Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers’ Jerricho Cotchery found strength in tragedy

For years after the accident, small shards of glass would occasionally surface and break through the skin near Jerricho Cotchery’s left wrist – jagged reminders of the 1998 car crash that nearly killed him but also saved his life.

Cotchery was 15 at the time of the wreck, headed down the wrong path on the northside streets of Birmingham, Ala.

The accident left Cotchery’s friend dead and left Cotchery with a heightened sense of self and spirituality that helped shape him into a man of faith.

Cotchery, the former N.C. State standout who is part of the Carolina Panthers’ revamped receiving corps, has played 10 NFL seasons and has made the playoffs in five of them.

He had back-to-back, 82-catch seasons early in his career with the Jets, and posted an 1,100-yard receiving year in New York.

Last year in Pittsburgh when he was 31, Cotchery caught a career-high 10 touchdown passes as Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite red-zone target.

But talk to Panthers’ coaches or front-office personnel about Cotchery and one of the first things they mention is his eagerness to work with the team’s young receivers. It was Steve Smith’s perceived unwillingness to help develop the younger wideouts that played a part in the Panthers’ decision to release their all-time receiving leader.

Where Smith was loud and boisterous, Cotchery is quiet and reserved.

Smith, now with the Baltimore Ravens, punctuated his catches by spinning the ball and was often in the face (or faces) of teammates and opposing players alike.

Cotchery’s wife said he’s spun the ball once – 10 years ago as a rookie after his 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against St. Louis.

While Cotchery spoke in measured tones last week about the “workmanlike” approach he plans to bring to the Panthers’ locker room, he knows the nice-guy reputation that precedes him and fellow free-agent receiver Jason Avant will only mean so much come September.

“We’ll do whatever we can to help this group get better,” Cotchery said. “But at the same time, we were brought here to make plays.”

Finding trouble

Cotchery grew up in Birmingham as the second-youngest of 13 children in a blended family that included stepbrothers and stepsisters separated by as much as 25 years.

Space was tight in the small, three-bedroom house in Birmingham’s Norwood neighborhood, and so was the budget.

Cotchery’s parents held a variety of jobs. His father, Bob, ran a lawn care service, while his mother, Katie, sold baked goods and worked at a nursing home.

“They found a way to feed the family,” Cotchery said last week after a practice session.

Cotchery said they would fill buckets of water and line them around the kitchen before the water was shut off when the bill wasn’t paid.

Cotchery excelled in sports as a child. But as a teenager, he started finding trouble.

“Same as the inner cities across America – gangs, drugs, crime. It was right there in front of you,” Cotchery said. “I did (experiment with it).”

Life-changing moment

In the spring of 1998, shortly before his 16th birthday, Cotchery and his mother got into an argument one evening after he said he was going out with his friends for the night. His mother told him his family was going to church the next day.

Cotchery left the house angry and in a bad mood. The last thing he told his mother was he wouldn’t be joining them at church.

The following day Cotchery was returning from an AAU basketball game in Tuscaloosa with several friends, including Brian Talley and Karlos Dansby, the Cleveland Browns linebacker who is also from Birmingham.

Talley was driving when a tire blew, causing the vehicle to flip several times.

Cotchery suffered cuts on his arms, hands and head. There were so many glass fragments embedded in his wrist, doctors couldn’t remove them all, Cotchery said.

But he and Dansby escaped serious injury.

Talley, who Cotchery said was not wearing a seat belt, was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene.

“That kind of changed everything for me,” Cotchery said. “And helped me see beyond myself.”

Cotchery said he began attending church regularly and tried to be a better son and brother. He also started spending less time on the streets.

“That’s when things kind of slowed down for me,” he said. “You look back on it and it’s like, it’s by God’s grace. I’m not here in this place for myself.”

Cotchery starred in football and basketball at Phillips High. During the state basketball quarterfinals one year, Cotchery guarded and shut down a rangy forward from Athens High named Philip Rivers.

After Rivers graduated from high school early and enrolled at N.C. State, he helped new Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato recruit Cotchery to Raleigh in 2000. A couple of the big schools backed off Cotchery because of grades concerns, and he considered staying home to play for Alabama-Birmingham.

Cotchery didn’t have great speed or an imposing build, yet he teamed with Rivers to break Torry Holt’s Wolfpack receiving records. During an offensive staff meeting early in Cotchery’s career, Amato wanted to know why N.C. State wasn’t using Cotchery more extensively.

“Every time we throw the ball deep to Jerricho, why does he always come down with it? Is it because he doesn’t have good speed?” Amato recalls asking the offensive coaches. “His DNA is he’s going to go after it. ... You can throw it across the middle and hit him with three linebackers, and he’ll still catch the football.”

Cotchery followed Koren Robinson at N.C. State after Robinson, a Belmont native, was drafted by Seattle with the ninth overall pick in 2001. Amato said Cotchery didn’t have Robinson’s “measurables,” but was a better receiver.

