RENTON, Wash. — When Richard Sherman thinks back to the first day of his NFL career, his pulse rate quickens, his eyes open wide, and his voice gets loud and animated. It is not a warm and fuzzy memory. Rather, he recalls getting drafted by the Seattle Seahawks two Aprils ago as a sort of affliction.
Sitting in a Las Vegas hotel suite with a few members of his immediate family — the only ones who'd stuck it out after a large contingent of friends and relatives had joined them for two prior days of fruitless draft-viewing — Sherman simmered as cornerbacks he considered inferior got taken off the board before him. A converted wide receiver whose unlikely rise to prominence at Stanford had mirrored that program's turnaround under Jim Harbaugh, Sherman felt his skills were too obvious to overlook.
Pick after pick, Sherman came to the unpleasant realization that his assessment had been dead wrong. However, his focus never wavered; he sat on a couch watching the TV screen more intently than Mel Kiper Jr., determined to soak in the magnitude of the slight and, ultimately, to make the world pay. Finally, two-thirds of the way through the fifth round, Seahawks general manager John Schneider called to inform Sherman that Seattle would be selecting him with the 154th overall pick. The celebration that ensued was wholly disingenuous.
"I celebrated 'cause my family was happy and the dream had been realized," Sherman recalled last Thursday evening as he relaxed on another couch, this one in the players' lounge at the team's training facility. "I wasn't gonna ruin that moment for my family. But in the back of my mind, I was livid.
"Some of those guys who got drafted [ahead of me], I was like, 'Wow, this is ridiculous.' I thought, 'What's the point of playing good ball if it doesn't matter?' By the time the fifth round rolled around, the damage was done. I was like, 'When I get to the NFL, I'm gonna destroy the league, as soon as they give me the chance.' And that's what I've been doing ever since."
If you're not aware of Sherman's appetite for destruction, and how it has stoked his rapid ascent to top-tier status among the league's cornerbacks — well, that speaks to his larger point about the way a man's draft position can influence his reputation for years to come.
For all the success he has enjoyed during his stellar second season, one in which he has been a key playmaker for the league's third-ranked defense while helping to push the Seahawks (8-5) into postseason contention, Sherman's anger hasn't come close to subsiding. A brash, intelligent, self-described "nerd" with bleeding-heart sensibilities, Sherman is a complex young man with a single, overriding trait: He plays football with a Space Needle-sized chip on his shoulder, and he's upset that his excellence isn't more celebrated.
"I want to be the best, period," says Sherman, the 34th defensive back chosen in the 2011 draft. "A lot of people don't think it's possible, because how could a fifth-rounder be the best of all time? But that's what I want to be. Where you get drafted is such a big deal in the league, respect-wise, and that's why it still frustrates me."
And so the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder who swallows up opposing wideouts with regularity seldom closes his mouth off the field, lest you ignore his exploits.
"Sherm, honestly, is probably the most confident player I've ever played with, and it's not false confidence, either," says Seahawks tight end Evan Moore, whose sideline confrontation with Sherman when the two were Stanford teammates led Harbaugh to suspend the latter for a game late in the 2007 season. "The way he expresses his confidence — in a way that he'd have to back it up, or it would be noticeable — is what sets him apart."
Maybe you noticed that he called Harbaugh, who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers, a "bully" after the Seahawks lost a 13-6 game to their NFC West rivals at Candlestick Park last month.
Or, possibly, Sherman reached your radar in dubious fashion as he faces a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, reportedly for an Adderall-related positive test. Sherman, who claims he did nothing wrong, has appealed the suspension, which allows him to play pending its resolution. "It's gonna get solved and I think at the end of the day it'll get worked out fine," Sherman insisted. (The appeal was reportedly scheduled for Friday, but a source familiar with the case said it is likely to be delayed even further. Either way Sherman should be in the lineup when Seattle faces the Buffalo Bills in Toronto on Sunday.)
Given that the other half of the Seahawks' tall, talented cornerback tandem, 2011 Pro Bowl selection Brandon Browner, is serving a similar suspension that will extend through the end of the regular season, plenty of coaches, teammates and fans are sleepless in Seattle. With the Seahawks in good position for a wild-card berth and only a game-and-a-half behind the Niners, who they'll host in a nationally televised rematch a week from Sunday night, the temporary breakup of the team's dynamic duo is a major concern.
