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Gerald McCoy: After death in family, Bucs see the real McCoy

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) celebrates after sacking Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) on third down during the second half of a football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) celebrates after sacking Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) on third down during the second half of a football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016.
Published Dec. 4, 2016

TAMPA — The locker room at Raymond James Stadium is so cramped, Bucs players gather in the showers before games. It's the only place big enough to hold all 53 players, fully dressed and ready for battle.

It was there last Sunday, before the game against Seattle, that Gerald McCoy laid his emotions bare, before his teammates.

Two days earlier, cornerback Alterraun Verner had been pulled from a team meeting to be told his father had died of a heart attack at Verner's home in Tampa. Robert Lee Verner had been visiting for Thanksgiving.

McCoy knew exactly what Verner was feeling.

When he was 19 and a freshman at Oklahoma, McCoy received a similar call when his mother died.

"I know how hard it is to continue to go on, and I did it as a kid," McCoy said.

So McCoy visited that dark and personal place to summon the pain. Witnesses said it poured out of the 28-year-old in a way that is shocking coming from a 6-4, 300-pound defensive tackle.

"That was the first time I've really seen a man really share his emotions with a team," quarterback Jameis Winston said, "and I think as a team, we fed off that. Because when you see one of your leaders speaking from his heart in tears, you know how much he wants it."

McCoy's message was simple.

"We always break it down with 'family,' " McCoy said of the team's huddles. "But are we really family?

"Because when you've got family, man, and one of your family members is hurting, you do something about it."

The Bucs played their best defensive game in nearly a decade Sunday, sacking Seattle's Russell Wilson six times, intercepting him twice and forcing a fumble. McCoy and rookie Noah Spence, a player he has mentored since Spence arrived in Tampa, each had 1½ sacks.

The Bucs (6-5) enter today's game at San Diego in the NFC playoff picture, and their defensive roll is reminiscent of their glory days. In the past three weeks, the defense has forced 10 turnovers, including five interceptions, and allowed just two touchdowns.

The difference, McCoy says, has been improved communication and the sense of playing as a family that he helped cultivate.

Not only had Verner lost his father, but in previous months guard Kevin Pamphile and linebacker Lavonte David buried their mothers.

"All of that, thinking about that pain," McCoy said. "I let them see that, and the reason I let them see it is because I trust these guys as family members. And when you have true emotion, you shouldn't be afraid to show it. You can be at your most vulnerable point around your family.

"My family at home sees me cry all the time because it's okay to do it there. Out in public, you don't. But at home, you can be vulnerable, you can let them see your true emotion, and that's how I feel about my teammates. I let that pour out, and that's how I try to play on Sundays."

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It's interesting that McCoy, 28, with his genteel personality and habit of extending a hand to a fallen opposing quarterback, spent the first half of his career deflecting criticism that he wasn't mean or nasty enough to push his play to an elite level. Some radio talk-show hosts insisted he didn't have enough "dawg," in him to lead a defense, much less a football team.

It was unfair to McCoy, who couldn't escape the inevitable comparisons to Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp. Lee Roy Selmon, arguably the best player in franchise history and, like McCoy, also an Oklahoma native, spoke as softly as Michael Jackson. But on Sundays, Selmon was the king of popping quarterbacks and became the Bucs first player enshrined in Canton, Ohio.

The difference? Selmon led the Bucs to several playoff appearances including the 1979 NFC Championship Game.

McCoy has enjoyed one winning season, as a rookie, when the team went 10-6 and missed the playoffs. His first two seasons ended with him on injured reserve with torn biceps.

Until Spence and free agent defensive end Robert Ayers arrived this season, McCoy never had much help but still was named to four Pro Bowls. This season he leads the team with six sacks.

Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith, who as the Falcons' head coach spent sleepless nights devising ways to block McCoy, has a better perspective coaching him. "He is as passionate as any player I've ever coached," said Smith, who was Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis' position coach in Baltimore. "We all have different personalities, but when he walks between those lines, he wants to play football, and he plays it the way it's supposed to be played. It's been a joy to coach him.

"I think his athleticism and his strength shows up every time he goes out there on the field, and I can't speak to why not everybody has that same opinion because I've been on both sides of the fence and I see it that he's a very passionate and elite player in this league."

No defensive tackle has more than the 32½ sacks McCoy has the past three-plus seasons. Yet even Bucs fans somehow questioned McCoy's passion.

"I've said it many times, Gerald makes everybody else around him better because he commands double teams most of the time," coach Dirk Koetter said. "And now that we're a little healthier and we're playing with such confidence — they still have got to account for Gerald because (if) they try to single-block him, he's going to cause problems."

Now that the tempest is behind him, it has become a wind at McCoy's back.

"One, I love my teammates," McCoy said. "And two, if you're making a play, that means something successful is happening for us toward a win. I love them. I love my teammates, and I think we can really get something special going."