“Jerricho didn’t have that big body at the time, and Koren was probably a couple inches taller and a lot faster. But Jerricho was just so good. Period,” Amato said. “And it showed up, even up there (in the NFL). He’s been in the league now, what, 10 years?”

At N.C. State, Cotchery met his wife, Mercedes, a chemistry major from Rocky Mount with an outgoing personality. Mercedes remembers how quiet Cotchery was.

They married a month after the Jets took Cotchery in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. By then they knew they couldn’t conceive a child, but they still longed to start a family.

Inspired to act

Cotchery initially wasn’t interested in adoption, but he had a change of heart after attending a spiritual retreat for NFL players and their spouses in California in 2007.

After listening to a speaker, Cotchery took the mic at the end of the conference and announced he was going to adopt a child.

“Whatever that was in that moment, it was enough to speak to my husband’s heart,” Mercedes said. “He said, ‘I’m going to be a dad.’ But he forgot to tell me first.”

Working with a private agency, the Cotcherys were prepared to bring home a baby boy the following August. Mercedes flew to Georgia and held the baby in the delivery room before the biological mother decided to keep her child.

While Cotchery and his wife were still coming to grips with the loss, Mercedes received a call from the agency a week later informing her they had a baby girl for the Cotcherys to adopt.

They named her Jacey – a play on Cotchery’s initials. They have since adopted three more children – 3-year-old boys Joshua and Nicholas, who are less than three months apart, and a 1-year-old daughter named Journey.

There’s talk of adopting a fifth child.

“Every day is not easy, and I wouldn’t want people to be a fly on the wall most days,” Mercedes said. “But we love it.”

‘No-maintenance’ player

Cotchery and his wife were on a Steelers-sponsored cruise in the Caribbean in March when his agent called and said the Panthers were interested in him.

Mercedes was confused. Didn’t the Panthers have a full complement of receivers returning from their playoff team last season?

“At first it was surreal because we never thought we would be back home (in North Carolina),” she said. “And then considering the receivers they had last year, who would’ve thought they all wouldn’t come back?”

After Smith was released, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon left in free agency.

The Panthers had a couple of promising young receivers in Marvin McNutt and Tavarres King, and little else.

Their first move was to sign Cotchery to a two-year deal worth $5 million. He’d spent the previous three seasons in Pittsburgh, where he was known as a hard-working receiver who showed up on time and never complained.

“He’s not low-maintenance,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told the Observer in March. “He’s no-maintenance.”

Cotchery’s new coach had a similar response when asked about him.

“He’s very businesslike,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He’s very forward, if you talk with him and listen to him, in terms of telling you what he thinks. And he’s got a lot of good leadership qualities that you look for.

“Watching him put his arm around the young guys and talking to them, that’s been impressive.”

Cotchery said the new receivers are a tight group already. In addition to signing Cotchery and Avant, the Panthers added free-agent Tiquan Underwood and drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round.

“Guys are celebrating for one another, interested in helping one another get better as a group and really looking out for the next man,” Cotchery said. “That’s how you’re going to win championships. It’s about the team. It’s about championships. And I think every guy in the room knows that, and that’s what we’re shooting for.”

Cotchery, who is 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, will line up in the slot, where he’s proven to be a tough receiver not afraid to make catches with linebackers and safeties bearing down on him in the middle of the field.

Cotchery’s toughness was on display during overtime of a 2010 game at Cleveland. Google it and you’ll find a YouTube video showing Cotchery pulling up with a groin injury on a third-and-8 play, but still diving to catch a Mark Sanchez pass to extend a Jets drive.

Cotchery isn’t interested in becoming the next Steve Smith with Carolina. He’s wearing No. 82 for the Panthers rather than Smith’s former No. 89, which was Cotchery’s number for nine of his first 10 seasons.

Smith, 35, who is three years older than Cotchery, ranks among the NFL’s top 25 all-time receivers in both catches (836) and receiving yardage (12,197). While Smith was the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver for more than a decade, Cotchery has been a possession receiver for most of his career, averaging 12.7 yards per catch.

Even last season when he set a career mark for touchdowns, Cotchery’s longest reception covered only 36 yards.

Cotchery won’t be asked to be a No. 1 receiver in Charlotte. The Panthers expect him to contribute as a fearless, sure-handed pass-catcher and a leader of the team’s young wideouts.

He has plenty of experience to draw from.

“I stand here by the grace of God, there’s no doubt about it,” Cotchery said. “The things I’ve done. I grew up in the inner city and I dabbled in some of the things. I should have been in jail or dead, really.

“By God’s grace, I was pulled away from that and shown sports – football most specifically – was a good chance for me to make it out of Birmingham.”

Staff researcher Maria David contributed.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer