. I'd shoot that turtle. You ever eat turtle? It's some good meat."

AS EASY AS this life seems, McClain believes that returning to the NFL might have been easier. He would have kept burying his problems under the comfortable chaos of the sport. Nobody knows why both Hernandez and Belcher thought to drive to their respective team's facilities when they did, but it's fair to wonder whether that's where they felt most safe.

McClain, though, also felt like he was faking it. He hated much of pro football, beginning at his draft-day party, when his father showed up, unannounced and uninvited and wearing his son's No. 25 Alabama jersey. It was the first time in nine years that McClain had seen his dad, and even now, the two rarely speak. That ruined the day. Weeks later, he signed with the Raiders for five years and $40 million, $23 million guaranteed. That's when the calls began. McClain says that his old crew from the Decatur streets demanded a cut, telling him that he wouldn't be where he is today without them. And as McClain puts it, "A little piece of you feels like maybe they're right." So he took care of everyone. He says he spent almost $600,000 on friends and family in a sixth-month span, mostly on cars. Once word got out that McClain was hooking up his crew, more people called and texted, wanting in. Feeling under siege, he wrote checks so that people would leave him alone. But something was building in him with each demand.

It came to a head for the first time in December 2011. McClain flew to Decatur for his grandfather's funeral, expecting a simple service. But he says that his family had signed up for a $20,000 funeral package, with five limos -- and stuck him with the tab. "I was pissed off," he says, and he seemed to take it out that night at a friend's house. Accounts differ as to what happened, but a fight between associates broke out. McClain allegedly pointed a gun at a man and fired it next to his head. He was arrested the next day and was later convicted of four misdemeanors. McClain appealed, and the charges were later dropped in exchange for an undisclosed financial settlement.

He read about himself on the Internet, each story cranking him up another notch. In his second season, McClain first tried to cope by hitting harder on the field. It didn't work. A film rat in college, he all but stopped studying for opponents. On the field, he seemed listless, unmotivated. Off it, he felt targeted—by his old crew, by people texting at all hours for money, by Decatur cops in the offseason. Though he had 246 tackles in three years, he was basically checked out: He hated the endless meetings, the required media sessions, the losing, the collective toll of not living up to expectations at a job that he resented. At one point, McClain told safety Michael Huff, one of his few friends on the Raiders, "I don't want to play."

During a practice in November 2012, McClain loafed during a drill. Head coach Dennis Allen told him to get out if he didn't want to run at full speed. McClain got out, mumbling something under his breath. He and Allen ended up screaming at each other. McClain was benched, then suspended. McClain knew he was cheating his team and himself. And as GM Reggie McKenzie says now, "I agreed."

After the season, McClain returned to Decatur, ready to blow. And he did. In January he was pulled over for a window-tint violation. He gave the police a false name and was arrested (he later paid a $186 fine). Then the Raiders released him. Grasping for anything that felt stable, he proposed to his girlfriend, Capri Knox, the mother of one of his two boys, on the April morning that he signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Ravens. They were married hours later at the courthouse; they're now getting divorced, ending what McClain calls an unhealthy relationship, due in large part to his issues: "You go crazy. You live in the house, you stay away from people. You become this dark, evil, angry, mean person and nobody wants to be around you because you don't want to be around nobody."

Then, also in April, McClain was arrested for a third time in Decatur. He was at a park with a large crowd when police arrived, responding to a disturbance. When the cops told him to leave the park, McClain allegedly said, "F--- the police!" He was jailed on charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He pleaded not guilty and is due to appear in court in December. The way he was going, he knew he would end up "locked in a cage like an animal," he says. "For real. That had to be the only outcome. I was just mad. I just wanted to fight people."

Alone at night, he even weighed the merits of raising a gun to his head. "You sit there and think, 'Why am I even here?' " he says. "If I'm gone, all this s--- will go away."

In a rare moment of clarity, he made a list of goals: Get better with the Lord.

Be the best father I can be.

Finish my degree.

Football, McClain says, "was at the bottom of my list." So in May, less than a month after signing with the Ravens, he called GM Ozzie Newsome and told him he was retiring. Newsome tried to dissuade him, arguing that he could help to fill the void left by Ray Lewis. But McClain was -- is -- stubborn. So he quit. Then he cut off most of his old crew and family, telling most of them in person that he was starting a new life without them, before vowing never again to set foot in Decatur. And he returned to Tuscaloosa, hoping to turn back the clock.

A FEW HOURS after breakfast, McClain is in his truck again, en route to the basketball game. McClain turns to me, seated nearest him in the back seat. "If we get into a fight," he says, "you'd better jump in." He laughs. So do Tweezy and Pup, who's behind the wheel. He's only half-kidding. We're headed toward one of the roughest sections of Birmingham. As the truck cruises up I-59, McClain eats Pringles and drinks Sprite and takes a mental spin through the NFL life he left behind. Hanging with the guys. Playing cards. Living large. "Man," he says, "I once bought a $150,000 car just because my friends told me to. Not because I wanted it. Because they told me to."

Four months into retirement, with football season in full swing, McClain definitely doesn't feel lost without his old job. It's not his identity. He rarely watches on Sundays. He doesn't need the money either; one smart thing he did with his millions was to hire a financial adviser. Still, his football career is like his psyche: unsettled. He says he wants to play again to one day tell his sons that he survived his morass and also to see what kind of player he is with a clear mind. He "probably" will play next season, he says.

Pup exits the freeway. Most buildings are boarded up and lined with bars. He stops at a red light, next to a car cranking music. McClain perks up, itching for a bass-off. He's having a little fun or flirting with trouble, depending on how you look at it. From the back middle seat, he stretches his leg so that his toes hug the stereo knob, turning it up until the truck vibrates. The light turns green and both cars zip off the line, thumping and speeding through neighborhood streets. It's easy to see how they could be pulled over and trouble could escalate, the familiar slippery slope. But Pup peels right as the other car drives away.

They pull up to McAlpine Recreation Center. McClain exits the truck, urinates in the parking lot, then buries a dip in his lip. "Game time! Gotta load up!"