Jerricho Cotchery stared at the floor, his fingers fidgeting, his mind a million miles away from the practice field he just left. He looked up for a moment, took a deep breath, but then slowly lowered his head again.
He was looking within himself, searching the faith he holds deep in his heart. He knows he has made mistakes in his life, and despite learning from those to grow into a man of integrity and honor, the thoughts swirl through his mind. What if?
* * *
Cotchery grew up in a Birmingham, Alabama, neighborhood similar to many others in the inner city across the country, an environment where families struggle financially and where temptation and danger are always at the doorstep.
His parents, Katie and Bob, worked hard to try to provide for the family, but with layoffs and unemployment their fight was to scrape together just enough money to feed their family.
"Things just didn't go well for them all of the time," recalled Cotchery. "They weren't late for work or anything, they were always on time. But things just didn't work out for them. They got laid off a bunch, and the bills piled up."
Things considered the bare necessities – running water, electricity, three meals a day – became luxuries to the Cotchery family. Often, they simply went without.
"There were many struggles in our household," said Cotchery, whose father's battle with alcohol had him in and out of the home on many occasions for long periods of time. "I know a lot of people have the same story, as far as not having running water. In the inner city, that's the way it is. Sometimes you don't have the water on, you go without lights, and sometimes you didn't have food.
"Sometimes you knew the water was going to get cut off. You knew you weren't going to be able to pay the bill. So you loaded up buckets of water. That's what we did. When the electricity was on, if we had to take a bath, we would boil the water on the stove and put it in a bucket. That's how we took our baths – out of the bucket. When there was no electricity, I had friends where if I needed something ironed or things of that nature I would go over to their house and do that before school. There were times though when we didn't have enough water so I would take showers at my friend's house before I went to school."
Then things got worse on the day when Cotchery came home from kindergarten to find the family home had burned to the ground
"We had to move into what was probably the smallest three bedroom house you could find," remembered Cotchery. "But we made it work."
That's the way they went about everything. Getting by on the bare minimum. Cotchery admits he never was without food, but what was on the menu was neither well-balanced nor necessarily nutritious.
"It wasn't anything as far as real meals when we struggled," recalled Cotchery. "It was Vienna sausages, potted meat and crackers. Spam was my favorite. I didn't think anything bad about it. That is what we had to eat. My dad tried to get me to eat sardines, but I wasn't about that. Spam on bread."
Hand-me-down clothes were his wardrobe. Whether they fit or not, passed down from siblings because he was the 12th of 13 kids.
"I remember a pair of hand-me-down Reebok pumps," said Cotchery about one of his first prized possessions. "My feet were too big for them, but I wore them anyway for about three years. I got a new pair of shoes in sixth grade, and the salesman looked at those Reeboks to get my size. They came out with the shoes, but they were too small. They brought out the next bigger size, and that wasn't it. My actual shoe size was three sizes bigger than what I was wearing. Look at my feet now, and it's. 'Yikes, what happened to them?' They are all bunched up and stuff like that from wearing shoes that were too small."
Cotchery can laugh now. He sports perfectly-fitted Reeboks in pristine white. "I have a Reebok contract. Now they fit. I can get new ones and don't have to wear them for three years. Now I know my real shoe size.
"But that's the past and I embrace it."
* * *
Life in the inner city comes peppered with temptations. And for Cotchery, that temptation was gang life.
"It's there," said Cotchery. "Most of my friends were involved in it, even though they played sports. I remember saying, 'Why would I get in a gang? Why would somebody do that?' And I still ended up being a part of it. The influence is just so strong, you are around it so much, you end up finding yourself in it and being a part of it. I did."
Cotchery won't talk about the things he did in the gang, doesn't get into details. He was among the lucky ones who were able to escape that lifestyle, but he regrets the legacy he left.
"One of my biggest regrets is I got others involved in it," Cotchery said. "Guys who pretty much looked up to me at that time, I got them involved in that life and a lot of things I shouldn't have been doing. Those are the biggest regrets I have, getting people involved. I have friends who are spending their lives in jail, and I have other friends who have been murdered.
"I have a friend who's spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. And he looked up to me. He looked up to me."
