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December 8, 2009TUSCALOOSA _University of Alabama junior linebacker Rolando McClain was still unsuspecting when he received a phone call Monday night to be at the football building the next morning for a meeting with Coach Nick Saban followed by an interview session with media.
He was also told to dress up, which was different because when players are on camera they're almost always wearing something Crimson Tide-related.
"I was thinking, 'Why do I need to wear slacks and a collared shirt?'" McClain said. "We don't do media like that."
He still didn't realize something was up until reaching Saban's office when Dick Butkus walked in carrying his namesake trophy, which annually goes to the nation's best linebacker.
"I had no idea," McClain said. "I'm really a loss for words. I didn't expect it. Individual awards are great, but my main focus is to get my team ready for the national championship."
He later added: "Obviously I'm real excited for the award. I'm sure my mom will be proud."
"He was really surprised," Saban said. "It was a lot of fun."
It was the second national honor on consecutive days for McClain, who was named the winner of the Jack Lambert Award as the nation's top linebacker by the Touchdown Club of Columbus (Ohio) on Monday.
He's also a finalist for the Lott Trophy (defensive impact player), which will be announced Sunday.
McClain led the Tide with 101 tackles this season, including 12.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, 14 quarterback pressures, three pass breakups, two interceptions and forced one fumble. Over the past couple of days he was also named a permanent team captain and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
"One of his great attributes is his leadership," senior guard Mike Johnson said. "At times he's been able to really pick up the defense and team, put us on his back and carry us to the finish line."
McClain's the second Alabama player to win the Butkus Award, joining Derrick Thomas in 1988.
"I think the committee made a great selection in Rolando McClain, not only because he had a great year on the field, did a fantastic job for his team and included his teammates in a positive way," Saban said. "His performance and his production individually was off the charts."
The other finalists were Sam Kindle of Texas, Eric Norwood of South Carolina, Brandon Spikes of Florida and Sean Witherspoon of Missouri. The winner was selected by a 51-person panel comprised mostly of scouts, coaches and journalists coordinated by Hub Arkush of Pro Football Weekly, and Butkus said the voting was close.
"I don't vote, and the reason why I don't vote is because I was always traveling on Saturdays, I used to do the radio for the (Chicago) Bears and I live in California," he said, adding with a laugh, "Otherwise I'd name a kid from Illinois every time."
However, Butkus wouldn't mind seeing McClain with his former NFL team, and seemed more than impressed with his 6-foot-4, 258-pound size.
"Right now we could use anything," he said. "We could get him to play both ways that would be fine.
"He's so big, I kind of wonder if he might be like Demarcus Ware (of the Dallas Cowboys), where he might get into a three-point with three down linemen and be the rush guy on the end. He's certainly big enough to play the middle and he can drop back. So he could me like another down player from what I've seen."
Ware won the first Butkus Award at the NFL level last year, when the first high school award was presented too. Meanwhile, the Hall of Famer and his son Matt, who also made the trip, use the award to attract attention to the "I Play Clean" campaign, which aims to end steroid use in organized sports.
"That's what it says on the trophy, don't flinch when the American tradition of giving back is called," Butkus said.
In addition to McClain, teammates and reporters were kept in the dark about the award's announcement too, only told that some players would be available, and maybe Saban, at the unusual time of 9 a.m. Co-captains Johnson and senior cornerback Javier Arenas were asked to show up too and didn't figure it out until they ran into Butkus football building lobby.
"I'm sitting here like, 'Am I supposed to stop the interview, talk to Dick, or am I supposed to act like he's not there," McClain said about his immediate reaction. "I had no idea what to do. So I saw coach get up and shake his hand and naturally just got up. I kind of froze.
"It's kind of humbling. You think you're a pretty good linebacker and then Dick Butkus is in the room."
Butkus Award winners
2009: Rolando McClain, Alabama
2008: Aaron Curry, Wake Forest
2007: James Laurinaitis, Ohio State
2006: Patrick Willis, Mississippi
2005: Paul Posluszny, Penn State
2004: Derrick Johnson, Texas
2003: Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma
2002: E. J. Henderson, Maryland
2001: Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma
2000: Dan Morgan, Miami
1999: LaVar Arrington, Penn State
1998: Chris Claiborne, Southern California
1997: Andy Katzenmoyer, Ohio State
1996: Matt Russell, Colorado
1995: Kevin Hardy, Illinois
1994: Dana Howard, Illinois
1993: Trev Alberts, Nebraska
1992: Marvin Jones, Florida State
1991: Erick Anderson, Michigan
1990: Alfred Williams, Colorado
1989: Percy Snow, Michigan State
1988: Derrick Thomas, Alabama
1987: Paul McGowan, Florida State
1986: Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma
1985: Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma