Growing up in bleak surroundings in South Florida, Ravens defensive end Pernell McPhee learned long ago that life can be cruelly snatched away, bright light suddenly replaced by darkness.
Although the newly minted Super Bowl-winning defensive lineman hates for people to see him cry, McPhee has shed a lot of tears this year while enduring several tragedies.
Within the past year, McPhee's sister was killed in a shooting, his cousin drowned in a Florida canal and his godfather died of a heart attack.
"I've been through a lot," said McPhee, who grew up sharing one bedroom with seven relatives. "I've lost a lot of people close to me. Death makes you appreciate life. It's so precious, but nothing will ever stop me. I'm built Ford-tough, man."
McPhee hails from Pahokee, Fla., a small, impoverished farm town of about 6,500 located on the shore of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach County.
It's commonly referred to as "The Muck," because of its mineral-rich dark soil that helps produce sugarcane, oranges and corn.
And football players.
Running on the thick soil and chasing rabbits out of the sugar cane has built leg muscles and speed. And a number of NFL players, including McPhee, Ravens veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Hall of Fame linebacker Rickey Jackson, are from Pahokee.
They're among the fortunate ones who haven't been derailed by the high level of crime in Pahokee.
"It's really rough, it's crazy and dangerous," McPhee said. "The Muck ain't no joke. You have to be careful and watch your back because they don't play down there. You got to be tough to make it out of there. I'm blessed."
Coping with the loss of loved ones has required McPhee, 24, to be extremely resilient.
While dealing with grief and shuttling back and forth from Baltimore to his hometown to attend three funerals, McPhee also had a frustrating season, undergoing a pair of arthroscopic surgeries and struggling with a nagging groin injury.
He was limited him to 21 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks in 12 games (six starts) in his second season after finishing second on the Ravens as a rookie with six sacks.
McPhee's health problems paled in comparison to what he and his family have endured.
Last February, McPhee's first cousin Tabias C. Felton was found dead and unclothed lying face down in shallow water on Muck City Road, according to reports. He was 23.
"I don't know what happened," McPhee said. "They said he was running from the police and wound up in the canal."
On July 10, McPhee's sister Shaqoya Butler was killed when she was shot in the head, chest and arm while driving in nearby Belle Glade, Fla. She left behind three children.
McPhee said his uncle was the intended target of the shooting.
"I grew up with her. We were close. We slept under the same roof," McPhee said. "My understanding is they were trying to shoot someone else and she got shot in the head, her chest and her arm. It just don't make no sense."
On Aug. 19, Edwin Coleman died of a heart attack. McPhee wasn't related to him through blood, but regarded him as family. He called the 66-year-old his "White Daddy."
Each time, McPhee has had to gather his strength and find a way to balance his responsibilities between football and family.
"I've been through a lot, but I don't usually like to talk about it," McPhee said. "It's a sad subject, you know? I've got my faith and my friends and my family. That gets me through. I pride myself on staying strong."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh singled out McPhee along with wide receiver Torrey Smith, whose younger brother died in a motorcycle accident the night before a September win over the New England Patriots, for their resolve.
"We've had personal tragedies with guys like Torrey Smith," Harbaugh said. "Pernell McPhee has been through a lot. Coaches have been through a lot of different things that people don't know about. It's hard to understand if you're not on the inside of a team with what's going on.
"These guys are as close to that as any team that you'll ever be a part of. They really love each other, they really do, and they really care about each other. That's why they win even better as the season goes on and better as games go on they find ways to win games."
Nose guard Terrence Cody, one of McPhee's closest friends on the team, also praised his teammate's toughness.
"He's tough in every way," Cody said. "I have so much respect for him, how he handles everything. That's what being strong is really about."
McPhee didn't necessarily want sympathy. He prefers to go it alone, for the most part, and not share his feelings.
"I got a lot of love from the guys whenever something would happen," McPhee said. "They would text me, call me, coach Harbaugh, [defensive line coach Clarence Brooks], [defensive coordinator Dean Pees], everybody. It meant a lot to me, but I'm basically a loner. That's how I am. I feel like you got to be a man about it and take your lumps. What can you do?
"I kept my faith in God. I knew I had to deal with it. Everything happens for a reason. The man above has a plan, he really does. We might not always understand it at first, but there's a plan for all of us. What I've been through, it makes you appreciate life. It really humbles you, but I don't dwell on anything. I just don't believe in that."
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