RIVER VALE, N.J. -- To this day, nearly three decades after the tragedy, Devin and Jason McCourty will suddenly do something, or say something, or express a strong opinion that will stop their mother cold and remind her of their late father.
"Isn't that funny?" Phyllis Harrell says.
She was sitting in her northern New Jersey home, her corner of lakeside suburbia, preparing for a road trip to Atlanta to see her twin 31-year-old sons try to help the New England Patriots beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Harrell said she just smiles when that happens, when one of the twins makes a remark and it feels like the words came right out of Calvin McCourty's mouth. Harrell keeps those thoughts and the sweetest memories of her longtime companion to herself because, she said, "it wouldn't do me good to say anything to Devin and Jason."
The boys were 3 years old when their father, an Army veteran, reported to work at Lederle Laboratories in Pearl River, New York, on Oct. 16, 1990. A former basketball star at Nyack High School, Calvin McCourty was a 36-year-old supervisor in the Lederle computer department and an asthmatic who had been recently hospitalized. Calvin and Phyllis, a former cheerleader, didn't start dating until after high school. They loved each other and loved their life with Devin and Jason in their home inside the low-income community known as Nyack Plaza.
Phyllis was working as a nurse at the time, and she doesn't want to recall too much about that day. She remembers doing laundry in the evening when the phone rang with news that Calvin had gone into cardiac arrest after suffering an asthma attack. He died before Phyllis could get to the hospital, before she had a chance to say goodbye.
Her oldest son, Larry White, was overseas fighting in the Gulf War, leaving Harrell all alone with Devin and Jason. She repeatedly asked herself, "What am I going to do?" Harrell took a week off to grieve and accepted an offer from Calvin's parents to help with the kids whenever they could. "And then I went back to work," she said, "and life rolled on."
Sunday evening in Atlanta, it's quite possible Tom Brady will win his fifth Super Bowl MVP award at the expense of an opponent he defeated in his first MVP performance 17 years ago, back when the Rams were representing St. Louis. But in the lead-up to New England-L.A., another MVP -- Most Valuable Parent -- will be conspicuous for her infectious laugh and the navy and white half-Devin, half-Jason jersey she stitched together for the 2018 NFL season, the first that found her sons on the same team like they had been at Rutgers, at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, New Jersey, and at the Pop Warner level in Valley Cottage, New York.
On willpower, Harrell drove Devin and Jason to this moment. It started with her method of parenting. "Iron fist," she said. While she worked as a nurse at Rockland Psychiatric Center, Harrell ordered a taxi every day to take the boys from elementary school directly to their grandmother's home in Nyack Plaza. The community looked after its own. Sometimes the Irish-born woman who lived downstairs, Mary Brady, would babysit Devin and Jason and, as they grew older, would report back to their mother if she saw them doing things they shouldn't be doing.
"I was very strict, and I kind of chose their friends," said Harrell, who would load neighborhood kids into her station wagon to drive them to practices and games. "I've never had to go to a police station to pick my kids up, because I just think they'd say, 'Oh no, leave me here. I don't want to go home with her.'"
Harrell didn't allow her sons to spend time at the wrong hang-out places, and they didn't dare cross her. She was -- and is -- a tough woman, a fighter. Harrell was once a passenger in a car returning a couple of residents to the psychiatric center when the car was involved in a crash, causing the driver to accidentally hit the gas instead of the brakes and compelling Harrell to struggle for control of the steering wheel as they crossed two lanes of traffic. She suffered a knee injury that would lead to surgeries and a knee replacement and long-term disability.
When the boys were young, Harrell also weathered a serious health scare -- doctors grew concerned over her white-blood-cell count and mistakenly thought she might have leukemia. "If something happens to me," she kept thinking, "who is going to raise my kids?"
As the twins entered their Catholic high school, Harrell fretted over tuition and the possibility that her illness would compromise her ability to pay for college. Devin told his mother that she shouldn't worry, that if they attended a football powerhouse like St. Joe's, "we're going to get scholarships, so you won't have to worry about college." Harrell responded, 'Yeah, OK, Dev." Four years later, Jason was the more heavily recruited McCourty. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano really wanted him, and when asked whether she leaned on Schiano to offer a full ride to Devin, Harrell broke into a mischievous smile. "Yeah, kind of," she said. "I was telling him, 'If Devin gets his opportunity, he's going to be fantastic. When you see J, you see Dev.'"
