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Seahawks’ Richard Sherman Is
Much More Than Just Talk
Richard Sherman

COMPTON, Calif. — Darryl Smith was dividing the pizzas among the boys’ track and field athletes of Dominguez High School when he first heard the voice he would never forget. It belonged to this scrawny, knock-kneed eighth grader who had tagged along with his older brother, who was eating all the slices and dominating all the conversations and somehow, it seemed, doing both at once.

“I didn’t know if he was a good student or anything else,” Smith said. “All I knew was that he talked a lot. A lot.”

Smith’s introduction to that younger brother, Richard Sherman, was not unlike a majority of the nation’s. His outburst on live television last Sunday, minutes after he made a critical defensive play that launched the Seattle Seahawks into Super Bowl XLVIII, catapulted him, at least for a few news cycles, into a realm of renown reserved for presidents and reality TV stars. Anyone interested in listening to Sherman explain his emotions, and himself, could have turned on CNN, which broadcast his Wednesday news conference live.


That Sherman has achieved this level of celebrity surprises few among his friends and family. That he is recognized less for his All-Pro cornerback skills than his swagger and his dreadlocks matters not. His older brother, Branton, said it was “destined to happen” because Sherman believes that he can create his own reality through visualization. Whatever he wants, whatever he needs — if he envisions it happening, it will.

Long before the acrobatic tip that saved Seattle’s season, before the rant that cast him as villainous to some and refreshing to others, Sherman survived gang-infested neighborhoods to compile a 4.2 grade-point average and receive a football scholarship to Stanford, where he also ran track and earned a degree in communication.

In one of those classes at Stanford, Sherman, 25, said he was asked to riff on “Levels of the Game,” John McPhee’s seminal account of a 1968 United States Open semifinal that is more a commentary on sociology and history than a book about tennis. Sherman explained how he played football with a greater level of risk, willing to expose himself to injury because he quivered at the alternative. Already he had lived next to drug dealers and run from stray dogs and, at a funeral, tried to pry open the eyes of his best friend, killed by gang cross fire. Once was enough.

“Richard never wanted to be average or good,” said Keith Donerson, his football coach at Dominguez. “He wanted to be great, in everything that he did.”

Recognizing that drive, Smith, the track coach, one day told Sherman that he would start grading his workouts and meets. Even if Sherman performed at an A level, as he usually did, Smith gave him B-plus, just to push him. He did not earn his first A until his senior year, when he won the California state championship in the triple jump. A gifted math student, Sherman, after earning a C-minus on an Advanced Placement statistics test, asked the instructor to administer a makeup exam. This time, he got an A. When he graduated from Dominguez in 2006, Sherman was voted the male student most likely to succeed.

“I used to tease him that he should come back and teach math when I retire,” said Paul Kreutz, who taught Sherman in Algebra 2 Honors and that A.P. class. “But he had other things on his mind.”

If not homework or sports, then video games, one of his obsessions, orHarry Potter, whose books he devoured and whose movie premieres he would attend, at Stanford, at midnight, though never in costume. (His favorite gift this past Christmas, however, was a remote control in the shape of a magic wand.) Outside school, Sherman’s favorite course was imitation. He studied cocksure athletes like Deion Sanders and Michael Irvin and Muhammad Ali, some of the sporting world’s best entertainers. He noticed their mannerisms, how they oozed confidence and charisma and passion, and resolved to create a similar persona for himself. He did. He became the avatar of the modern showboating athlete.

“His fascination was that Ali was able to talk trash and be the best at what he did but never cross that line,” Sherman’s father, Kevin, said. “At the end of his career, everybody was still talking about him. What more can you ask for?”

• • •

One Seahawks game day, Cathy Haas tuned in to see Sherman rotating his index finger by his head, the universal sign for crazy. Haas, who taught him in an American Sign Language course at Stanford, was delighted.

“I thought it was so great that he still remembered some of it,” Haas, who is deaf, said through an interpreter.

The notion of Sherman sitting in Haas’s class, required to communicate through hand signals instead of the spoken word, is strange. When he was younger, Branton would invite friends over just to listen to Sherman talk. There he would sit, promising that he would score five touchdowns or force a fumble or have three interceptions.

“He would be going so fast, and so loud, and with such confidence, that my mom would be like, Branton, can you tell your little brother to shut up?” Branton Sherman said.

