Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Friday, January 21, 2011
Updated: January 22, 3:05 PM ET
Jerricho Cotchery inspires on, off field

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Jerricho Cotchery is the quiet man in the noisy locker room. He never raises his voice. He doesn't give look-at-me interviews. He's the anti-Bart Scott, yet there isn't a more respected player on the New York Jets. Cotchery can inspire without uttering a word.

He made the play of the season: his one-legged, diving-with-a-torn-groin catch in Cleveland -- one of those rare sports moments of grace and guts. It left some teammates speechless. Rex Ryan was so moved by it that he told Cotchery he's planning to use it as a recruiting tool, showing the highlight when free agents come to visit the Jets.

Cotchery also made the sacrifice of the year, accepting a reduced role at wide receiver once Santonio Holmes got caught up with the offense. He could have made a stink, like so many wide receiver divas would have done, but he actually embraced the change.

Jerricho Cotchery
Jerricho Cotchery's full-extension snag in Cleveland was his signature moment of the season.

"Ultimate class, ultimate team guy," fellow receiver Braylon Edwards said.

In some ways, Cotchery is the conscience of the Jets, but there is so much more to his story.

Forty-eight hours before the AFC Championship Game, he was saying: "If I would've died that day, it would've been all right with me. The way I was going, I wasn't going to have any impact on anyone. I would've been a statistic."

That day was May 30, 1998, when Cotchery, almost 16, was in the passenger seat of a car driven by his close friend, Brian Talley. A tire blew out, Talley lost control and the car flipped several times. Talley, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and died immediately on the other side of the highway.

Cotchery was cut up badly, leaving scars and shards of glass imbedded in his skin.

He called that the turning point in his life because, until that tragedy, he was going nowhere fast. He had joined a gang at the age of 12 -- yes, 12 -- and he was getting into trouble on the streets of his hometown, Birmingham, Ala. It's hard to picture him that way because he always acts smart and level-headed, but the inner-city life pulled him in.

"That's the environment I grew up in," he said. "I've seen some pretty tough things, things I wouldn't wish anybody to see. I've seen people get murdered, seen people go to jail, guys going to jail for life. It was one of the bad decisions I made when I was younger."

Cotchery saw a man shot and killed in front of his house. Nobody was able to help the victim, he said, so he died right there in the street.

"If you're doing the gang life, you're in harm's way," he said. "That's the life you choose. Everybody knows that. You're in harm's way every day."

Cotchery got involved in sports, and he was on his way home from an AAU basketball practice when the car accident occurred. One of the back-seat passengers was Karlos Dansby, now a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. When the car stopped flipping, Cotchery called out, "Where's BT?"

Talley was thrown so far from the vehicle that it took a while to find him. Instead of dying with his friend, Cotchery felt reborn. There had to be a reason that he survived.

"God saved my life in that car crash," he said. "God spoke to me clearly. That was the turning point in my life. I knew God had more for me."

Cotchery found religion after that near-death experience, but there was still the matter of the gang.

Asked if he had quit immediately, he said, "You just don't say you're out of a gang. You get out by the way you got in." By that, he meant a redux of the initiation -- perhaps a violent act or stealing a car.

What did he have to do? Cotchery lowered his voice.

"I can't speak on that," he said. "I can just say that sports took control of everything."

Cotchery doesn't want his gang experience to be glorified. He hates that he made that choice, but he's trying to make something positive out of it now. He speaks to youth and church groups, warning them about the perils of life on the street.

Out of a troubled childhood came a class act, an unselfish player who is described by teammates and coaches as the glue on offense. After four years as a starter, he was dropped to No. 3, his receptions plummeting to 41 -- his lowest total since 2005, his second year. As the second-youngest of 13 children, he has learned the importance of selflessness.

Of course, Cotchery's contributions go beyond numbers. He's like the second quarterback. If you notice that he's sometimes the last guy to break the huddle, it's because he's instructing a teammate who doesn't know where to line up or what route to run.

"I feel like I'm a better teammate and player because of being around him, how professional he is," Edwards said. "He's a tremendous guy, a tremendous father. He's somebody I can definitely say I want my kids around, somebody I'd like to have as a friend throughout the course of my life. He's just that good of a guy."

Cotchery's signature moment came in November, when he pulled a groin muscle while running a route against the Browns. It hurt like hell, but instead of going down and waiting for the play to finish, he hopped on one leg, trying to get open. He hopped eight times, in unmistakable pain, before making a full-extension dive. He wound up missing two games.

He came up huge last week in New England, making a team-high five catches for 96 yards. When the Patriots started to threaten, Cotchery took a short pass from Mark Sanchez and bolted 58 yards, a momentum-changing play that fueled the Jets' 28-21 win.

Now here he is, one win from the Super Bowl -- and so far from the streets of Birmingham. Cotchery expresses his thanks, in prayer, every time he steps on a football field.

"I shouldn't be in this position, considering the mistakes I made in my life and the way I was living," he said two nights before facing the Pittsburgh Steelers. "I was headed the wrong way."

It's a story worth shouting about, but Cotchery doesn't do loud. Just proud.