Gerald McCoy knows what it's like not to have much money. Though both his parents worked, he watched his dad come home from an overtime shift, gas up the mower and go down the street to earn a few bucks cutting grass until dark.
McCoy knows what it's like to be hungry. There were times his family would reach deep into the couch cushions at home in Oklahoma City and look under beds and in drawers for loose change to collect enough money for a meal.
McCoy also knows what it's like to lose a parent. When he was a 19-year-old freshman at Oklahoma, his mother, Patricia, who worked as a human relations specialist at an Air Force base, had wanted to surprise her husband and son for Father's Day 2007 by returning from a summer job in San Antonio, Texas.
Patricia was outgoing, feisty and opinionated. She also was Gerald's best friend. When he learned he would become a father at age 17, he confided in her first. Two days before he signed with Oklahoma, his daughter, Nevaeh (Heaven spelled backward), was born. His mom was his biggest fan, finding a way to attend virtually every game he played.
Within hours of being back in Oklahoma City, Patricia started complaining of severe headaches. She went to the hospital and was told she had had a brain aneurysm. Three weeks later, she died when her heart stopped.
"She never had issues with her heart, but one day, boom," McCoy said. "When I lost her, it was definitely hard.
"I just believe that struggles in life, it's not the end-all. You can't have a testimony without a test. I believe that. All these people with all these testimonies, they tell these triumphant stories. But you have to triumph over something. It started with some adversity. But there's always a way out."
That's why McCoy, the Bucs' four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, is hosting 500 children, ages 7-14, at a free football clinic at One Buc Place on June 18. About 150 of those kids come from single-parent families. The camp will feature McCoy and his teammates offering instruction with an emphasis on fundamentals, teamwork and discipline.
"I have an opportunity to do this for four hours," McCoy said. "(The kids) get to come see an NFL facility, be around NFL players, NFL coaches, some people who are at the highest of their profession. I don't want anybody to miss out on that opportunity because of finances. Giving money to people is not that big of a deal with me. When my wife and I envisioned this camp, it was always going to be free.
"It's not about the money. It's about the opportunity."
McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, is entering his seventh season with Tampa Bay. In 2014 he signed a six-year, $95.2 million contract with $54 million guaranteed. He earned $55 million in his rookie season, making him the most highly compensated player in franchise history.
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He also is considered, by any measure, one of the elite defensive tackles in the NFL. His 31½ sacks over the past four seasons is second to the Bengals' Geno Atkins (32½) at the position. He has made a dramatic turnaround in a career that began with injuries, unfulfilled promise and scathing criticism that might have destroyed the will of a weak-minded player.
That he has chosen to play his entire career in Tampa Bay is a testament to his endurance as much as his loyalty. He and Demar Dotson, an undrafted free agent, are the longest-tenured players on the team and the only ones left from the 2010 class.
At 28, McCoy is in the prime of his career. The back of his football card is piling up top-tier numbers. But he has experienced only one winning season, as a rookie when the Bucs went 10-6, but missed the last three games of that year with a torn triceps. At this point, his singular focus is on winning a Super Bowl.
"Seven years in a life is just seven years," McCoy said. "For the NFL? C'mon, seven years in one spot? I'm on my fourth head coach. I've had four defensive coordinators. I've had eight to nine defensive line coaches. Two GMs. I can't even count the number of players that have come in and out of here.
"Even when I get scrutiny, and through everything that has happened — through injuries, having up and down seasons — it doesn't matter. All I can see is holding up the (Super Bowl) trophy in Tampa. I don't want to hold up a trophy anywhere else. I tell my wife (Ebony) all the time, it can be done here. It's been done. We've seen it. We've seen it happen before with the same type of formula you're seeing now. A couple changes made, add this piece, add that piece, and it happens."
The person who predicted McCoy's path was Patricia. When he was a junior at Southeast High in Oklahoma City, McCoy was too busy playing football and running to parties to think about his choice of colleges. It was his mom who helped get him discovered.
"When a kid is into sports, people are so used to the dads saying, 'That's my son, and he's going to go a long way,' " McCoy said. "That's what dads are supposed to do. They're supposed to think their son is the best. Well, my mom was the one.
"There was a website that ranked high school players, rivals.com, and it was my mom, not my dad, who discovered it. She said, 'Do you see there's a site that ranks high school players? Have you ever thought about being on there?' She was like, 'You should try to be on there because a lot of people get recruited from it.' She said, 'You're going to be on there, you're going to be the highest-rated at your position.' I'm thinking, 'Nah, I'm at one of the smallest schools in Oklahoma City.' My senior class had 149 people. Nobody is coming into the city to find kids. I'm thinking I'm definitely not going to be ranked high. I may have an opportunity to go to college. She told me, 'You're going to get ranked high, you're going to go to Oklahoma, and you're going to get drafted in the first round.' "
His Oklahoma career almost ended before it started. After redshirting as a true freshman in 2006, McCoy figured to become a starter when practice began the following spring.
"My (defensive line) coach was really going to try and get me ready, so he's on me hard that day," McCoy said. "I didn't have the best first day of practice, but the way he was on me, it was like I had been practicing for weeks, and I had a bad day. I was like, 'Man, this isn't going to work.' So I called and said, 'Mom, I can't do this anymore. I don't want to be here. This isn't for me. Maybe we should rethink this. I'm not going to quit school, but maybe I could transfer?'
"She said, 'I tell you what. Get off the phone, go back to practice, and I'll talk to you tomorrow.' I said, 'But Mom …' " And she repeated, 'Get off the phone, go back to practice, and I will talk to you tomorrow.' " Click.
"It all worked out. That woman, my mom, is everything."
That's why after pregame warmups, McCoy goes to the 50-yard line on the field, drops to his knees and says a prayer. Upon rising, he looks toward the sky and spreads his arms.
It's a routine that began with former Bucs linebacker Adam Hayward, who lost his mother to cancer during college. McCoy asked to join him.
"There's pictures of me looking to the sky. That's to my mom," McCoy said. "A lot of people think I'm praying. No, that's to my mom. I pray constantly. I'm saying, 'Mom, this is for you.' And I go."
Thrust into adulthood with a child and his mom gone as a teenager, McCoy developed a fierce independent streak. Wife Ebony says he won't allow her to shoulder some of the family burden. The couple has four children: Marcellus Crutchfield, 14; Nevaeh (pronounced NAY-vuh) McCoy, 10; and twins, son Gerald Jr. and daughter Germany, 2.
At Christmas, he and Ebony shop for 10 underprivileged families, some with single parents. They visit hospitals on Thanksgiving. He's often approached to meet with strangers at times when they are suffering. The football camp is the first of many initiatives he plans to start in Tampa Bay.
"God blesses us with our finances so we can bless others," McCoy said. "It's not for our kids. The kids are going to be okay. It's so we can bless others. I've been put on a grand stage, man. It's bigger than winning a Super Bowl. I have an opportunity to change lives."