Devin McCourty knows how it feels to be watched.
In the midst of his 13th season with the Patriots, McCourty has spent the better part of his adult life in the spotlight. To say he has shined barely does him justice, with five Super Bowl appearances, three championship wins, 200-plus career games, and an individual skill set that will earn legitimate consideration for the Hall of Fame someday.
But there’s far more to McCourty than Pro Bowl honors and 12 seasons as a team captain. His achievements in football are matched only by his résumé of philanthropy.
It all goes back to being watched.
Not by fans, but by family. By friends. By neighbors. By people who cared about his welfare, who looked out for him, who guided him, who loved him. By people who cast their watchful eyes over him and his twin brother, Jason, as if they were their own flesh and blood, ensuring two precocious yet rambunctious young boys never got swept up in the perils of the crowded New York apartment complex their mother, Phyllis, secured through the city’s Housing Choice Voucher Program for low-income families.
McCourty was shaped by that community. And now, at 35 years old with children of his own, he truly understands how he was protected in ways not every child is lucky enough to experience. That realization is at the heart of why he gives back in the ways he does, with so much of his time devoted to causes and programs that help children.
“I grew up in Nyack, New York, in Section 8 housing, and when you live in an apartment complex like that, everyone is a neighbor,” McCourty says. “My aunt lived across the walkway, my grandmother lived across the street. You couldn’t do anything in that apartment complex without your mom finding out. Our downstairs neighbor would tell our mom, ‘You know the twins did this or did that.’
“So as I got older, I just thought about living like that, with people that have each other’s backs, people defending each other when things went on, always supporting each other. I realize the impact it had on me. It really played a major role in me choosing some of the things I decided to do in life, choosing not to go down the wrong path. As I got older I saw there was a path, and I saw the platform that I had, and I thought that was a great opportunity to give back.”
And he does. To causes like Boston Uncornered, a nonprofit that uses education to address systemic poverty and violence in cities, with a focus on directing gang-involved youth to education through mentorships and programming. Through the NFL’s Players Coalition, McCourty has become a fierce advocate for criminal justice and education reform, particularly the intersection of both: juvenile justice reform. He has advocated for bills in front of the Massachusetts Legislature, written op-eds, hosted debates and documentary premieres, and with that same backing of the Players Coalition, used a grant to help close the post-pandemic digital divide in education by providing better Internet access and technology devices to students in need.
There’s his work with Bottom Line, which targets first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds to help them succeed in their educational settings, upping notoriously low graduation rates. And his support of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which encourages athletes with positivity so they stick with sports and all the constructive life lessons that come from such teamwork. And the recent connection to Hello World, a nonprofit that aims to change the way students are evaluated on everything from standardized testing to job interviews; or his ties to We Belong Youth Leadership, a hyperlocal effort that includes building trust with community police officers.
“For me, I was very fortunate to be a good athlete,” McCourty says. “My mom got hurt on her job when we were 5, so it allowed her to be home and be very present and stay on top of us[with] a lot of things she wouldn’t let us do. I think about all the people I grew up with, friends, older people who I think were better athletes, who had the opportunity to do different things, but who just didn’t have the direction, didn’t have people who were willing to give them a little extra opportunity.
McCourty says he’s in the position now “to shine a spotlight and give kids opportunity”; for those who normally don’t get that chance, it allows them “to be seen and feel wanted. I think sometimes that’s all that kids need to bring out the best in themselves.”
When McCourty was an undergrad at Rutgers University, his coach Greg Schiano would often bring in speakers who were experts in their respective fields, from finance wizards to entertainment icons to teachers, media members, or other coaches. “He was always so inquisitive,” Schiano recalls. “He and Jason would be the ones up there talking to the guy after the speech. . . . I always used to tell them, ‘If there is something you want to do, find someone who has done it and talk to them.’ Devin always took advantage of that.”
These days, it can feel increasingly difficult to ensure we are raising our next generation with the kind of empathy and gratitude Devin McCourty displays. In addition to working with so many youth causes, he and Jason together have raised millions through Tackle Sickle Cell, in honor of an aunt with the disease. Devin revealed an even more personal motivation in working with The TEARS Foundation, which provides support to families grieving the loss of a child: Devin and wife Michelle’s third child, Mia, was stillborn.
He says the credit for his community work goes back to his upbringing, where Mama McCourty, as she is affectionately known in NFL circles, wrote a pretty compelling playbook of her own. She raised the twins after their father died of a heart attack at age 34.
“I remember going to recruit both of the twins and one of them had a scholarship offer and the other didn’t,” Schiano says. “We were meeting and talking, and their mother took me outside and told me, ‘They both go together,’ and I said, ‘I understand.’ She was kind and little, a thin, nice woman. But she was going to protect her boys.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.