Every time his family moved, from Watts to Bellflower to Norwalk to northern Long Beach, he made new friends, it seemed, within hours. At least twice when the Shermans were supervising several of their children’s friends, they accidentally left Richard at the park.

“While everyone was getting in the car, Richard was running back to the sandbox to play,” Kevin Sherman said.

At times Branton would tire of his brother’s yapping, taking away his Pokémon cards or entombing him in a wrestling move they had watched on television, but he admired how he balanced his outgoing personality with a generous spirit.

When Branton’s car was stopped at a traffic light, Richard pulled out five one-dollar bills from his pocket — all the money he had — and gave four to a homeless man. He inherited his curiosity and his problem-solving skills from Kevin, who supplemented his job with the city’s sanitation department by performing odd tasks around the neighborhood. If Kevin was fixing a car, Sherman was underneath it with him.

Mindful of the gang activity in each area, they dressed in neutral colors. Sherman’s parents established rules that dared not be crossed. No gang involvement. No hanging out on street corners. No eating outside the kitchen. No poor grades. No tolerance for backtalk.

Discipline was meted out swiftly and, at times, publicly. After learning that Branton had acted out in Spanish class, his mother, Beverly, drove to Dominguez and walked onto the field, interrupting football practice to lash him with a belt.

Richard and his siblings, Branton and Krystina, three years younger, were barred from taking the bus or walking too far from home. Beverly, who has yet to miss one of Richard’s home football games, often chauffeured them to parties — and then waited outside. Her presence might have embarrassed them. It might have also saved them, like that time when a few men threatened to open fire.

“Kids do a lot of stuff when you’re not around,” Kevin Sherman said, sitting on a stool in his kitchen Thursday night. “But if you’re always around, they can’t do nothing.”

The most tangible deterrents could be found in Kevin’s chest, two wounds from a drive-by shooting in south-central Los Angeles. He was 18. Wrong place, wrong time, but, he said, he should not have been sitting on that porch, with those so-called friends.

The Shermans did not shelter their children from outside dangers as much as monitor their whereabouts at all times, urging them into athletics and extracurricular activities. Richard Sherman did not have the attention span for baseball; playing center field, he would pick at the grass. As in school, he demanded constant stimulation, and Pop Warner football sufficed — at least until Sherman, wary of contact, wanted to quit. He complained to his father, who shrugged and told him, “That’s O.K., Branton will play instead.” Sherman never complained again.

Even as Sherman improved his speed and honed his receiving skills, he still lacked a degree of coordination. When playing catch with Branton, he could not even reach him from 5 yards away.

“Put it like this,” Branton said over breakfast last week in suburban Seattle. “When I went up to see him play at Stanford and he threw the ball back to the quarterback, that was a huge, huge deal for me.”

At rough-and-tumble Dominguez, Sherman’s broad interests helped him bridge cliques. Other students made fun of him because he did not talk in slang and sometimes, in jest, admonished them for not speaking in “proper English.” Whenever Branton needed help with his studies at Montana State, he called his brother.

“The gangsters on campus, they’d all be laughing at Richard,” Darryl Smith said. “Give me a break. He walked around campus with his books and his glasses.”

During his sophomore year, Sherman sprouted three inches in four months, growing to 6 feet 1 and, in the school’s rudimentary weight room, filling out a frame that Donerson, the football coach, called “125 pounds dripping wet.” His coaches challenged Sherman by doubting him, asking: “Do you really think you can do this? Can you cover that guy?” The answer, they knew, was always yes. Sometimes, Sherman’s brashness grew distracting, but when Donerson tried stifling him, his performance suffered.

“He moped around like a dog that’s been kicked,” Donerson said.

Sherman cared so much about maximizing his performance that he had little tolerance for underachievers. At practice, he would aggravate less ambitious teammates by telling them, “I’m going to love coming back to watch you play at Compton College.” Within days they would be knocking on Donerson’s door, asking him for academic help.

“All so they could shut Richard’s mouth,” Donerson said.

Kevin Sherman does not have any proof of this. Call it a hunch, he said: Even though his son finished second in his class, there were people at Dominguez who doubted he could succeed at Stanford.

“And you can’t tell Richard nothing like that,” Kevin said. “The minute you tell him that, he’s going to prove you wrong.”