"Well, it changes us," concedes Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, a shrewd defensive strategist who tweaked his scheme to take advantage of what is likely the most physically imposing cornerback pairing in NFL history. "There's a dynamic to having those guys. And without one or both of them, it'll be interesting."
The Seahawks survived their first game without Browner just swimmingly, throttling the Arizona Cardinals, 58-0, at CenturyLink Field last Sunday. Sherman helped neutralize perennial All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald, who had one catch for two yards, while intercepting a pair of passes (returning one for a 19-yard touchdown) and recovering a fumble — continuing a season of play-making excellence. Unless he wins his appeal, Sherman will be automatically ineligible for Pro Bowl consideration or other postseason awards; if successful, he should probably go shopping for board shorts and sandals. "I'm not worried about it," insists Sherman, who believes he'll ultimately be exonerated.
Sherman did fly to Hawaii last January as a rookie — as a guest of the three other members of the Seahawks' secondary (Browner and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor), all of whom were selected to play on the NFC's Pro Bowl squad.
"There's no question he can play," Fitzgerald says of Sherman, who has six interceptions (tied for third in the NFL), 25 passes defensed (second in the league) and three forced fumbles. "He and Browner are really good. They mean everything to that defense. This allows Earl and Kam to fly around and be disruptive at safety. Earl flies around like Troy Polamalu minus the hair. They have a really underrated front four, but they can really rush the passer, which goes hand-in-hand with strong secondary play. Then playing in Seattle is hands-down the toughest place in the NFL — you can't hear yourself think in there."
Then again, if you are an opposing quarterback, you'll likely hear Sherman, who unabashedly begs passers to challenge him at every opportunity. Whereas the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Browner typically manhandles receivers at the line, Sherman takes a different tack, with increased opportunities for interceptions as the goal.
" 'BB' can really make you quit at the line of scrimmage," Sherman says. "He's the stronger of the two [of us], and he's much better at that. If he gets locked up on you, you might as well just quit 'cause you're not getting out of it. I play more to pick the ball off, so I'm gonna let you run your route. I like to get my hands on a guy, but not to the point where the quarterback stops looking, because I can't get my hands on the ball that way. Then you get no balls, no action."
When Sherman experiences a lack of action, he turns to Plan B: Trying to shame the man with the ball into throwing it his way.
"I'll go say something to the quarterback," Sherman explains. "I'm like, 'Hey man, I'm over here. Don't be scared to throw it my way from time to time. I'm just your friendly neighborhood cornerback.' And then they'll throw it up. You've got to find a button, and push it.
"That happened in the [Oct. 7] Carolina game, right after halftime. Just coincidentally Cam [Newton] and I were crossing paths and I was like, 'Hey — hey [No.] 1.' He turned around and said, 'Wassup?' I said, 'Don't be afraid to throw me the ball. I'm probably gonna pick you off, though.' His [first play], he threw it up, a 'go' route. That's the one I batted away from Steve Smith. I mistimed my jump. I should've picked it."
A week later, Sherman employed a similar strategy on Brady, ultimately intercepting a third-quarter pass.
"Everybody has a little swagger," Sherman says, "a little cockiness that says, 'OK, you challenge me — fine. I'm gonna challenge you back.' You've just got to figure out what this is, what it takes to get 'em to throw at you.
"It worked with Tom Brady. I wasn't getting very many balls that game. I just kept, constantly, saying, 'I'm over here. I'm out here. You're not throwing it to the edge very much.' And there was a play I was lined up in the slot, we were in man coverage with [Deion] Branch, and he threw it up, and I picked it. I almost got another one he threw to [Wes] Welker.
"He was definitely talking back. It was Tom Brady; he's won three Super Bowls. I'm just a nobody out there. After the game, I don't think I actually said, 'u mad bro,' but one of the fans put it up and I retweeted it and it just took off."
