Brendan Maloney (USA TODAY Sports)

Stefan McClure has navigated a minefield of knee injuries to make his way to the NFL

A summer workout with Aaron Rodgers had Stefan McClure being tabbed as a future pro, and finally, on Monday, he officially signed an NFL contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“As a freshman, I knew he came in as a phenom type of a player.” – Greg Burns

Phenom. When California safeties coach Greg Burns first heard about Stefan McClure, he said, that’s the word that came up. Phenom.

The next word that came up? Injuries.

As a true freshman in 2011, McClure had to watch from the sidelines of his hometown Qualcomm Stadium as the Bears fell, 21-10, to Texas, in the Holiday Bowl – the last bowl game in which California played.

Just a matter of weeks earlier, his season ended against Arizona State, when he suffered what was, as late as 15 years ago, a career-ending injury: The Terrible Triad – tearing the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee -- on a late-game special teams play.

After 20 months of recovery, in spring ball, he tore his right meniscus. With one month left on rehab, he tore it again. As a junior, he started the first five games, only to go down in warm-ups against Arizona, with a strained right calf. Then, in the spring of 2015, he tore his right quad, requiring spring surgery and relegating him to a much-lauded turn at sideline reporting duties for the Pac-12 Network during the Bears’ spring game. His charisma, his intelligence, his affability and ease in front of a camera showed that, if this football thing didn't work out, he's coming for someone's job in the press box.

Phenom.

Injuries.

What if ...

Before this season, those added up to a third descriptor: Unknown.

The word for McClure now? Pro. On Monday, it was officially announced that McClure had signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Indianapolis Colts, along with teammate Darius White.

“It's just a huge honor," McClure said. "To be able to have the opportunity to make an NFL roster and be a part of an NFL team, it feels pretty good, to be one step in the door towards that process of being an NFL player."

McClure has come a long way.

When Burns arrived in the spring of 2014, McClure couldn’t even practice. Burns had remembered McClure, because he’d coached and recruited in the Pac-12, before. He was at Arizona State when McClure was first injured.

“I didn’t study him. I just knew of him. That’s as much as I knew. I knew he was supposed to be a solid player, and I remembered that he was, at least in my mind,” Burns said. “When I got here, I thought, he’s going to be pretty good, but then I found out he had this surgery and that surgery, then, we were trying to gauge what can he do? Can he stay at corner and deal with that, with the knee, or should we transition him to safety, because he had the frame that could be good at safety?”

The unspoken question: Could McClure even stay healthy for a full season? Could he ever be that phenom, or, would be become something else?

*****

Phenom – where did it come from?

There’s been a story circulating in the halls of Memorial Stadium for a few years now, but no one’s every put it to paper. It’s become a locker room legend, a message board myth. But it’s true; every word of it.

“Well, my coach just asked me if I wanted to go run routes for some NFL QBs working out, and I said, ‘yes,’” McClure recalled.

It was the summer between his junior and senior years at Vista (Calif.) High School. He headed 30 minutes south, to West View High School. He had no idea what to expect.

On the first day, he worked with Drew Brees, Josh Freeman and Chase Daniels, he says, and, “a couple other backups from around the league.”

When the workout was over, the coach working with the pro signal callers, Todd Durkin, asked McClure if he wanted to come back. They went three to four times a week.

“I said yes,” McClure says. “Next day, I went there, and there was Aaron Rodgers, and there was Drew Brees, and a QB from Oregon State, and I want to say BYU. Halfway through the workout, Aaron asked me what college I went to, and I told him I was in high school, going into my senior year.”

Rodgers was incredulous. In its telling, the story has become a bit exaggerated, with some versions saying that Rodgers deemed McClure pro-ready from the jump. That’s not quite how it went.

“He was like, ‘Really? Who are you getting recruited by?’ I told him some Pac-12 schools,” McClure says. “The guy from Oregon State was wearing his Beavers shirt, so he just pointed at his shirt when I said that school. Then, later that evening, when I was home, I got a call from coach Tedford, asking me how I was doing, and saying he talked to Aaron earlier that day, and he had good things to say about me. Coach Tedford said, ‘Well, I just wanted to let you know that you have a scholarship here, and you can pick if you want to play DB or wide receiver, because Aaron said you run very nice routes.”

McClure had only talked to Cal twice, before that. Kenwick Thompson had come by his school, and then-graduate assistant Tosh Lupoi had messaged him on facebook.

The next day, Rodgers came up to McClure, and said, ‘Stef, I looked you up, and they have you listed as a DB. I told coach Tedford you’re a wide receiver.’

“I just laughed,” says the ever-loquacious McClure, “because I didn’t know what to say back to that.”

Rodgers, as McClure tells it, threw a perfect pass every time.

