Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery ’03 has always focused on positive gains.
In high school, he gained more than 1,000 yards his senior season, and at NC State, he had 15 career 100-yard receiving games, helping him rank second in school history with more than 3,000 receiving yards.
But it wasn’t always positive for Cotchery, who remembers sitting around in his neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala. He would think about the world around him and tell himself that there had to be more.
There had to me more than jail and death, two likely options he says frequently befell the guys in his neighborhood. There had to be more than the gang Cotchery had joined when he was 12 years old, an attempt to latch onto to any support system, no matter the cost.
“You treat the people in that lifestyle like your family,” he says. “It’s a dead-in road.”
When Cotchery would look out at the inertia of Birmingham’s inner city, he saw so many people who needed help. There were so many people in the world that he wanted to reach, but as a high school kid, he didn’t know how to do it.
Football gave him part of the answer. After excelling as a wide receiver in high school, Cotchery landed at NC State. He had competed against Wolfpack quarterback Philip Rivers when they both were in high school in Alabama, and the pair proved a potent combination at State. Cotchery was good enough to be drafted by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
But he needed more than just the means that a successful NFL career brought. Cotchery’s family helped open his eyes about how he could help people. The twelfth of 13 children, Cotcher reflected back to how his brothers and sisters were there for him and cheered him on.
So Cotchery melded those influences with the faith in God he had gained from surviving an automobile accident in 1998, one that killed one of his best friends. He let all of those influences stir in him while he processed what he could do to help people.
The solution came in 2007, when he and his wife, Mercedes, started the Cotchery Foundation, a nonprofit that provides underprivileged children support and encouragement to help them succeed in life.
“We knew we had to do more,” he says. “We had a responsibility to do more, to do something.”
The Cotchery Foundation helps children in three locations. It hosts a mentoring program that reaches close to 200 children in East Orange, N.J. It runs a reading program in Rocky Mount, N.C., his wife’s hometown. And the organization oversees a mentoring program in Alabama.
“I just try to go into inner cities and make kids aware of the false pursuits and the things that are important in life,” he says.
Cotchery, who signed with the Steelers in 2011, says the foundation serves as a means for him to give a hopeful message to youth who need to hear it and to be a cheerleader to kids — like his family was to him.
“That constant encouragement from them helped me out a lot,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t have that support, that encouragement. You kind of lose hope, especially when you have negative influences persuading you to do negative things.”