Identical twins Devin and Jason McCourty have reached the NFL's pinnacle game with the Patriots the same way they have done everything else since birth -- together
By Judy Battista | Published Jan. 30, 2019
ATLANTA -- Phyllis Harrell saw the same highlights as everyone else, of the New England Patriots celebrating their AFC Championship Game victory. Somewhere in the middle of that merry pandemonium, with the cameras and boom mics and players converging into a chaotic scrum, Player No. 30 jumped into Player 32's embrace and No. 32 twirled away, screaming, "Welcome to the Super Bowl! Welcome to the Super Bowl!"
Harrell's voice caught when she recalled it last week, because those giddy players are her twin sons -- the baby, Jason (No. 30); and Devin (No. 32), the older by 27 minutes. Long before they will become the first pair of twins to play in the same Super Bowl -- in the same defensive backfield, no less -- when the Patriots meet the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, they were the little boys she raised alone after their father died of a heart attack when they were 3 years old, the boys who look and are so alike that Harrell herself thought the nurse at the hospital had brought her the same baby twice when she met her sons.
Those boys shared a crib and so much of their lives -- the athletic part chronicled in Harrell's hand-made split-team jerseys -- but that moment evoked for Harrell the very beginning, when the young family was living in an apartment in Nyack, New York, and the undersized 7-year-olds were signed up for football by their older brother, Larry.
"It took me back to when they played Pop Warner, when it was just fun," Harrell said last week. "That's what it looked like they were doing at the end of the championship game. It brought back so many memories. That first year they played, they stayed at my mother's house the night before. They were up half the night. The next day to go to practice, they didn't want to go because they were tired. I said, 'After this season, if you don't want to play you don't have to. But you have to finish up this season.' "
They have finished all the seasons since. It has been a push-and-pull cadence that has landed them at this most elusive intersection of professional and familial accomplishment, where Bill Belichick struggles to tell them apart, and the career covetousness Jason, who had never before been on a playoff team and last year endured the Cleveland Browns' 0-16 meltdown, admits he felt about Devin -- who will play in his fifth Super Bowl, having already won two -- might finally be sated. Jason has been to those Super Bowls, too, with mixed emotions.
"I remember the year they went to Houston (Super Bowl LI), I was like, I don't know if I'm going to the Super Bowl this year. I'm tired of watching Devin play in the Super Bowl," said Jason, who ran toward a Patriots staff member after the AFC title game and screeched, "I'm not used to this!"
"I ended up booking my stuff really late and going. You have a little bit of professional envy, but there are things bigger than that. I remember saying if I could never reach it, it would have been the next best thing to go through it with him multiple times."
By the time they were in fifth grade, older boys knew the McCourtys could run by the other kids. Their Pop Warner team was regularly competing for state titles. Their friends say now it was obvious early they were on a different athletic level than the rest, but the coaches weren't so sure. Their high school coach, Tony Karcich, who is now retired from St. Joseph Regional, an all-boys Catholic prep school in New Jersey, still has the cards the boys filled out when they were freshmen.
5-foot-6, 110 pounds, they read.
The boys were, incongruously, better at basketball than football then, with outstanding dribbling and shooting skills. Their first dream was to play in the NBA. In their sophomore year, word got to Karcich during a basketball game that an AAU coach was in the stands trying to talk Harrell into steering her sons toward playing basketball on a traveling team in the summer, which would have meant giving up football. When the game was over, Karcich asked if the boys were going to concentrate on basketball.
"They are all yours," Harrell replied.
Harrell is not much of a sports fan herself, and even now that they are professionals, Jason and Devin both say how thankful they were for that. If the boys wanted to play a sport, Harrell drove them to practice and she attended all the games. But even as the boys' potential was becoming clearer, Harrell did not turn into a helicopter mom. The boys wanted to get college scholarships to help ease their mother's burden. She was more concerned with discipline.
The McCourtys were the boys who fastened the top button of their pastel dress shirts and knotted their ties tight for their school uniform. Their biggest fear was getting in trouble at school and having to tell their mother. The boys were inseparable -- friends learned to use the location of their chicken pox scars to identify them, and Devin is the more boisterous, mischievous one -- and might argue and wrestle over basketball and video games, but Harrell instilled in them that they were never to be at odds in public. A childhood friend who also played college football with the McCourtys, Ron Girault, remembers Harrell telling her sons they must present a united front.
"Our mom's will just took over everything," Devin McCourty said. "Everything she wanted us to be and the things she didn't want us to be, she let it be known right away. We were the kids that if everyone stayed out, we still had to come in. I remember in Pop Warner, getting a C on a spelling test and our mom threatened us -- 'You won't play next week' -- and was dead serious. Our whole sports career has been about pure joy and love to play. Her famous quote was, 'In each game you play, someone has to win and someone has to lose.' Even now to this day, we've lost Super Bowls and when I come out, she says that to me. It always reminds me that she is right."