“He hit me in stride, and there were about six receivers out there, all different speeds, and him and Brees were pinpoint accurate,” McClure continues. “I remember after the first week, the crease of my gloves between my thumb and pointer finger ripped from how hard they threw the ball. I also remember how we ended the workouts with a deep ball, and how hard it was to catch a 65-yard pass. I remember I dropped my first one, then, Aaron had me go again, and caught it. It was the only drop I had the whole time I was out there. You couldn’t drop the ball because they were all perfect passes.

“I think working out with them really helped me prepare for my season. I dropped one pass all year, and caught 55 of them for 1,300-plus yards or so. I think that summer was great. I got to work out with the previous Super Bowl-winning QB, Drew Brees, and then the next year’s Super Bowl QB in Aaron Rodgers.”

Beyond the passes, though, one thing, above all, stuck with McClure.

“I remember how demanding they were of themselves to throw a perfect pass, and how precisely they wanted us to run routes,” he says. “It was very serious.”

There’s another world out there in which McClure took Rodgers’s advice and continued on as a wide receiver, and maybe that road isn’t filled with so much heartache, or a knee that lets him know when it’s about to rain. But, as McClure is so fond of saying, “Everything was going to work out in the end. God’s got a plan for me, and it’s not just to be broken and battered. God’s got a plan to lift me up and see it through.”

•••••

The plan was the NFL. Rodgers saw the potential. So did Tedford. McClure took Tedford’s offer. Once on campus, McClure made quick friends with walk-on H-back Spencer Hagan, through mutual friend – and Cal point guard – Brandon Smith. They each fondly remember the first day they met, on Witter Rugby Field, backed by the soundtrack of Bryan Anger’s foot thumping punts before McClure’s first fall camp practice.

“We clicked right away,” says Hagan. “It really clicked for us. We just became friends and I stayed at his house a lot, he stayed at my house a lot. The first day Stef got here, we hit it off.”

 Little did either man know how important that friendship would be in just over a year’s time.

McClure played as a true freshman, in 2011, racking up 24 tackles, one interception and two breakups in 11 games, and, in his first career start, shutting down USC’s Robert Woods to the tune of five catches for 36 yards during their clash at AT&T Park. Then, it all came crashing down late on 

“I knew pretty soon, pretty quickly, that I tore my ACL,” said McClure, about the kickoff cover against Arizona State. “Once I got into the doctor’s area at ASU, they were like, ‘Yeah, looks like you tore your ACL. We’ll have to see how much meniscus you tore,’” McClure remembers. “They didn’t really test the MCL. They just knew that I tore the ACL. I knew that night.”

Then, soon after, additional tests revealed the true severity: It was the Terrible Triad – tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament, the medial cruciate ligament and the meniscus – an injury that, just over a decade ago, was career-ending.

“I was pretty devastated. I was like, ‘Man, this is not …’ I was really just starting to get kind of comfortable, adjusting to the speed of college and the game and everything, so it was devastating. I was pretty sad, pretty upset, pretty emotional,” McClure said.

One big question raced through his mind.

“‘Am I every going to be the same?’ Up until that point, I had never been seriously hurt, so it was devastating,” McClure said.

The first months were grueling. They were frustrating. They were a struggle, both physically and psychologically.

“My leg was tiny, not much muscle,” McClure said. “Coming back, there really wasn’t much explosion in my leg. The muscle was there, but I couldn’t get it to really fire when I needed it to, to run and sprint and stop.”

For an athlete, the fresh memory of old strength, juxtaposed starkly with the reality of weakness – knowing that tasks which once were as natural as breathing, now seem Sisyphian in both the effort required and their utter futility; remembering both the ease and the immediacy of the power of their own bodies, and seeing a shadow in the mirror, instead of a reflection – presents an existential crisis: What am I, when I can no longer be what I was? It’s torture, and McClure had only felt the tip of that particular dagger. Things would get harder, but so would he. At no point did he ever question whether or not he’d play football again.

“Not that I won’t be able to play football, but there was doubt: ‘Am I going to be able to play at a high level? I know I’ll be able to do some things, but will I ever be able to play at the level you need to compete in the Pac-12?’” he asked himself. “The early stages in that rehab were real rough.”

The one-time phenom was now damaged goods.

•••••

In January, 2012, Cal moved into the newly-constructed Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance. There were Alter-G treadmills that could take weight off of McClure’s knee as he ran. There were therapy tubs and an underwater treadmill, all state-of-the-art. It was hard to keep McClure down for long. He was in the facility as much as he was allowed, and he began to find another path that he’d never considered before: Coaching.

That season, at home games, instead of moping about in sweats and a hoodie, McClure would be prowling the sideline in khaki slacks and a Cal polo shirt, with a headset over his hears.

