Seconds after making the play that put his Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, cornerback Richard Sherman gave a brief, explosive sideline interview that inspired hours of social media tongue-clucking, finger-wagging and even hate speech.
In a rant Sherman wrote was fueled by "adrenaline," he called himself the best corner in the game, dubbed San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree "sorry" and did a slow-burn stare into the camera.
As Bleacher Report's Dan Levy wrote in the aftermath, the rant was "rude, brash, disrespectful and totally awesome."
For many, this was their first impression of Richard Sherman with his helmet off.
As a player, Sherman has plenty of notoriety; he's been named a first-team All-Pro twice in just his first three seasons in the NFL. As a person, though, we barely know him.
Jack of All Trades, Master of None?
As a senior coming out of Compton's Manuel Dominguez High School, Sherman was a three-way standout, making an impact as a wide receiver, cornerback and returner.
A few years earlier, Sherman had seen a documentary about Muhammad Ali and learned about the power of perception. As he explained to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins in July:
[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world. When he said, "The champ is here," he probably wasn't that cocky. He created a persona. He was a leader, an entertainer, and he knew how to break people down in the ring. I didn't really care about boxing, but I wanted to be like Ali.
Listed at 6'3", 167 pounds by Rivals.com, Sherman wasn't just a standout on the football field; he was also a track star. Per Track and Field News, Sherman was one of the nation's top high school triple-jumpers in 2005. As a junior, Sherman used this explosiveness to rack up 435 receiving yards and six touchdowns—on only 13 catches.
While Dominguez's run-first offense offered few chances for Sherman to strut his offensive stuff—even as an all-conference wideout, he had only 28 catches for 270 yards his senior year—he put points on the board as a special teamer too.
"Yeah, people don't talk much about my punt returns," Sherman told Scout.com's Mike Eubanks, "but I ran back six touchdowns this year, though three were called back."
Sherman also racked up 45 tackles, eight passes defensed and an interception in his last year at Dominguez, leading the team to a CIF Southern Section Division III championship.
Yet Rivals only graded Sherman a 3-star recruit.
Listed as an "athlete," a player without a defined position, Sherman attended several recruit camps and recruiting all-star games like the CaliFlorida Bowl to raise his profile. His size and athleticism garnered him plenty of attention, along with honors like PrepStar's All-West team and Super Prep's All-Far West squad, according to the Stanford athletics site.
What really turned the heads of the big D-I programs, though, were Sherman's grades.
In 2005, Sherman's excellence in the classroom was the centerpiece of a profile by Eric Sondheimer of the Los Angeles Times. Compton gained a national reputation as the epicenter of Los Angeles' gang and crime problems in the 1980s and 1990s, and the state ran the failing school district from 1993 to 2001. Sherman, though, knew he had the ability to excel in the classroom—and that his teammates did too.
"I'm trying my best to get them where I'm going, to the college level," Sherman told Sondheimer. "I'm helping them study for the SAT. A lot of people come in blind in what they need to know, not knowing one day they could be a top college prospect."
Sherman talked the talk and walked the walk, telling his teammates to "quit making excuses" for poor academic performance while posting a 4.1 GPA—more than good enough to be accepted into Stanford, the first Dominguez player in over 20 years to be good enough athletically and academically to earn an invite there.
Sherman made an instant impact at Stanford, joining the team as a true freshman and instantly becoming one of its most valuable players.
Sherman played in all of the Cardinal's games in then-head coach Walt Harris' disastrous final season (1-11). Despite starting just five of those games, Sherman led the team in receptions and receiving yards (34 for 581) and tied for the team lead in both touchdowns and touchdown catches with three.
As a true sophomore, Sherman and the rest of his teammates took a big step forward under new head coach Jim Harbaugh. Sherman again led the team in receiving yards and touchdowns (651 and four), and finished second in receptions (39) and all-purpose yardage.
In Sherman's junior season, things went sideways. Locked in as a starting wide receiver, Sherman caught just eight passes in four games before suffering a partial tear of his left patellar tendon, ending his season.
He applied for (and received) a medical redshirt, giving him a season to rehab the knee and come back at full speed.
A Good Break?
Sherman used the rehab to re-focus. In advance of spring practice, Sherman asked head coach Jim Harbaugh if he could switch to cornerback.
It's not common for a fourth-year starter at a major-conference program to switch positions in spring ball, and Harbaugh, as he told Stanford Magazine in this video interview, was skeptical.
Sherman impressed with his talent and dedication, though, and started 12 of 13 games in 2009, ranking fourth on the team with 62 tackles, per Stanford's site. He also broke up eight passes and intercepted two, including a pick-six of USC'S Matt Barkley.