There were not many losses, at least initially. St. Joseph was a perennial high school power. All the while, the boys grew in the same way, two to three inches and about 20 pounds each year. Devin was the better player early on, playing as a sophomore, an accomplishment at St. Joseph's.
They were their school's best players. Karcich had players conclude practice by running the hill just past the far end zone of the school's field. The hill was steeply inclined, the runs grueling. The McCourtys made sure they got over the hump and they implored their teammates to do it, too. When the boys visited home after they left for college, Karcich would sometimes see them running that hill by themselves.
By the time they were seniors, Devin and Jason were 5-foot-11 and about 170 pounds and neither was a slam dunk to be recruited. Devin had suffered a serious injury, the muscle tearing away from the bone in his hip, and his senior year started slowly. Jason was playing tailback in addition to defense and his athleticism jumped off the film. He rushed for 1,100 yards for an 11-1 team that won the state championship.
Harrell had hoped the boys would be able to stay together in college, but she was not going to issue an edict that they had to. Jason seemed close to committing to Boston College, which was not recruiting Devin. Rutgers was also interested in Jason.
How could you separate them, Karcich wondered. They were the same guy. They had the same ability. Rutgers coaches asked Girault, who was then a freshman on the Scarlet Knights team, if Jason was interested in Rutgers. He was, Girault told his coaches, but he added that they should be looking at Devin, too. Karcich spoke to Greg Schiano, then the Rutgers coach, who is now reportedly in line to join the Patriots' defensive staff after the Super Bowl. Karcich told Schiano he thought Devin would be the better player when they were younger. If you like one, Karcich told the Rutgers coach, you'll like the other.
"And you know what?" Karcich said recently. "Greg Schiano has twins. He said, 'I know what you're talking about.' "
To get Jason, Rutgers offered Devin a scholarship, too, and because they both thought they had been underrecruited, they arrived on campus with chips on their shoulders. Because he had played more as a high school senior, Jason was more physically mature, so he played as a true freshman at Rutgers. Devin redshirted. When they were eventually together on the field again, their bond was obvious.
"At that level, you're in complex defenses," Girault said. "It was one of those things -- they don't have to say much to one another to know what is going on. We would yell out our calls and adjustments, they would look at each other and give each other a nod."
In the three seasons they played together, Rutgers went to bowl games every time.
But everyone knew the inevitable was coming, even if the boys did not talk about it specifically. Because Devin redshirted, he would have an extra year of college eligibility after Jason was done. The McCourtys would be separated for the very first time. Harrell didn't dread the separation of the boys -- she was sure they were level-headed enough to be fine on their own -- but she was already looking a year down the road.
"That was my biggest worry -- after Jason gets drafted, what's going to happen if Devin doesn't get drafted?" Harrell said.
In the 2009 draft, Jason, who had been told by some prospective agents he might have a few years as a special teams player, was selected in the sixth round by the Tennessee Titans. The wait for the pick was excruciating -- Jason has said he went to his room to watch a movie because the day was so long. As soon as he was picked, the brothers immediately found a Titans roster to find out how many cornerbacks were already there. Making the team was no sure thing and neither was how Jason and Devin would manage without each other.
"It was a little weird -- we share sneakers, so we had to split sneakers up," Devin said. "I remember not really knowing what to expect. We start winter conditioning, and Coach Schiano got mad and made us run gassers for like an hour straight. I remember that moment, like man, our whole lives, we always had each other. I could vent to him, but now to vent to him I had to explain to him everything that had happened."
Said Kevin Malast, another former Rutgers teammate who later played with Jason at Tennessee and now handles the brothers' sports marketing efforts: "Those two overcommunicate. They would Skype each other nonstop. FaceTime. They are classic twins. They dress alike. Guys, we get it. You're identical twins. You don't have to wear the same Jordan 1s."
In their first time apart, both boys flourished. Devin became a standout cornerback for Rutgers. And Jason, unexpectedly, became a starter in the first month of his rookie season.
"There was no better feeling than watching the first time he started a game," Devin said. "I went to a local bar and watched the game by myself, eating in a corner. And I remember he started a Sunday or Monday night game and I remember sitting in my room watching every play. That became very cool, but it was a big adjustment."
The third start of Jason's career came against the Patriots in Foxborough and Harrell was there. The game was a disaster -- the Titans lost 59-0.
"It's still one of the worst games I went to -- it rained, snowed, sleet, hail, everything," Harrell said. "We were in the nosebleed section, so we got the wind, too. At halftime, we were leaving and I said, 'At least I never have to come to this stadium again.' "