If you embrace Sherman's view of the football world, it makes sense that he and Brady would go at it. After all, there's an important common denominator. Brady, the 199th overall pick in the 2000 draft, also aspires to be among the best of all time — indeed, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer is pulling it off. You'd best believe he still plays with an edge powered by those who doubted him way back when.
"I guarantee you he still has some sixth-rounder anger that's fueling the fire," Sherman says. "We're very similar. It doesn't [end]. It frustrates me [that] you can't get that much respect as a fifth-rounder. At the end of the day, a first-rounder will be like, 'Man you went in the fifth — who are you?' I'm like, 'I couldn't determine that!' "
Sherman's drive was evident during his childhood in Compton, Calif., where he augmented his obvious intelligence by making mature decisions.
"He was one of the smartest dudes at our school," recalls Seahawks safety Jeron Johnson, who threw the bubble screen that Sherman, a two-way threat at Dominguez High School, parlayed into the first touchdown catch of his prep career. "He knew what he wanted to do. While we were fooling around, he was focused on his books."
This is not to say that Sherman was the shy, bookish type. "Oh, he's gonna talk," Johnson says, laughing. "He's gonna be him. Some people might see it as arrogance, but that's just Richard, trying to prove himself." (It's a quality that has carried over into the Seahawks' meeting room. "He's like a class clown," Thomas says. Replies Sherman: "It's hard to be the class clown and salutatorian, you know what I mean?")
Recruited as a cornerback and receiver by numerous schools, Sherman settled on Stanford, but his path to Palo Alto nearly fell apart his senior year. "My school almost lost its accreditation," he recalls. "If that had happened, my diploma wouldn't have been worth anything. There's always been adversity, wherever I've gone."
Sherman, a true freshman, saw immediate action at receiver for the Cardinal, a team in the midst of a fifth consecutive miserable season. When Harbaugh arrived the following year, it wasn't surprising that the two headstrong competitors would clash at some point. During a November 2007 home game against Washington, Sherman, the team's leading receiver at the time, lost his cool on the field, picking up a personal foul. Moore, then a senior receiver, scolded the sophomore when he got to the sidelines, telling him to keep his emotions under control.
"He yelled, 'Get away from me!' " Moore recalls. "We laugh about it now. He's a fierce competitor. Even before then, I used to have to calm him down. I'd say, 'Richard, chill.' That was just him being pissed."
Recalls Sherman: "Me and E-Mo had gotten into it on the sideline. He started pushing me, and I started pushing him. I was kinda mad he didn't get suspended. That was kinda unfair. They just said I was being 'too much.' "
Sherman insists that, following his one-game suspension, he and Harbaugh got along fine. However, he did tweak his ex-coach publicly in October after Harbaugh said he was surprised Sherman and Browner had gotten away with so much contact in that first meeting against the Niners. Given that Harbaugh had, a couple of weeks earlier, reacted angrily when Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made similar comments about San Francisco defensive end Justin Smith, Sherman was miffed by the double-standard, telling Seattle reporters, "Sometimes, man, when the bully gets bullied, that's how that happens."
"He always does stuff like that," Sherman says of Harbaugh. "He's gonna protect his team as tough as he can, to say what he feels like he needs to say to get his point across. I've been on the other side where he says those things for us. It was just kind of funny. What's crazy is, I wasn't really holding that game! That's one of those games where I was pretty much covering — one of my better games."
After suffering a knee injury early in the 2008 season and redshirting, Sherman reinvented himself in the spring of 2009: With the Cardinal extremely thin at cornerback, he asked to switch positions. "I gave it a shot in spring ball, and I went out there and did well," he recalls. "It was mostly because, after playing offense, I knew what was coming most of the time. So I'd jump everything. Yeah, the [receivers] were livid. Cause they knew I knew the plays."
By Sherman's senior year he had become a defensive standout on a team that reached the Orange Bowl — but he struggled to attract NFL scouts' attention. "I went to the Orange Bowl, and [Virginia Tech] threw at me once," Sherman recalls. "And it just seemed like nobody noticed. I went to the Senior Bowl. I got a pick, a couple of [pass breakups], had a pretty good game in my eyes. But my pick got called back. So, that got ignored. And then it's like, 'What else can I do?' "
NFL teams weren't sure what to make of Sherman's skill set. Though he lacked blazing speed, he had an obvious ability to go up and get the ball. He ran through drills as a receiver and cornerback at Stanford's pro day and waited for an NFL team to give him a shot.
