As Malik McDowell sat in a jail cell for 11 months in 2019, he wondered whether he'd ever have a chance to play football again.
McDowell, a 2017 second-round pick drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, was two years removed from being on a football field. His life had spiraled into a pit of bad habits and crime shortly after he accomplished his NFL dream, and he was struggling to find a way out.
Three months after he was drafted, he suffered a head injury in an ATV accident. A month later, he was booked with a DUI charge and given 12 months of probation. Then, in December, he was charged with disorderly conduct.
By March 2019, the Seahawks released McDowell. He was then charged for two more incidents and pleaded guilty to all charges in October 2019. He was sentenced to 11 months in jail.
Football was completely out of the picture for McDowell. He had nowhere to go, and the fault was on no one else but him.
"Jail gave me a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do in life," he said Tuesday. "It really gave me the motivation to push and try to fight to get back what I lost."
But in the span of one year, McDowell has managed to build a new, healthier lifestyle — and earn a second chance in the NFL.
It's happening in Cleveland, where McDowell was told by head coach Kevin Stefanski on Tuesday he was going to be a part of the 53-man roster. His focus has been solely on football and cracking a roster spot ever since the Browns signed McDowell in May. And after proving his talents and strength were up to NFL speed through training camp, his path toward recovery reached a new milestone.
"It was more of a manifestation," McDowell said. "I was always thinking, pushing, working. I showed them that I had that hunger. I told them how much I wanted it, and how much I didn't want to let them down."
The work paid off over the course of five long weeks of training camp under the sun at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus. McDowell was one of eight players competing for a role at defensive tackle, and he always seemed to stick out — not because he was 6-foot-6 and always one of the biggest players on the field, but because he constantly found ways to stuff run plays and attack the quarterback.
McDowell was a force in the two preseason games he played in, registering seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and two tackles for a loss. He had the speed to get to the outside and have a shot at tackling a running back. He also had the brute strength necessary to bully offensive linemen and sack a quarterback.
"He is very powerful," Stefanski said. "He's made sure to make the most of this opportunity. He is going to have to continue to do that, and he understands that."
McDowell found motivation to seek the opportunity from his mom, Joya Crowe, who always believed his son would make it in the NFL. The lowest point of it all came when he called her in jail to let her know he was in trouble again, but she continued to tell him she believed in him.
Still, the disappointment in her voice was more crushing than the sound of the cell door closing behind him. She had a vision for him, and he was letting her down.
"I disappointed myself a lot, but hurting her… She was the only one that stuck by my side," he said. "I put her through some unnecessary pain. That was the biggest let down — just letting her down."
McDowell attributed all of his change to his mother, who motivated him to focus and work out every day once he was released from jail even though no NFL calls were coming his way. She believed they would come soon. Eventually, McDowell did, too.
The first call came in the spring of 2021. The Browns were on the other end of the line, and they wanted to give him a chance to prove his efforts — both mentally and physically — could pay off.
Now, three months after McDowell arrived in Cleveland with long odds to make the final cut in training camp, he has a chance to be on the field Week 1 in Kansas City. The Browns are a Super Bowl contender, and they believe McDowell will give them a chance to get there.
McDowell has been given a second chance, and he's made the most of it.
"I didn't know if I'd ever be able to play football again," he said. "But God blessed me, and now I'm back here."