He heard defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast dissecting offenses, making calls and adjustments. He sat in on meetings, taking as many mental reps as he possibly could. He studied with Ashley Ambrose, a longtime former NFL defensive back, who was then coaching the Cal secondary. For 20 months, McClure’s injury opened a window into a world he’d never known about. He didn’t just like it; he devoured it.

“He said the biggest thing, when you’re hurt, in terms of staying involved with the team, and staying present, where you are, is to coach the younger guys,” said McClure’s close friend, former teammate, and now Cal offensive quality control coach – Hagan. “That was a role that I felt like I took on, too, was to really watch them and really help them in any way that I could, and Stef did a really great job of that. He really brought up the young guys, and all the young guys on defense. He almost became a leader in that time, because he became a coach, more than a player, at that point. Then, when he came back to be a player again, he had that coaching respect from the other players.”

After the initial reconstructive surgery, McClure underwent a microfracture procedure in May that all but erased what progress McClure had made. He was back to square one.

10 months after McClure suffered his first injury, Hagan – playing as an H-back against Ohio State, in Columbus, Ohio – took a helmet to the inside of his knee. McClure remembers, he couldn’t have been more than 50 feet away.

“I saw it, right on our sideline,” McClure said, before reflexively adding, “Yeah,” drawing out the word as he pulls at the thread of memory.

“They were going towards the open part, away from the horse show, and the defensive sideline was on that end, so I was pretty close to it,” he said.

As bad as McClure’s injury was, Hagan’s was worse.

“He, uh, did a little bit more to his,” said McClure.

While the two were already close before their respective injuries, their time on the shelf forged an unbreakable bond. Years later, McClure was a groomsman at Hagan’s wedding.

“Stefan knew all the ins and outs of rehab,” Hagan said. “Everything that needed to happen for me to get back, he was there for me, step after step after step. He would give me tips on how to move, how to do certain exercises and there were also some things that he told me, that he figured out along the way, that were small tips on how to do things better, extra exercises, drills that I could do to really strengthen that knee. It’s a long process, so all the help that Stef gave me, it helped me to maximize everything that I was doing.”

The hardest part of rehab, McClure remembered, was the beginning -- a beginning he had to go through twice. So, when his good friend had to trudge through it, he'd be right there for him, even if it meant helping him get food in the cafeteria, because life with crutches is tough.

“I’d do some of his exercises that he was doing because it’s still good for you to work on balance, so I’d do them with him instead of just hanging out," McClure said.

The pair would watch the away games at Hagan's parents place in Sacramento, yelling at the screen.

As McClure spent the entire 2012 season as another coach on the field, Hagan began to feel the itch.

“We would just talk about how intense coaching is, like when you’re on the headset, it’s not just the plays that are in the headset; the coaches are getting excited," McClure said. "The coaches are getting the same kind of nerves. We would both signal, him for offense and me for defense, and we’d both talk about that, how sometimes, during the signal, you’d go, ‘What was that signal? What was that signal?’ because it was a long play. We talked a little bit about just how intense it is, and how you still feel like a part of the game. That’s as close as you can get to being a part of the game without actually being out there.”

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1334942-season-ending-mccl... Hagan recovered, so did McClure. Finally, by 2013, he was ready to get back on the field. Over the first four games, he’d made 28 tackles. He was a team captain. He had a career-high five pass breakups. But, five games into the 2013 season, against Washington State, he felt something in his right knee, again. He’d torn his right meniscus.

“After it happened again, it was devastating, because I was feeling good. I was poised to be around all year,” McClure said. “After the second one, it was really devastating: Man, what am I doing wrong? What am I doing wrong to hurt my knee? It’s so, so frustrating. Your teammates are trying to count on you, and then this happens. It affects the whole team.”

There were tears. There was doubt. There was surgery on Oct. 7. Then, there was yet another setback.

“The second knee injury, I had the meniscus repaired, and then, during the rehab stint, I tore it again,” McClure said. “It wasn’t getting better, and they didn’t know why.”

He was in the home stretch of his recovery – one month away from being cleared, and already running – when something else went wrong.

“I got another MRI, and it was torn, that was probably the lowest of the low, right there.”

McClure had torn his right meniscus, again.

“It had been bothering me a little bit towards the end of the year, once I was able to start running. I should have been running on it, but it was still bothering me in late December,” he said. “Then, going home for winter break, when I came back, when I came back in January, and I was talking to the trainer, it wasn’t feeling better, so they had me get it checked out again.”

Throughout the offseason, all Cal- and NIKE-branded clothes and equipment were stripped from the team that had gone 1-11. McClure was as low as he'd ever been. 

"We were at the lows of lows," McClure said. "So we really got to see who was here to work for the long haul and who was really committed to the program. And we lost a few guys. And it was really just a rebuilding thing."

That rebuilding went beyond the team, itself. McClure needed an overhaul, too.

