When the Cincinnati Bengals signed Onterio McCalebb as an undrafted college free agent, they let him know up front their intent was to switch him from running back to cornerback.
The Auburn University product had no problem with thatt because change is something he has been dealing with his whole life.
Taken away from his drug-abusing mom when he was in fourth grade in Fort Meade, Fla., McCalebb lived in five different homes and even spent two weeks on the street before graduating high school.
“It was rough,” McCalebb said Saturday between practices at Bengals rookie minicamp. “It was definitely a trying background.”
After being separated from his three younger siblings and living with his older brother at his great grandmother’s house, McCalebb learned he soon would be moving in with the father he never knew.
The first time he met his dad was when he visited him in prison.
“I went to live with him when he got out of jail, but he had four kids from another lady and it just went bad,” McCalebb said. “I felt like I was being treated different than the other brothers and sisters my dad had.”
He moved in with a friend, but that family had its own troubles that McCalebb didn’t want to be in the middle of, so he moved out and lived on the street. A few weeks later, his friend’s cousin saw him wandering the street and invited him to his house, which has been a permanent refuge ever since.
Living in stable home for the first time, McCalebb won three state championships in track and rushed for 1,995 yards and 27 touchdowns as a high school senior. He committed to Auburn, but he failed to qualify on a technicality when he did not submit his test results by the deadline.
So he enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., where he thrived on the stability and structure the prep school provided.
When he finally got to Auburn, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound McCalebb heard from everyone he talked to that he was too small to be a running back in the SEC. But he started nine games as a freshman, supplanting senior Ben Tate, who would go on to be drafted in the second round by the Houston Texans.
“I’ve heard negative things my whole life,” McCalebb said. “I just use it as motivation to work harder.”
After becoming the first Auburn freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in his first two games, McCalebb went on to play in 50 of 52 games while rushing for 2,586 yards. He also is the school’s career leader in kickoff return average (27.9).
At the NFL Combine, McCalebb’s unofficial 40-yard dash time of 4.21 would have broken Chris Johnson’s record of 4.24, but it was later officially listed as 4.34.
Not even that blazing speed could tempt a team to draft him, but the Bengals stayed in contact and offered him a deal when the draft ended.
“He’s got all the want-to,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “A thing we weren’t necessarily sure about with Onterio was, ‘Does he have the quickness to be a corner?’ After watching him in two practices, I don’t have any doubt of that.”
McCalebb’s progress also is being closely monitored 2,000 miles away by former Bengal Ken Riley. The Rattler not only made the switch from college quarterback to NFL cornerback, he collected 65 interceptions, which still ranks fifth in league history.
“He’s from literally five minutes from where I’m from,” McCalebb said of Riley. “Coach Marvin told me he wanted me to call him, so I called him and we talked for a while, close to like 30-45 minutes. When we have our little break here in July I am supposed to go back down there and he’s going to help me out with a lot of things.”
McCalebb said the switch to corner has been difficult, especially mastering the art of the backpedal, something he hasn’t done since he was a two-way star in high school.
But the Bengals coaches are encouraged by the early returns.
“He’s trying as hard as he can and his mind is really into it,” defensive backs coach Mark Carrier said. “What we want to see is when we introduce new techniques to him, how he adjusts. Is he comfortable with it? Is he thinking too much? We’re just trying to get him relaxed so he can be more confident and just go play.
“He’s not a fish out of water,” Carrier added. “He has an idea of what he needs to do, he’s just trying to learn it. He just needs to keep working at it.”
Putting in the work, McCalebb said, is something the coaches don’t have to worry about. It’s part of his essence, and it’s at the forefront of his mind whether he’s dreaming about his future or thinking about his past.
“I still see my mom sometimes when I go home,” he said. “It’s kind of awkward because she’s still on the streets. I don’t fault my mom for what she did. I still love her because that’s my momma and I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her.
“That’s why I work so hard on the football field, because I know one day I could help move my mom into a home.”