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McCourty draws plenty of accolades off the field

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / April 30, 2010

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MONTVALE, N.J. — Always, it comes back to her.

On a visit to St. Joseph Regional High School in this small borough on the New York border, the mere mention of two words — “McCourty twins’’ — lights up faces and brings forth adjective after adjective about the impeccably mannered, pastel-tie-wearing, highly athletic duo who roamed the halls and athletic facilities of the all-boys school.

They always respected faculty, were conscientious students, wore those ties knotted as tightly as possible, and were part of three state-championship football teams and a basketball team that went to the state finals as well.

But when the front-office receptionists, school nurse, and coaches finish their praise of Jason and Devin McCourty, the hosannas begin for their mother, Phyllis Harrell.

Born in Nyack, N.Y., the Patriots’ first-round draft pick, Devin McCourty, came into the world 27 minutes after his identical twin, Jason. Their father, Calvin, introduced them to sports early on in life.

He did not have the chance to teach them for long, however; when the boys were just 3, their asthmatic father died, going into cardiac arrest after an attack.

So it was up to Harrell to raise the twins. She had a teenage son, Larry, as well, and he would go on to serve in the Persian Gulf conflict as a member of the Army.

As mothers do, she wanted her boys to “have integrity, be honest, to always try to do the right thing.’’

Devin and Jason took her words to heart.

“I am blessed that they listened,’’ Harrell said from her Nanuet, N.Y., home. “But I am stern. They never got in trouble, they always did good in school, and I helped them to choose the first kind of kids to be friends with.’’

The neighborhood in which the Nyack Plaza apartments where the twins lived until age 12 was not terrible, but there were certainly opportunities to get into the wrong kind of activities.

“Nyack was a little rougher,’’ said Jason McCourty. “There were always outside things going on. I think I knew about it, but we never had that inclination. Coming back home, that wasn’t going to be tolerated.

“She never took it easy on us.’’

Despite working as a nurse (an on-the-job injury eventually put her on disability leave), Harrell was always around to help the boys with homework and to drive them to football and basketball practices.

Once it was time to move on from Chestnut Ridge Junior High, she opted to send them to St. Joseph’s, a football powerhouse about 15 minutes from their home.

Starting small in school
When they walked through the doors of the school as freshmen in 2001, the McCourtys were 5 feet 6 inches and around 115 pounds.

“Maybe 120 pounds, at the very most,’’ says Tony Karcich, the Green Knights’ football coach and athletic director. “So you’d never have thought these kids would be drafted from Rutgers, let alone become Division 1 college players.’’

Karcich is a high school football legend in northern New Jersey. On the wood-paneled walls of his office at St. Joseph’s, there are plaques from the Heisman Foundation, the NFL, and the New Jersey State High School Athletic Association lauding his accomplishments. There are also 14 team photos, one for every state title he has won in 25 seasons at the school.

On one corner of his cluttered desk is a gleaming testament to his success: a small, glass-domed display of his championship rings, emeralds shining atop golden shanks.

Karcich has had hundreds of young men play for him.

“I will tell you right now — and I’m not saying this because you’re here — Jason and Devin, I would put them with my all-time favorite people,’’ he said. “We may have had better players, we’ve had guys that were more heavily recruited, maybe a little bit more accomplished statistically and all that, but I don’t think anybody is better people than those guys.’’

Devin made varsity first, as a sophomore, though Jason followed later that fall. Jason was a starter at running back and defensive back, while Devin was a safety and cornerback.

By the time they were seniors, they had grown 4 inches and put on around 50 pounds. Jason’s stock rose as he starred for a team that went 11-1 (the lone loss was to Bergen Catholic, which had reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Cushing to score five touchdowns) and was nationally ranked. Devin suffered a hip injury that preseason, with muscle tearing away from bone, and missed the first couple of games.

Rutgers was already interested in Jason. Karcich convinced the school to look at Devin as well.

“I talked to coach [Greg] Schiano and I said, ‘Listen, I think people are missing the boat on Devin,’ ’’ recalled Karcich. “ ‘Devin is as good as Jason.’ ’’

Schiano had twin boys of his own, and he knew that when one picked up a skill, the other would be as good or better in no time. Schiano offered Devin a scholarship, too, and after a campus visit, the pair decided to play for Rutgers.

While Devin red-shirted his first season at Rutgers, Jason played in the secondary as a true freshman. He was a sixth-round draft pick of the Titans last year, then played in 15 games with three starts.

Devin had one more season in Piscataway, the first time he and Jason had been apart, and was the Scarlet Knights’ leader on and off the field.

He was considered a mid-round pick before the predraft process began, but he opened eyes at the combine, where he impressed teams during interviews. A film session with Bill Belichick on the Rutgers campus earlier this month helped sell the Patriots coach. Belichick said after drafting him that he showed a strong knowledge not just of his own assignments but of the entire defense.

Proud moments
“I’ll give you a great story about Devin — I told this to four NFL teams that called me previous to the draft,’’ Karcich said. “Probably his best game of the year was against South Florida, a Thursday night, ESPN had the game, and Devin had a great game. I have to think the atmosphere at Rutgers when the game was over must have been one big party town.

“Well, the next morning at 9:30, he’s up here, getting out of his car. One of the Brothers, one of the teachers, passed away, and here was Devin coming back to pay his respects at church, having played this game the night before. He came all the way up to pay his respects, got back in his car and went back.

“I’m not sure if I, as a coach, as an adult, would have taken that time out coming off the euphoria of this big win. But that’s him.’’

One week ago, Devin and Jason and Phyllis gathered in their small house with some friends and family. For the second year in a row, they watched the draft, hopeful that the McCourty name would be called. And with the 27th pick, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Devin as the Patriots’ pick.

“It’s pretty amazing,’’ Harrell said.

When Devin was drafted, as he and Harrell shed a few tears, she told him that their father would have been proud.

It is easy to see how Devin and Jason developed their demeanors; Harrell quietly expresses thanks when told how highly both she and the twins are thought of at St. Joseph’s, and says matter-of-factly that, as a parent, it was her job to help and support her children in any way she could.

But no one else seems to look at it that way.

Karcich says he admires the job Harrell did raising the twins — “there’s a lot of love in that family, and it starts with her,’’ he said — and wonders how she put them through the high school, where tuition currently is just over $10,000 per year.

And Devin and Jason can’t wait to reward their mother for her efforts.

“Me and Dev both feel like we owe her the world,’’ Jason said. “Mom singlehandedly raised us both.

“We always joke about how in the world we got through St. Joe’s and she jokes that it put us in a hole, but now me and Dev will be able to repay her and do things for her that we couldn’t before.’’

Last Saturday, as he walked away from the crowd of cameras and reporters that recorded him accepting his ceremonial jersey from Robert and Jonathan Kraft, Devin was reflective when discussing his mother, father, and journey.

“She’s sacrificed a lot,’’ he said. “I think everything that comes from me being able to play football is all from her. It’s a tremendous feeling that you come from losing your father at 3 years old, to now you and your twin brother are in the NFL.

“It’s kind of a dream.’’

Shalise Manza Young can be reached at syoung@globe.com.

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