Harbaugh didn't take Sherman off punt returns either, even as he added muscle and strength to his tall, lean frame. He took back 15 punts for 154 yards and a touchdown, proving he still had game-breaking ball skills.
As a senior, Sherman doubled his interception total to four, per College Football Reference, and averaged 9.8 yards per return. For a second time, though, his combination of elite size, length, explosion and ball skills wasn't enough to make scouts at the next level drool.
"A Contributing Backup Corner"
Just look at Sherman's NFL.com draft profile: 6'3", 195 pounds, 32"-long arms, 4.56-second 40-yard dash time, 16 bench press reps of 225 pounds, 38" vertical leap, 6.28-second three-cone drill.
That is a breathtaking combination of size and athleticism, but scouts were not impressed. "Sherman is a size prospect with some good intangibles that will help him mold into a contributing backup corner for a press-heavy team," NFL.com's evaluator wrote.
"However, he does not possess the natural coverage instincts, fluidity or burst to be considered a future starter," the profile went on, concluding, "Sherman is a Day 3 prospect."
NFL teams agreed; the Seahawks picked up Sherman in the fifth round. He couldn't believe it, as he explained to Yahoo! Sports' Mike Silver:
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.
Though Sherman didn't immediately crack the Seahawks starting lineup, he was a "contributing backup corner" right away. When he got his first start, in Week 8 against the Cincinnati Bengals, he also got his first interception at the 8:48 mark of this video. (NSFW Warning: This video contains a fan's raw in-stadium analysis, and occasional profanity can be heard.)
Sherman's boisterous celebration of that pick made his energetic personality clearly visible from the stands.
What fans couldn't see or hear, though, was Sherman's mouth running.
Jack of One Trade, Master of Smack Talk
In his second season, Sherman quickly proved himself one of the best cornerbacks in the game. He hauled in eight interceptions, broke up 24 passes and registered 53 solo tackles. In just his second season, he earned first-team All-Pro honors—meaning he could already lay claim to being one of the best in the game.
Claim it, he did.
He quickly gained a reputation as one of the biggest trash-talkers in the game. BusinessInsider.com collected many of Sherman's best smack moments, like when Washington left tackle Trent Williams punched him in the face to shut him up:
Yet it was impossible to say he wasn't backing it up. As with his grades and his draft-day revenge, Sherman's mouth said big things, but his play on the field was, and is, even bigger.
"I talk a big game because I carry a big stick," Sherman told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins.
The end of that Williams video gives us a look at another aspect of Sherman's personality, though: He embraced Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, told Griffin he's "proud" of him and encouraged him on his growth as a player and person.
That's the Sherman people who are judging him this morning don't see.
A Beautiful Mind
Sherman not only got the grades to be accepted into Stanford, he made the most of his education. He's self-expressive enough to be a regular columnist for The MMQB—and self-aware enough to use that platform to defend and explain his postgame actions, as he did Monday morning:
To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.
A beautiful sentiment, especially expressed on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Sherman's intelligence isn't limited to Monday morning, though. Not only is he a gifted athlete, his intelligence, hard work, film study and preparation are what close the gap between "Day 3 prospect" and becoming the best corner in the NFL:
What Fans Want
While some might have been put off by his aggression after the biggest victory of his career, Sherman is the epitome of what fans want: He's an incredible physical talent, a brilliant student of the game, an erudite speaker and writer, a rags-to-riches success story and damned entertaining.
The explosive plays he makes—big hits, big picks, big returns—are the reasons why people love to watch football. His confidence and swagger before, during and after games make his on-field dominance that much more compelling.
Like Ali, like Babe Ruth, like Usain Bolt, the most entertaining athletes in the world are the ones so skilled they can call their shot and back it up.
Richard Sherman is exactly the man he wants to be—and, whether we can admit it or not, exactly the kind of player we pay to see.
First, he has to stop one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, Peyton Manning, from following up the best regular season of all time with a Super Bowl championship. If he and his defensive teammates can stop Peyton, Sherman will have earned nearly every individual and team honor a cornerback can earn: Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors, a season leading the NFL in interceptions (2013) and part of a division, conference and Super Bowl champion squad, all at age 25.
Believe it or not, though, Sherman still hasn't hit his ceiling. Often, as on the game-winning pass breakup over Crabtree, Sherman's technique and positioning aren't perfect. He'll often use his height, length, short-area explosion and verticality to make a play even after a receiver has beaten him.
As Sherman matures as a cornerback and continues to hone his craft—remember, this is just his fifth season playing the position—he could become one of the best ever to play the game.
No matter how great Sherman becomes, as long as he's in the NFL, he'll be one of the league's best stories—and best quotes.
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