I never really understood the phrase "love to hate." How do you love to hate anything?
Then I witnessed the conclusion of Sunday's NFC Championship Game, and the meaning suddenly became clearer than high definition. If those three words ever find themselves in a dictionary, sitting right next to them would be a picture of Richard Kevin Sherman.
When the volatile, loquacious cornerback batted away a potential touchdown pass which landed in the hands of teammate Malcolm Smith for a game-clinching interception over the 49ers, fans across San Francisco and most of the country groaned.
Out of everyone on the field, why him?
Sherman immediately got to his feet and taunted Crabtree with a faux handshake, something he knew he could get away with as the game had already been won. After being shoved aside by the dejected receiver, Sherman immediately mimed a choking gesture at the 49ers sideline, which was actually a refreshing change from the outdated crazy sign he usually makes when breaking up a pass.
Then came his furious, classless, self-aggrandizing and downright hilarious rant guaranteed to be an instant YouTube classic.
Seriously, even the Skip Bayless fiasco doesn't do this justice:
"When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree," Sherman said, "that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me. Don't you open your mouth about the best or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick."
In an interview that seemed to fly by faster than he was breathing, Sherman managed to obscure what turned out to be a great game with antics that were routinely discussed, retweeted and rehashed around the press and on social media:
So Russell is a class act! Sherman on the other hand.... If he played baseball would get a high and tight fastball.
— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) January 20, 2014
Haaaaaaaahhahahahahaha Bart Scott was better— Zack Wheeler (@Wheelerpro45) January 20, 2014
While Sherman's gloating and boorishness might be rage-inducing to a lot of 49er fans, it was also pretty freakin' amazing. In less than a minute, the self-described "best cornerback" in the game instantly became the greatest sports villain in Bay Area history.
Seriously, the dude makes Mat Latos seem nice. He even makes Charles Barkley look like a friendly and thoughtful television analyst.
And while I felt nothing but bubbling disappointment after his tip thwarted my favorite team's chances for a sixth championship, I was in a fit of hysterics as I watched him during his press conference interview, standing right there atop the rostrum wearing that horrific suit and bow tie and repeating the word "mediocre" as if he had just looked it up in the dictionary and couldn't stop using it in a sentence.
Me-dee-oh-cure, he sneered over and over again to describe Crabtree.
Bobby Thompson may have hit the shot heard round the world, but Richard Sherman unleashed the rant heard round the universe.
The sight of him frothing at the mouth with his ski mask down, screaming at the top of his lungs and raining down spittle on Erin Andrews—who unfortunately neglected to bring her umbrella—may have been watched from as far as Kazakhstan.
It was the kind of obnoxious, in-your-face moment that made Ralphie Parker lose his mind when he beat the hell out of Scut Farkus. I also enjoyed it a little bit.
Most on-camera interviews would lead you to believe that athletes are humble, pious, down-to-earth people.
In reality, half the players in the NFL are redasses like Sherman. He just doesn't try to hide it.
It's what makes sports interesting, and it's also what keeps things in perspective. Look, there are schoolyard bullies in the playground, in the office, and even at the local senior center. It's silly and naive to pretend that they don't exist in the macho, hard-hitting game of football.
Intense competition, not friendly competition, is what drives athletes to perform at peak levels.
The 49ers may be one of the all-time great franchises, but the one thing they've lacked ever since the Rams moved to St. Louis was a worthy division rival. Someone whose faces they could rub their five Super Bowl titles into along with names like Young, Montana and Rice.
It's finally happened for the team and their fans, and best of all, there's a name and a face to go with it.
Sherman has publicly stated on his own blog that he doesn't want to be a villain. There's no shame in it really. Star Wars would not be good without Darth Vader. The Dark Knight wouldn't be good without the Joker.
Some players like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are hated only because they're the best in the game. While Sherman is arguably the best cover corner in the league, he frustrates and antagonizes his opponents more with his mouth rather than his skill and precision. His compulsive need to call out and kick a foe down on the ground doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, as it's something he does almost as adroitly as deflecting passes.
If trash talking is an art, Richard Sherman is the modern day Da Vinci.
San Francisco sports fans know what defines a perfect villain after enduring 15 years of Barry Bonds, and this was even before the steroid era. The surly, oft-putting slugger wasn't always a cheater, but he was once the best player in baseball. People hated him, and they loved it.
I'm not even going to go into Sherman's PED past. The past 24 hours have provided enough fodder to last until the VCR makes a comeback. It won't just be 49ers and Broncos fans cheering on Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl.
But all of the rage over Sherman's postgame theatrics clouded one of the most awesome moments from the NFC Championship Game.
It was Sherman's reaction after Kaepernick fired that amazing 20-yard touchdown strike to Anquan Boldin late in the third quarter. He just stood there shaking his head with his hands on his hips as CenturyLink Field sat in stunned silence. For once his mouth wasn't moving.
It was the most beautiful sound in the world.
Tell me you wouldn't want to hear that sound again. Well, the Niners have a chance to do it next season and plenty of seasons after that.
Don't hate the hate. Embrace it. Welcome it. And yes, even love it. Channel it the way Sherman channeled his hatred of Michael Crabtree to deny the 49ers their seventh Super Bowl appearance.
It's cathartic, and at times it can even be fruitful.
As a great man once said, "Let the hate flow through you!"
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