Realizing he was on the less desirable end of a package deal, Devin told his mother he wasn't sure about accepting Rutgers' offer. "Stop the B.S.," Harrell shot back. "This is your opportunity to play Division I football." And that was that. Jason played four years for the Scarlet Knights and got drafted by Tennessee in the sixth round in 2009. Devin redshirted, played the next four years for the Scarlet Knights and got drafted by New England in the first round in 2010, making his mother a prophet by getting picked 176 slots earlier than his brother.
"I didn't tell my sons this, but I did tell their wives: If they win the Super Bowl together, I'm going to grab some of the confetti and lay out on the field and do an angel." Phyllis Harrell, whose sons Devin and Jason McCourty are NFL teammates for the first time
Devin's career in Foxborough became a blur of Super Bowls and AFC Championship Games, while Jason's in Nashville became a maddening exercise in missing the playoffs and tagging along (in street clothes) as his older brother (by 27 minutes) chased championship rings. Devin had appeared in 19 postseason games, including four Super Bowls, before Jason recovered from an 0-16 season in Cleveland, joined him in New England and landed in the tournament for the first time.
Harrell was cooking in her kitchen when Devin FaceTimed her the news that his brother was traded to the Patriots; she didn't believe it until Jason texted the confirmation. "I prayed all this time," Harrell said, "and I never thought it would happen."
Having missed the trip to the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City to attend funeral services for her aunt, Harrell grew emotional when she watched on TV as her sons celebrated their first Super Bowl appearance as teammates. "This is what I came here for!" Jason shouted into his brother's ear as Devin was being interviewed on the Arrowhead Stadium field.
Their 48-year-old brother, Larry White, also choked up as he took in the scene from afar. Larry played football at Nyack High, though he said he wasn't as talented or as focused as Devin and Jason would be at St. Joe's and beyond. White joined the Army out of high school, fought for his country in Desert Storm and returned home a changed man. He doesn't like to revisit his combat experience, other than to say he was blessed by being part of a team of soldiers defined by its good chemistry and its ability to successfully carry out dangerous missions. Now employed by a car dealership, White undergoes counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, something he said he will likely face for the rest of his life.
Larry said Devin and Jason have always provided him unwavering support. "I look up to them," said White, who wanted it known he sees the twins more as great husbands, fathers and brothers than he does as great athletes.
White also wanted it known that he finds Harrell chiefly responsible for the fact that Devin and Jason were worthy of being nominees for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award given annually to a player who serves his community.
"My mother is the strongest person I've ever known," White said. "She gave us everything, taught us everything. We're not the men we are without our mom."
Along with five siblings, Harrell was raised on the values of an honest day's work. Her father kept two jobs most of his life, working for a piping company and doing landscaping work on the side. Her mother was a cook in a children's home, and then a nurse's aide.
In later years, Harrell adored her time as a nurse at the psychiatric center, where she tended to mentally ill geriatric residents and savored the moments she connected with them in conversation. But her primary job revolved around the clear mandate to raise her sons to be better people than they were defensive backs, and she needed to take a forceful approach to that job.
"If you are raising boys who want to play sports," Harrell said, "you have to be tough."
Now 66 with seven grandchildren, Harrell is touched by the twins' fundraising commitment to finding a cure for sickle cell anemia, the disease that recently claimed the life of their dear aunt Winifred. Harrell is also overwhelmed by the sight of her sons playing for the same NFL team, and by the flashbacks to where it all began on that Valley Cottage Pop Warner team.
"I'm so grateful because I get to see them live out their dream," Harrell said. "I didn't tell my sons this, but I did tell their wives: If they win the Super Bowl together, I'm going to grab some of the confetti and lay out on the field and do an angel."
Win or lose, it will be a hell of a family reunion for the first set of twins to play in the same Super Bowl, and the best sibling story in the big game since John Harbaugh beat Jim six years ago. The McCourty brothers will be missing only their father, Calvin, the high school basketball star who had them dribbling a ball at age 3. The man who died at 36 and whose newspaper obituary was surrounded by those that memorialized locals who lived into their 70s, 80s, and 90s.
"A hard worker and a nice, kind person," Harrell said. "Really reminds me a lot of my sons."
So on Super Bowl Sunday, the McCourty twins will stand as living tributes to their late father, and to the woman in the crowd whose resilience and love drove them across the goal line a long time ago.