Carroll, long enamored of the idea of unearthing big, physical corners, had tried to recruit Sherman to USC and was intrigued by his size. After drafting him, Carroll got some bonus gifts, in the form of Sherman's focus, competitiveness and study habits.
"The length makes guys run around you," Carroll says. "The bigger the wingspan, the wider the space you own. The fact that he was really competitive, really tough — that surprised me. He's a very, very high-strung, competitive kid. It really adds to his focus. He's one of those guys who has a really classic [cornerback's] mindset. Nothing's gonna deter him from what he believes he can do."
Thrown into the starting lineup opposite Browner seven games into his rookie season, Sherman hasn't backed down since. Be it a mano a mano showdown with a wideout or a meeting of the minds in the Seahawks' locker room, Sherman isn't shy about asserting his dominance.
"Sometimes, he's just too smart for his own good," Thomas says, laughing. "He's gonna let you know it, too."
Says Sherman: "Oh definitely. 'Cause guys will forget sometimes, and we'll have to have a quick dialogue. We'll have to go deeper in the conversation. I'll have to hit 'em with words they'll have to Google. And then the game will be over."
In addition to Sherman's exceptionally strong sense of self, he's also exceedingly unselfish. He has donated both time and money to his old high school, stressing the importance of education and discipline to inner-city students and purchasing equipment for the football team.
He's also prone to random acts of kindness, a practice that dates back to the time when, as an 11-year-old, he took the $20 bill his mother had given him, went to McDonald's to buy a meal and impulsively handed the money to a homeless man.
"He was at the counter with maybe a dollar fifty in pennies and nickels," Sherman recalls. "I don't know why — it hits me in a different way than it hits a lot of other people. I never had much to begin with, but when I see a homeless person out there, I feel like he doesn't know when he's gonna see another meal. So I gave him the twenty bucks and said, 'Man, buy whatever you want.' And I still do it to this day."
Sherman drove past a freeway off-ramp near the Seahawks' facility about a month ago and saw a homeless man holding up a sign asking for food. He drove to a nearby McDonald's and bought a couple of cheeseburgers, some fries and a Coke. Sherman then drove back toward the off-ramp, parked on an adjacent street and walked the food to the surprised sign-holder, adding new meaning to the term happy meal.
"If you're not helping people, what are you doing?" Sherman asks rhetorically. "I never know if I'm ever gonna be that hard on my luck, and I would pray that somebody would help me out, like I've helped these people out. 'Cause you never know."
In the meantime, Sherman plays hungry, displaying a ferocity on the practice field that fires up the Seahawks' receivers on a daily basis.
"Watching him in practice, you'd think he was a defensive back his whole life," Seattle wideout Sidney Rice says. "He brings it. He likes the action. He likes to mix it up. I go up against him in one-on-one drills, and that's one of my favorite parts of the day. I know I'm gonna get maximum work."
Yet as much as he craves recognition, Sherman inevitably finds a way to turn compliments into fighting words.
"A couple of times [opposing] receivers have told me, 'Great coverage' during a play," Sherman says. "As a competitor, you're kind of pissed off. Like, 'Don't tell me great coverage; keep running your route.' Of course it's great coverage. I'm supposed to have great coverage! But you're supposed to still be competing for the ball."
Similarly, Sherman reacts with ambivalence to some of the postgame plaudits he receives from opposing coaches.
"A lot of coaches have come up to me and liked the way I played," he says. "They tell me I should've gotten picked higher and they don't know how they passed me up. But it doesn't help, because they did pass me up."
U MAD BRO?
Sherman absolutely is, and he plans to keep it that way, even as his act earns critical acclaim from coaches, peers and fans.
To him, staying bitter is a fifth-round thing, and always will be. Yet the truth is, no matter how big a star Sherman might become, he'll inevitably find a way to convince himself he's being slighted — and to channel it into brash, unrepentant anger.
"Definitely," he says. "Let's face it — if I had been the first pick in the first round, I'd still find something to be pissed about."
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