HOUSTON -- Just before the Patriots took the field for the AFC Championship Game, Devin McCourty was surrounded by the team's defensive backs, and they were locked in on his every utterance.
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It's become a tradition of sorts for the defensive captain to rally the troops on game days, and he hit a crescendo as their General Patton two weeks ago.
"If ya'll could get video of that, that was one of his best," said Duron Harmon. "It came back to us, talking about why we're here. At some point in our careers we were all somebody that nobody wanted. It's true. It might've been in the NFL. It might've been in college. But at some point we were all players nobody wanted. Even Dev. What a lot of people don't know is he only had two scholarship offers for college so it happened to him at one point in his career too. That really hit home."
McCourty wasn't always so comfortable being the center of attention. He looked to Jerod Mayo and Vince Wilfork as the leaders of the defense early in his career, but as the roster has turned over, and as he became more and more at ease in his role, he has developed into the voice of the defense in many respects.
Linebacker and fellow captain Dont'a Hightower relays the calls from defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, but from his vantage point in the back end of the Patriots secondary, the team relies on checks from McCourty. And in the locker room, he's as respected a speaker as anyone.
When Matthew Slater missed a game earlier in the season, it was McCourty who was expected to break the team down.
"I think over the years he's grown comfortable in being a little more comfortable in being vocal and stepping up and leading," Slater said. "But I think from the beginning, the maturity that he's shown, the way he's carried himself, the way he's approached the job has been really, really impressive. He's had that veteran mentality from his first day in the room. It's been fun to watch him grow as a man, become a husband and do a lot of things in his personal life as well. He really embodies everything that we stand for as an organization. That's why I think he's Mr. Patriot."
Before he became a voice, though, he had some learning to do.
"In our building, there's definitely a chain of command," said linebackers coach Brian Flores, who made the switch from coaching safeties this season. "Young guys, really shouldn't say much. Second-year or third-year guys, you gotta earn the right to speak and to lead here. I think early on that's kind of what Devin did. As he grew and started to grow into that leadership role -- which starts by being productive on the field, which he was early on -- he kind of took on that role a little bit more and a little bit more. And like anything else he got better and better and better in that role."
"I think the key thing with Devin is he's extremely intelligent so probably when he first got into the league, he took a lot in," said corners coach Josh Boyer, who worked closely with McCourty when McCourty entered the league at that spot and still does. "He didn't feel like it was his place to say anything. I think he just kind of absorbed a lot of information. Not just Xs and Os but stuff that went on externally with players, how guys prepared for games. And I think to his credit, Dev is a true professional and has probably taken a lot of things from a lot of different guys, things that he saw as beneficial to him and his career.
"If he saw a certain player doing good things with nutrition or a certain player doing good things with sleep habits, whatever it is, or even play on the field, he's smart enough to know, 'OK all this stuff's going to help me.' It's really a credit to him that he's such a hard, diligent worker to put all that together."
As he absorbed what he could, McCourty was expected to handle a significant amount in terms of leadership early on. He was named a captain in his second season, heading up a young group of defensive backs who were trying to figure things out on the fly.
"I'd probably say it was a shock to me a little bit in my second year in the league just being a captain," he said, "having a lot of guys that were older than me in the secondary either traded or released or not on the team anymore and looking around and really [Patrick] Chung being the oldest guy and me just being a year behind him as kind of the leaders in the back end.
"I think that year was a little bit of a shock, and then I think I learned to be what the team needed, whatever that was. Whether it was speaking, whether it was being quiet, I've just tried to go to that and be whatever the team needs in every different moment."
Suddenly, he wasn't all that far removed from the role he played at Rutgers as a fifth-year senior. Harmon and Logan Ryan remember him as the model back then. Motivational speeches, nutrition, practice habits . . . Before he was Mr. Patriot, he was Mr. Rutgers.
"He was always a leader and always doing what's best for the team," Ryan remembered, "but off the field I think he probably just went straight home, started stretching, went to sleep and woke up the next day. I didn't know much about him and his social life back then."
"He was the best player on our team and the great thing about him being the best player on our team, he didn't have to talk about it," Harmon said. "He just went out there and did work. I think that's why a lot of people admired him and followed him because he wasn't a guy that had to say much. His actions usually spoke for what he wanted or what he needed for the message to be for the team."
But before Harmon and Ryan arrived on campus, McCourty was going through the same kind of be-seen-not-heard phase he entered when he became a pro.
"He's so outgoing now, but I remember a very quiet, reserved, kind of deer-in-headlights, looking around, what's going on, trying to manage everything," Rutgers academic advisor Jenna Beverly told CSN. "It's funny now to see how confident he is and how successful he's been everything he's done. I remember this young kid who was just like this."
The pattern, it seems, has been the same for years: Get into a new situation, get established, find the right place and time to make yourself heard.
"Always, even in his younger years, he was the quieter of the twins," said McCourty's mother Phyllis Harrell. "I'd say his last year -- junior to senior year -- in high school he became more outgoing. He was always outgoing, but not really a talker. And he's just blossomed from then on. He's able to voice more of what he thinks and how he feels as time has gone on. But as a young kid, he was the quieter one.
"I can always remember in fifth grade, they had a substitute teacher, and Devin and two other kids were kind of acting out. That's when you could see that he was starting to become a little more talkative, a little more mischievous, that type of stuff, where he wasn't doing that before."
He's come a long way since stirring things up for unsuspecting subs.
Not only is he an unquestioned leader of a team on the precipice of its second Super Bowl in three years, but he's one of its most recognizable voices. The Patriots featured his words for its 2.3 million Instagram followers in a video published on the eve of the game. He's a weekly guest on Quick Slants. He's a go-to quote in the locker room, and he even turned the cameras on his teammates earlier this week, grabbing a CSN microphone and bouncing around a media-availability period cracking jokes like a late-night host on Media Day.
In the moments before kickoff today, his voice will take center stage again, and his teammates will hang on every word.