NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Jason McCourty never took the game for granted, but missing most of last season changed his perspective on a lot of things.
It really made him think, about how fortunate he's been, and about what's ahead.
"This year,'' said McCourty, set to begin his eighth season with the Titans, "it is kind of a newfound appreciation of where I am. Being out there with the guys, you just enjoy it just a little more just to know how quick it can be taken from you.
"I always worked my butt off to get to where I am. But as you get older you realize the end is closer than the beginning. And you start to realize what a blessing it is. I know I have been blessed."
Drafted by the Titans in the sixth round of the 2009 NFL Draft, McCourty has played in 94 games, with 76 starts, at cornerback in his first seven seasons. He's been named a captain three times, and along the way developed a reputation for being an accountable, dependable pro.
His success has fulfilled a childhood dream shared by McCourty and his twin brother, Devin, a defensive back with the New England Patriots.
"At a young age, we always told my mom we were going to make it to the NFL or the NBA and we were going to provide for her and do things,'' McCourty said. "So I think just from that very young age sports was always something we dreamed of and we've just been blessed that it was able to become a reality."
It wasn't a cakewalk from middle school to high school to college to the NFL for McCourty or his brother. Last season, McCourty's upbeat attitude and resiliency were tested because of a sports hernia injury that required two surgeries, and sidelined him most of the 2015 season.
A full-time starter since 2011, McCourty was able to play in just four games last season. He was placed on Injured Reserve in November and was forced to watch home games from the sideline in street clothes, and road games from his living room couch, on television.
"It was rough,'' McCourty said. "Watching the Jets game, I remember watching (receiver) Brandon Marshall catch the ball and he was wide open and I remember turning the TV off. It was frustrating. You can't be out there, and you can't be on the sideline. You almost feel like you are not a part of it -- like you're just a regular fan. It was very, very frustrating not being able to be out there.
"It really has changed my thinking. I think for me last year, only being able to play in four games, when you come out to training camp, instead of complaining about some of the tough days you start to relish it."
McCourty, who has 453 tackles and 11 career interceptions, was heathy at the start of the offseason program in April, and he's been a fixture in the secondary throughout the offseason.
He's ready to lead again in 2016, and his teammates are thrilled he's back.
"He's a professional guy, someone you can count on and know he is going to do his job,'' said Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan, teammates with McCourty since the 2010 season. "He is very consistent. Knowing No. 30 is out there, it makes you feel comfortable. He is real even-tempered and very consistent, day in and day out.
"In this league, the NFL stands for 'Not For Long', and people come and go. And to see him all the years since I have been here, he has all the intangibles you are looking for in a teammate."
Tight end Delanie Walker praised McCourty for his approach, on and off the field.
"He's a family man, and when he comes on the field it is nothing but business,'' Walker said. "He is very respected around the league, and he's a leader in the locker room. I respect his game and respect everything he does. He is not going to sell you short. If he tells you something, he is going to do it. And since I have been here that's the way he's always been."
Titans coach Mike Mularkey said McCourty is a tone-setter, and a message-deliverer to the team.
"He's one of those guy who doesn't say a whole lot, but when he does, players listen,'' Mularkey said. "He is kind of like Marcus (Mariota) -- he doesn't say a whole lot. Delanie doesn't say a whole lot. Brian Orakpo doesn't say a whole bunch. They just do their jobs really well. Jason does his job really well."
The Titans kick off preseason game No.2 on Saturday against the Carolina Panthers. In a few weeks, the team will kick off the season at Nissan Stadium against the Minnesota Vikings.
McCourty, like many of his teammates, is counting the days.
Orakpo, following a recent practice when McCourty performed extremely well, exclaimed "J-Mac is back! J-Mac is back!" Anyone within 50 yards could've heard him.
McCourty happened to be standing nearby, and he smiled.
Yes, he's back. And he sure is thankful.
"I love the game,'' McCourty said. "And I want to make a positive impact on those around me. I remember coming into the league and guys telling me the one way you stay in this league is with consistency. Let coaches and GMs know what they can expect from you every time you step on the field and I think over those years I've also tried to become a leader and lead by example. So those are two words I'd love for people to remember about me when I'm done playing."
But first, McCourty wants to help the Titans return to winning ways.
He's as optimistic as ever.
"I got a chance to talk to our owner the other day,'' McCourty said of controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk, "and the excitement in her voice, it made me feel really proud as a player just knowing she is right in this thing with us and she wants to much good for us.
"As an older guy on this team, just to be able to talk to her and shake her hand and see how excited she is, you want to go out there and win for her and the fans and the city of Nashville. It is a different feeling and a different buzz right now and as a player you want to follow that up with wins because that is what's going to keep the buzz going."
Titans Online looks back at Jason McCourty's impact, both on and off the field, for the Titans. (Photos: AP, Donn Jones, staff)