As a freshman, Sherman led the Cardinal in receptions. As a sophomore, despite being suspended for a game after a sideline altercation with a teammate, he led the Cardinal in receiving yards, and his catch on fourth-and-20 helped Stanford, 41-point underdog, stun Southern California.

That victory was on Sherman’s mind the day Michael Thomas visited Stanford in the summer of 2007. Sherman escorted Thomas and his family around campus, promising that Stanford would now defeat U.S.C. every season.

“He’s like, they’re trash, they’re nothing,” said Thomas, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins and is one of Sherman’s close friends. “I was like, O.K., I like this guy. I like his attitude. He’s making me want to go there.”

Clayton White, the Cardinal’s secondary coach at the time, liked Sherman’s attitude. Coveted him, too. Too many times he had seen Sherman burn Stanford defensive backs during practice, taunting them after every catch. With that height (6-3) and that wingspan (78 inches) and those long arms (32 inches), White was convinced Sherman would thrive at cornerback.

“As we would say, don’t let the Compton come out of the Sherm,” White said. “You want that edge. You want that fire, especially at a school like Stanford, where you don’t get that many kids who have an edge like Sherm has.”

Sherman resisted until spring drills as a junior. With Coach Jim Harbaugh favoring a run-oriented offense, Sherman felt marginalized at receiver and asked to switch. The day Harbaugh granted the change, White closed the door to his office and pumped his fist.

“That,” Thomas said, “saved his football career.”

It saved Sherman from Harbaugh, who shoved him to the bottom of the defensive-back depth chart, a scholarship player below the walk-ons. Sherman worked his way up through familiar tactics: dedication and constant chatter. Adapting to the bump-and-run style, he locked down receivers. He told his fellow defensive backs that mediocrity was a sin. They felt his energy. They followed him.

“He didn’t move to corner just to play it,” Thomas said. “He was like, I’m going to move to corner and be the best.”

In meetings, White was exposed to another of Sherman’s most recognizable, if less apparent, traits: his recall. He possesses what friends describe as a photographic memory, an almost unfathomable ability to process and comprehend information.

Edrick Floreal, his track coach at Stanford, said he would show Sherman a video clip of triple-jump technique and that within 5 seconds he could mimic it. Branton said his brother memorized the password to his wireless network at their home outside Seattle, all 18 letters and numbers, with just one glance.

Back in White’s classroom, munching always on an unhealthy amount of candy, Sherman would review film and divine trends and tendencies. During games, it was normal for him to call out the receivers’ routes.

After starting all 26 games across 2009 and 2010, Sherman told Branton that he expected to be drafted in the first round. They went to Las Vegas, stayed at a suite in the Rio. That first day, the phone never rang. Sherman never left the room. The Seahawks called him in the fifth.

There were 153 players selected ahead of him. He does not know all of them. But the 31 defensive backs? Their names — their names he remembers.

Since 2011, Sherman has 20 interceptions, most in the N.F.L. The first 10 balls are on display at his parents’ home, where they have lived for the last three years. The living room is crammed with jerseys and plaques and photographs and newspaper clippings. Open the front door, and there, on the floor, is a photo collage from his Stanford graduation.

Only three people could have predicted Sherman’s N.F.L. success, Donerson said, but one of them disagrees. Kevin said he figured Sherman would linger for a few years, have a marginal career.

“I never could have guessed this,” Kevin said. “I never would have guessed this.”

Last spring Sherman returned to Dominguez, driving his stock-issued Dodge Challenger with the cones and footballs in the trunk, to emphasize the importance of education. He told players how the average N.F.L. career lasts three and a half seasons; it was up to them, he said, to prepare for the rest of their lives.

Sherman has yet to reach that three-and-a-half-year threshold. In his three seasons, he has exchanged Twitter barbs with Darrelle Revis; barked at Tom Brady; mocked Roddy White; won an appeal to avoid a four-game suspension after a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs; burnished his credentials as one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league; and, now, this kerfuffle.

“He doesn’t want to be your friend or anything like that,” said Kris Richard, Seattle’s secondary coach. “He wants to go out there and have a fantastic time with his teammates and dominate.”

Sherman has been visualizing exactly that. Next Sunday afternoon, he will board a team bus for MetLife Stadium, always sitting in the same seat, beside Earl Thomas. Here he begins his transformation: scoundrel to some, beacon to others and a voice, striving to be heard above the din, to all.



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