TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For once, the proverbial quarterback of No. 1 Alabama's defense was caught unprepared.
Linebacker Rolando McClain was in coach Nick Saban's office doing a TV interview Tuesday morning when football legend Dick Butkus strolled in to surprise him with the Butkus Award given annually to the nation's top linebacker.
"I had no idea what to do," McClain said. "I saw coach get up and shake his hand. Naturally, I got up and I just kind of froze. I mean, he's Dick Butkus.
"That was my first time ever meeting him. It's kind of humbling. You feel like you're a pretty good linebacker, then Dick Butkus is in the room."
Actually, McClain is a pretty good linebacker. And that scene will be aired on a show spotlighting the Butkus awards given to high school, college and pro players.
McClain wasn't told the real reason he was summoned to the football complex – or why he was asked to wear slacks and a collared shirt instead of his usual casual attire.
The junior is the leader of the nation's top scoring defense and helped guide the 13-0 Crimson Tide to a Southeastern Conference championship and a spot in the BCS national title game against No. 2 Texas. He is the second Tide player to win the Butkus, joining the late Derrick Thomas, who won in 1988.
The other finalists were Florida's Brandon Spikes, Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon, South Carolina's Eric Norwood and Texas' Sergio Kindle.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound McClain leads the Tide with 101 tackles, including 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He returned one of his two interceptions for a touchdown.
But he also serves as the defense's playcaller and leader, getting chosen as a captain by his teammates the day after Alabama beat Florida 32-13 in the SEC title game.
"It's not only the playing ability – that's quite obvious," Butkus said. "What it also entails is that people in his situation, people look up to him. He becomes a hero to a lot of people. Whether they like it or not, it's a responsibility for the athlete. That's what we say on this trophy is that you should never flinch in the All-Amnerican tradition of giving back. He's got a wonderful opportunity to help other people."
Saban said he thinks the 51-person committee "selected the right guy" in both regards.
"He did a fantastic job for his team, but he also influenced his teammates in a very positive way," the coach said. "His performance and his production individually was off the charts. In every way, from a performance/production standpoint, from a leadership standpoint, his contribution to the team's success was as much as anybody on our team. And we're really proud of him for that."
Saban can also be grateful to McClain for another reason: He stopped noseguard Terrence Cody and other teammates from dousing the coach with Gatorade at the end of the Florida win.
McClain figured that could wait until after the Tide faces Texas.
"I told them if we win the national championship, you can put on him whatever you want to put on him," he said. "But until then we're not going to drench coach with Gatorade. I dumped the water and the Gatorade out. It wasn't the right time for it.
"I didn't want the guys to feel like the SEC championship, that was it for us. I didn't want them to feel like that was the last game or the most important one, because it was not. We've got the biggest game of our life out there. After we win, or when we win it, you can dunk coach then."
The Butkus Award didn't change his priorities.
"I love the individual award but I would love no more than to see my teammates at the end of the year with a national championship ring," McClain said. "That would be huge."
He has started 34 of his 38 career games for the Tide, and was a unanimous pick for The Associated Press All- SEC team. He was also a Butkus finalist as a sophomore.
"When I first got here, I was just an 18-year-old kid running around trying to learn the system," McClain said. "Thanks to (Saban) and a lot of hard work from a lot of other coaches, I guess I turned out to be a pretty good linebacker.
"It means a lot to me, but it's bigger than me. It's for my team, because without them I don't even think I would get this award. These guys have played hard all year. I'm just thankful for them."