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Sometime after the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer in Wisconsin last August, Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty says he had a heartbreaking thought as he looked at his young children one night.
“Man, I’m going to have this conversation with my kids someday,” he said.
He’s talking about the dreaded discussions many Black parents eventually must have with their children – the ones about what to do when you’re pulled over or stopped by a police officer and how to simply survive another day in a world that might see you as a threat just for being Black.
His mom had those conversations with him and his twin brother Jason, now a cornerback with the Miami Dolphins.
Now, Devin knows he’ll eventually have to do this same with his kids: the ones already here — four and three years old — and the one who’s due to be born in the coming days.
“’J’ was explaining to his daughter like, ‘Hey, there are going to be times of your life that people think differently of you or assume certain things all because of your skin color. It’s not right, but it happens,” he said. “All through these different generations…the fact that you’re still having the same conversation sucks,” he said.
The burden of that reality, along with the compounding trauma brought on by repeated violence against unarmed Black people last year – from Floyd and Blake to Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor – saw McCourty sifting through a variety of raw emotions, even saying he felt “hopeless” following the Blake shooting.
But even then, he said he still believed in the back of his mind that better days would come.
And though 2020’s racial “reckoning” has largely passed, becoming a moment rather than a movement, McCourty is looking ahead with re-kindled hope as he seeks to turn last year’s emotional summer into lasting good.
This spring, McCourty and his Patriots teammates rejoiced in taking the field together for OTAs and veteran minicamp – something the COVID-19 pandemic robbed them of last year.
On top of that, Devin has something even more exciting in the works: a new addition to the McCourty family due on June 25th.
“I’m just trying to get home in time and telling my wife, ‘Don’t have the baby until I get back,’” he said.
But on May 25, 2020, everything was different.
McCourty was sitting in a hospital room dealing with a pain beyond words: he and his wife had just lost their son due to prenatal complications after a nearly full-term pregnancy.
Then, he recalled one of his group chats blowing up as someone shared a video about something that happened in Minneapolis that day.
“I didn’t watch the video at first,” he said. “Obviously, you were going through something. And I just remember finally looking at the video and just seeing how crazy the whole thing was.”
It was then that he saw then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kill Floyd by asphyxiation, kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes as onlookers watched in horror.
Soon came the nationwide protests that turned the country on its head, leading to weeks and months of intense discussion about racism and inequity in America.
All the while, the Patriots – like many other organizations – were still figuring out how to proceed during the COVID-19 pandemic with virtual meetings and a noted lack of in-person camaraderie NFL teams are used to enjoying during the spring and summer months in preparation for the season.
That left McCourty and his teammates to process the racial tumult engulfing America largely on their own.
“It’s just awkward and kind of weird that we’re sitting here about to be in football meetings, and the whole country is just in an uproar,” McCourty said. “Everyone’s at home because of the pandemic. There’s nothing else to look at other than, CNN and Fox News is in this city, and they’re showing what’s going on here and there.”
The Patriots didn’t get to convene as a full squad until training camp kicked off in late July.
On August 23, mere weeks before Week 1 of the 2020 season, a police officer shot Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, paralyzing him and sparking a new wave of outrage.
As the NBA shut down its playoff bubble for days and several MLB teams canceled games in light of the shooting and the protests that followed, football was far from the first thing on everyone’s mind at 1 Patriot Place.
“I just remember our first conversation as a team…I thought the best thing was we actually just got to talk to each other. Not about football, not about anything, just about life. And hearing about different guys’ journeys, and what it kind of meant to be in whatever situation or state of life you were in kind of compared to where you started.”
In one revelatory moment, McCourty said one Patriots player who grew up in Georgia recounted waking up on Saturdays with Ku Klux Klan flyers stuck to the windshield of his car last offseason during a team meeting.
As he did so, another teammate from Georgia who grew up a mere half hour away stared in blank shock. He’d never seen any such thing in his life.
“It was just powerful to go through that and realize how much — we know each other, we play football, we get to know like guys wise and kids, but your purpose and the reason you’ve got places were so different,” he explained. “I think we were like everybody else in America, trying to figure out where you fit in, like what you would do differently than you have been doing.”
McCourty, like many of his teammates, is no stranger to donating his time to important causes away from the football field.
The longtime Patriots defensive back works with and frequently promotes Boston UnCornered, an organization that helps gang members and formerly incarcerated people rehabilitate their lives and earn a college education. He also has been seen on Beacon Hill lobbying the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass education reform bills like the PROMISE Act.
But last year’s tumultuous year and the conversations on race that followed made McCourty and his teammates ask a hard question: “Am I doing enough?”
“That was the biggest thing I took away,” he said about his reflections on last year. “Like even though we were doing things and…you want to pat yourself on the back like, ‘Man, we’re doing good work,’ I felt like last year was a wake-up call. We’re doing alright, but there’s a lot more work to be done.”
McCourty says he doesn’t know what those increased efforts might look like yet, especially with the lingering fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But he hinted at becoming more involved in gun violence advocacy and cited his experience speaking with Harvard University cornerback RuQuan Brown, who started a nonprofit after losing his stepfather and a teammate to gun violence, as an inspiration.
He has also pointed to the need to continue conversations about race and social justice in the Patriots locker room, something in which he says he has the full support of both owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft.
But the 11-year NFL veteran knows there will be some who won’t understand why he takes on the causes he does or how they apply to him. What does he care? He’s a rich athlete. What does he know about racism?
McCourty says he’s used to it by now. But the reason is simple.
“At some point, I won’t be Devin McCourty the football player. I’ll just be another Black guy,” he said. “I am that, and my family is that…I truly believe these things are going to help people that look like me, people that I grew up with, people that I’m still friends with.
“I truly feel like my purpose is making a difference for people, and it’s not always people who look like me,” he added. “Families that are immigrants and first-generation…how can I help them get a better education, how can I help them get into college? I feel like when people think about my time in New England, they’ll think about that stuff before I think about me as a football player. And I don’t think it’s a knock on me as a football player.”
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