* * *
There are moments in a life that are true turning points. When eyes open and see the reality, when the realization hits that this is not the road to be traveling.
For Cotchery, this came when he was 16 and riding home from AAU basketball practice with three close friends, Brian Talley, Corrie Dawson and Karlos Dansby, now a linebacker with the Miami Dolphins. The car blew a tire and flipped over. Cotchery, Dawson and Dansby. Brian Talley, the driver, died at the scene.
"The car ended up flipping a number of times," recalled Cotchery. "Once the car stopped flipping we were upside down. I looked beside me and Brian wasn't in the car. I thought he got out of the car fast enough trying to escape. I was trying to get out of the car, we all got out fast. I was the last one to get out. When I got out I asked Carlos where Brian was. 'BT is over there,' he said. He was on the opposite side of the highway, dead."
It was on that stretch of road where Cotchery's life changed.
"The only thing I could think about at that time was eternal life was something I didn't have," he said. "If I would have died at that moment I would have been eternally separated from God. That wasn't a good feeling for me. The last thing I had before I went to AAU practice was an argument with my mom about going out that night and coming back in on my own schedule. That was one of the times my dad wasn't around. When it happened, the only thing I could think about was my dad, my mom and apologizing. I just found faith after that."
He set his sights on committing himself to his faith and use his leadership qualities to steer his peers onto the right path, one away from gangs.
"I was always in that role, no matter where I have been, from Pop Warner until the NFL," said Cotchery, "I was that guy in college. In the past it was negative, but as I grew older – especially after the accident – it turned for the good."
One of the ways Cotchery backs up his words is with the annual Cotchery Foundation Life Skills Football Camp in Birmingham, a camp he co-hosts with his wife Mercedes to teach young people life lessons and skills.
"That is why I do it in Birmingham," said Cotchery. "It's right in the inner city. I'm looking at myself when I see those kids. I just try to relate to them. I know I can. I talk about things I have seen in my lifetime I know they are seeing now. They know I am speaking the truth to the heart."
With the Steelers, Cotchery has translated his leadership skills to the other receivers on the roster. At 30, he's the senior member of the group.
"He is definitely my guy," said wide receivers coach Scottie Montgomery. "I really love Jerricho. I told the rookies when they first came, if you need to go to someone besides me who's going to be there for you no matter what, who's not going to tell other people your business, go to Jerricho. I haven't been around many men who are as good a man as he is."
Cotchery embraces the responsibility.
"What happened in my past, that's why I embrace this leadership role," said Cotchery. "I love football with everything I have, but to see them grow as men means the world to me. I embraced it with everything I have and still do. By God's grace I am in a different place right now and able to shine light into their lives. I'm taking the mistakes I made and trying to make sure they don't make them. I tell those guys to come to me with any questions. I can help out, because I've seen a lot.
"I saw guys make the wrong decisions, and I made the wrong decisions. I was able to, by Gods grace, develop a mind-set to know that's not the right way. It's about making the right decisions and continuing to grow as a man. If you have that in order off the field, it helps you on the field."
Cotchery was faced with his own life-altering decision this offseason. As a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, the choice he made on his next team had the potential to be the last such choice of his NFL career.
"The environment is what I wanted," said Cotchery. "(The Steelers) told me they wanted me back, too. You know where you want to be. Once you experience this atmosphere … I tell the young guys to appreciate it. You really can't explain it. It's just a different atmosphere as far as the guys in the locker room. It's a good working environment. It's fun to be a part of it. I was only in one other place, but I have a lot of friends around the league and when I tell them about this place, they are like, wow. It's fun to be a part of this organization, and we're going to put in the hard work this year and try to reach all of our goals."
For Cotchery, that goal is simple. A seventh Super Bowl championship for the Steelers, a first Super Bowl championship for him.
"I do dream about that," he said. "Many times last year during the season at the facility I walked by and looked at the six Super Bowl trophies. That's what I play for. Every day I ask myself, what am I doing to help this team get to that point? That's the reality every guy on this team has to face: what am I doing to help this team reach its goal? And that's what I do every day."
This article was originally published in Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit: http://www.steelers.com/news/digest.html