Super Bowl Champ ‘All In’ for Raising Food Allergy Awareness

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: May 15, 2024

The parenting playbook changed dramatically for Super Bowl champion Jason McCourty seven years ago. That’s when he witnessed his youngest daughter Kai suffer a severe food allergy reaction. After eating a bite of squash, he says the child’s lip swelled to a humongous size and she instantly started scratching her throat. 

So, with his wife Melissa’s guidance, Jason McCourty injected their then six-month-old with an epinephrine auto-injector and called 911. 

Jason and Kai McCourty
Jason and Kai McCourty on her birthday.

“It was really scary,” the retired NFL cornerback tells Allergic Living of that reaction in 2017. The couple realized the squash must have touched salmon, spurring the food allergy reaction that was halted with the epinephrine shot.

The McCourtys had been trying to determine with doctors why their third baby was miserable, always scratching, and had skin like sandpaper. Testing on little Kai suggested a number of food allergies, and Melissa tried cutting out foods while nursing. Epinephrine auto-injectors were also prescribed for the baby. 

At the time of her reaction, the McCourtys hadn’t known their child was allergic to seafood. That turned out to be the suspected trigger. Kai, who today is 7, has food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, fish and shellfish. She can now tolerate baked milk and egg.

McCourty describes Kai “as a handful” from infancy, compared to her two older siblings. But this dad is “all in” for his daughter. Today, the philanthropist and broadcaster is working with the food allergy nonprofit FARE to promote their FARE 33 campaign. 

The campaign makes use of “the team” concept to drive home the point that 33 million people in the United States have food allergies. 

“It’s personal for us. This is a huge part of who we are as a family,” says McCourty, a co-host on the NFL Network show “Good Morning Football.” 

McCourty Siblings on the Allergy Lookout

The team concept also reflects what Dr. Sung Poblete sees in the community of people navigating food allergies. The CEO of FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) says: “We are empathetic and resilient, we are caring and relentless, we are allies and champions.” And she stresses: “We need to unite as one.”

As both a food allergy dad and former professional athlete, McCourty is a natural fit for the FARE 33 program, Poblete says. “He sees the daily struggle his family goes through to navigate their daughter’s food allergy.” 

Before he retired from the NFL in 2022, going to various stadiums to cheer on their dad was part of life for McCourty’s three children. Kai is little sister to Liana, 11, and Kaiden, 8.

Food at the stadiums often contained Kai’s allergens, so the family brought their own safe snacks to games. McCourty says the older siblings were a big help in ensuring that Kai didn’t have accidental allergy exposures.

Liana and Kaiden have always been vigilant about making sure “the snack monster” (as the family affectionately calls Kai) avoids her allergens.

When it comes to daily life, Jason and Melissa McCourty talk to Kai about the tough allergy situations. For example, they discuss when she can’t have the same pizza as two dozen other kids at a birthday party. They also help her understand why it’s not safe for her to be sneaky with food, such as hiding under the table with candy, McCourty notes.

“We live with it every single day. It has been an adjustment and adventure and a learning experience for my entire family, including all three kids and extended family,” he says. 

Mom: Head Coach of Allergy Safety

The family also tackled the adjustment of navigating food allergies following moves, such as finding new doctors and allergy-friendly places.

Melissa and Jason McCourty and their kids.

When Kai had her allergic reaction in 2017, the McCourty family had relocated from Nashville to Cleveland, where Jason played for the Browns after eight seasons with the Tennessee Titans. They moved to the Boston area in 2018, where he played for the New England Patriots with his twin brother Devin McCourty. 

The entire family was able to enjoy the thrill of winning Super Bowl LIII in 2019 when the McCourty twins were part of the championship Patriots team. Jason’s children and their cousins joined in the festivities on the field after the game, making angels in the championship confetti. 

He describes playing in the confetti as “the absolute best” for his kids. “That was an amazing experience.”

Kai was only able to safely enjoy being part of a championship game and celebration because of the steps her family takes to ensure she is safe. 

Jason credits his wife Melissa as “the head coach” in planning and preparation. She always packs safe snacks for Kai, whether for football games, traveling, or participating in youth sports. 

Playbook for Allergy-Safe Eating

The family abides by the rule that Kai can’t eat anything without one of her parents checking the label first. 

Whether reading labels at concession stands, reviewing a checklist of safe foods with family members, or having conversations at restaurants, the McCourtys take measures to ensure Kai can safely enjoy activities. 

“We want it to just be equal and fair for her to be able to do the things that her siblings and friends are doing,” her dad says. 

His partnership with FARE is an effort to raise awareness, and lead to more inclusivity for people with food allergies like his daughter. McCourty first helped the nonprofit raise awareness in 2021 when he played for the Miami Dolphins. FARE partnered with the team to provide allergy-friendly concessions at the Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium.

He clearly recalls the family checking out the allergy-friendly snacks that Kai could eat from the concessions, just like her sister and brother. “She thought that was the coolest thing in the world,” he says. “She knew we were advocating because of her.”

McCourty on ‘Lifting Up’ Food Allergy

Jason McCourty: striving for inclusion.

McCourty plans to use skills he gained as a leader on the field and in the locker room during his 13-year NFL career to help FARE amplify the voices of food allergy families.

His leadership is based on the idea of “leading from the front.” He says he wants to use his platform to have discussions, even if they are uncomfortable, to “lift people up and bring awareness.” 

“He knows what it is to be on a championship team – to work together to advance a mutual objective, and to win,” Poblete says. 

She is delighted to see McCourty help the FARE 33 campaign to raise awareness that 33 million Americans live with food allergies – a disease that lacks adequate research funding. “Our hope is to create a sense of urgency so that life-threatening food allergies are understood as a tier one health issue,” she says.  

McCourty says Kai gets a big smile on her face when she hears him talking about food allergies. 

She might not grasp the magnitude of what her dad is doing to advocate. But she does know how special she feels when she can go to a local ice cream spot and choose from eight different flavors – all safe for her. 

When there is more awareness about food allergies, it could lead to more places “where kids and adults can go and feel completely safe,” McCourty says. “The more we raise awareness, the more inclusive.” 

Related Reading:
FARE 33 Campaign Info
Brittany Mahomes Q&A: What I Want Allergy Moms to Know
Hunt for Missing Link Between Eczema and Food Allergies