He had surgery again on Feb. 7, to clean up a minor tear in the meniscus. Luckily, McClure was able to start running two weeks later, and was healthy by the time the 2014 season rolled around. By that point, Hagan had taken McClure's direction to heart, and had become a coach.

“I think he definitely helped me understand that was a possibility, and that was a good thing, because as a player, you never think your career’s going to end, but just talking to Stef, realizing that coaching is just as big a part of football, and that is a way that I can be a part of this team, as any other way," Hagan said. "Coaching just became something that I loved.”

•••••

http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1595713-stefan-mcclure-nam... By the time Burns arrived in 2014, McClure had already played under Ashley Ambrose (who recruited him) in 2011 and 2012, with Clancy Pendergast as the defensive coordinator in a 3-4 defense, then defensive backs coach Randy Stewart under Andy Buh and his 4-3 defense. With Burns coming in, alongside Art Kaufman, McClure was almost an expert, already, in defensive philosophy.

“With his knowledge, he’s been through a couple – unfortunately – coaches, systems, so he’s got an idea of different types of schemes," Burns said.

McClure may not have the speed he had before, but he has something arguably more valuable: Experience. Any technique, any scheme, any alignment that Burns presented to his charges, McClure had seen it.

“He’s someone I can talk to, and he can process and paint the picture,” Burns says. “Some guys, I have to talk to, get on the board and then show film, before they get it. He’s someone who we can easily do sideline adjustments with, because he gets it.”

The Bears just missed a bowl game, and McClure missed five weeks with a calf strain suffered against the Wildcats while warming up in the Arizona heat, but he still played in eight games, tallying 50 stops, with 1.5 tackles for loss, a 22-yard fumble recovery and one interception.

After a quad injury at the start of spring football, McClure returned in the fall completely healthy, and ready to have the one thing that had eluded him: A completely healthy season. That's what the scouts wanted to see.

“Stef’s contribution to our program is […] it’s really hard to put a value on it,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “Through all the ups and downs, he’s just been a guy that shows up every day, very mature, goes to work, very methodical in his approach. He’s been a real calming factor for really the whole football program. I don’t know if you can put a value on what he’s meant for all of us. He’s a great kid who does exactly what you want him to do, and is another coach back there. He gets guys lined up, gets us in the right checks, does a great job communicating, and he’s the quarterback of our defense.”

As the quarterback of that defense in 2015, McClure scored his first career touchdown against Washington State, tallied 61 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three passes broken up and three passes defended.

In the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, McClure was second on the team with nine tackles, adding one tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

"It means a lot to be able to be out there with these guys and play in every game this year and just that whole group of seniors we have and even the juniors on this team," McClure said. It means a lot for me personally and for this whole team after all we've been through to end the season the right way. We've worked hard, and we've grown. And we've been through our ups and downs, so it feels good as a program to be able to get this win."

In the lead up to the NFL Draft, McClure didn't get an invite to the NFL Combine. He had one shot left to impress scouts: Cal Pro Day on March 18.

“They wanted to see me be healthy, play a full season, and I was able to do that this year," McClure said. "They want you to be a certain size. They want me to run 4.5 when I run the 40, weigh in over 200-205, vert jump 37. They want me to meet the measurable, and just stay healthy."

At Cal's pro day, he ran 4.56 in the 40, pushed out 17 reps in the 225-pound bench press, weighed in at 203 pounds, tuning in a 9-foot-11 broad jump, a 4.17-second 20-yard shuttle and a 6.90-second 3-cone drill.

"I felt pretty good after the pro day," McClure said. "I felt I hit the numbers the scouts were looking for, and I was feeling pretty good and excited about helping myself get even further and further into this process. It was a good feeling, leaving the pro day. I was prepared well, and I put some good numbers out there.

He did exactly what was needed, and the Colts took a chance. Indianapolis had started talking with McClure two weeks before the pro day, and set up a post-pro day workout with the Colts' secondary coach Greg Williams. That workout happened less than a week later.

"They were talking about either a seventh-round draft pick, or preferred free agent," McClure said. "It was just one of those waiting around and seeing if they pulled the trigger in the second round things. There were a couple of other teams, and they were all saying the same things. It was just waiting around on those last few days."

During the seventh round, McClure's agent fielded calls from the Colts, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Oakland Raiders and the Detroit Lions.

Why go with the Colts?

"I felt like it was a good opportunity, to go out there and get on a roster," McClure said. "I really like coach [Chuck] Pagano and that whole organization. I met with coach Williams, when he worked me out, and I went on a visit out to Indy. They're really invested in me, and really pretty solid, and have really liked me throughout this whole process."

During his days at Cal, McClure never got to face Andrew Luck. Now, he may at least get to pick the former Stanford Cardinal off during practice.

"I can even go against a couple other Stanford Cardinal out there," McClure laughed.

All he ever wanted was an opportunity. Now, the former phenom has one.


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