Devin McCourty won’t let retirement stop him from working for a better world
Sept. 11, 2016, was something of a turning point for Devin McCourty.
That day, McCourty and teammate Martellus Bennett raised their fists in the air after the playing of the national anthem before the start of the season opener. Their raised fists, a symbol of the struggle for equality for Black Americans, came shortly after Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
For some people, those actions were inspirational. For others, they were a sign of disrespect.
“When I did that, [the Patriots] showed me a list of emails that the team got. People was like, ‘He needs to be cut, who does he think he is?’” McCourty recalled. “I mean, [they] called me all kinds of derogatory terms. And that to me was very eye opening because I thought I was doing something that was just the right thing.”
It would have been understandable if McCourty never spoke out again.
Instead, he became a guiding force for the Patriots, and players across the NFL, as he worked to tackle key issues like juvenile justice reform. And on Thursday, McCourty will be honored at the 17th annual RFK Community Alliance Embracing the Legacy celebration, an event that recognizes the work of those whose actions build on the legacy of the late Robert F. Kennedy.
It’s a fitting coda to years of work off the field for McCourty. But now, while the Patriots navigate their first season without McCourty since he joined the team in 2010, his commitment to making a positive impact beyond the game remains as strong as ever.
Fights for local reforms
McCourty didn’t always know he wanted to be involved in advocacy for justice. But the seeds were always there.
Early on in his professional career, McCourty worked to raise awareness around sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that, in the United States, mainly affects African Americans — including members of McCourty’s family. He went on to educate himself about other big issues, such as getting caught up in the juvenile justice system. He says he remembers the first time he learned that children as young as 7 could be arrested and prosecuted in Massachusetts.
“I was like, ‘What?!’ And then we started a campaign, and we went to the State House and spoke to different legislators about the issue and the age limit got raised from 7 to 12,” McCourty said. In 2018, then-Gov. Charlie Baker signed criminal justice reform legislation that raised the minimum age that a juvenile could be charged with a criminal complaint to age 12.
“People were like, ‘Man, your voice from the Patriots, that had an impact,’” McCourty said.
He continued to use his voice to effect change. In 2021, McCourty publicly called on Baker to commute the life sentence of William Allen, a Brockton man who had been imprisoned at that point for 27 years. Allen was convicted of murder during a robbery, but his co-conspirator, who actually committed the murder, took a plea deal and was released from prison more than a decade ago.
McCourty led other members of the Patriots organization in signing a letter to Baker calling for Allen’s sentence to be cut short. Baker approved Allen’s commutation request in January of last year.
Many professional athletes work with charities or start foundations to support worthy causes. But McCourty’s admirers say his voice and his actions stand out.
“The way he can inspire men to be the best version of themselves … I think it was one of a kind.”
Matthew Slater, Patriots’ wide receiver
Part of what made McCourty such a strong advocate off the field during his playing years was the leadership qualities he built in the locker room and on the gridiron.
“The way he can inspire men to be the best version of themselves, the way he can push us all to believe, to keep working towards our goals both individually and as a team, as a collective — I think it was one of a kind,” said longtime Patriot Matthew Slater. “[I’ve] been in this league 16 years, played college football five years, and I’ve never seen anybody do it to the level he did it.”
Retired, but busier than ever
There aren’t many situations in football that Devin McCourty hasn’t faced before.
But this year, McCourty, who played 13 seasons with the New England Patriots, picking up two Pro Bowl nods and three Super Bowl rings along the way, finds himself in a strange new world: retirement.
“My wife looked at me probably a month into retirement, [and] she was like, ‘Dude, you’re more busy now then you were playing,’” McCourty said.
One thing that’s stayed constant in McCourty’s life after retirement is his commitment to using his platform to help others.
Michael Ames, president and CEO of the RFK Community Alliance, says it makes a huge difference when someone like Devin McCourty takes the time to get informed.
“Because it wasn’t like Devin just said, ‘OK, I’ve got this platform. Tell me what to say, I’m gonna do [it],’” Ames said. “He’s an incredibly smart, thoughtful, compassionate guy. He dug in, he took the time to understand what the issues are, how they matched to his values and how he could stand up for social justice.”
Recently, McCourty joined the RFK Community Alliance on a visit to one of their programs at a youth detention facility. It was supposed to be just a short visit but he ended up spending two hours connecting with each of the young people there.
One of the people who was there that day was Henry Garcia, 20, an alum of the program from Lawrence. Garcia, who is studying computer science at Middlesex Community College, says he’s more of a baseball guy but it was motivating to get the chance to speak with McCourty and get his guidance and support.
Importantly, McCourty didn’t see them as just locked-up kids, Garcia said.
“Most other people, obviously, they have judgements and stuff,” Garcia said. “Basically, we’re just normal human beings at the end of the day. So, it was nice that we was respected in that manner and understood.”
All of this could have turned out very differently if the negative reaction to his advocacy and voice made McCourty back down. But other NFL players started speaking out. And soon, there was strength in numbers.
McCourty found that support beyond the locker room as well. Once, a driver for McCourty, who he described as an older Black Vietnam War veteran, told him that he hadn’t stood for the national anthem since he got back from the war, because of how he was treated upon returning stateside.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know that what you’re doing, there’s a lot of people, I and my buddies, they believe in what you’re doing. And what you’re doing is helping a lot of people,’” McCourty said.
It was a conversation that helped reassure McCourty that he was doing the right thing.
“That’s why I was doing it, for those kind of people. … I felt like that is what I was trying to get people to see,” McCourty said. “That there’s nothing wrong with saying this country’s improved, but there’s also nothing wrong with saying, ‘Hey, it can be better, we can do more.’”