NEW YORK — Richard Sherman’s story is so compelling it makes the Super Bowl game seem like a flimsy subplot. Amid this huge cultural spectacle with all the plastic sponsor products and stock characters, the Byronic heroes and bug-eyed monsters, Sherman’s personality stands out as tangled and uneven, a real person committing real acts. Some of them mistakes.
At times the narratives in the buildup to a Super Bowl can seem so pat they summon Fred MacMurray’s wry summary of the movies he made with Barbara Stanwyck in the 1940s: “Once I sent her to jail; once I shot her; once I left her for another woman; and once I sent her over a waterfall.”
Sherman interrupts the tendency to drift into cliches and templates about who champions and losers are supposed to be. He has immeasurably complicated matters this week by refusing to adopt an easy identity. The Seattle Seahawks cornerback, whom the behavior-nuns labeled a “thug” for his 20-second shouting fit on national television, has plunged the NFL into a morality play in which people fall victim to their prejudices, only to be rescued by, well, him.
All week, Sherman has exhibited a combination of self-possession and fierce intelligence that erases every expectation and conjures a new kind of rooting interest. He lightly shows off a Stanford University education yet also invokes his bullet-strafed youth in Compton and Watts in California, where his father is a garbage man and his mother teaches disabled children. With Sherman, severity and charm intertwine, and so do keen-mindedness and brute strength and extraterrestrial good looks. He’s got arms like boa constrictors, and a near-photographic memory.
“I’m just a guy who goes out there and puts his life into his work,” he says.
Sherman’s 20-second rant to Erin Andrews after the NFC championship game opened a dialogue about imagery and stereotyping on which he has had the last word. He peeled back the niceties of “thug” and said aloud what was sensed: that it was just a cloak for the n-word. On the Web site and Facebook pages of his youth foundation, Blanket Coverage, some people didn’t even bother with the euphemism, peppering him with racist messages. His friend and foundation director, Shaun Guerrero, spent days writing back to the message posters. “We replied to those people in very tactful ways,” he says. “We said, ‘You realize you’re writing this to someone you’ve never met and on a charity page for children?’ ”
But the truth was that Sherman wasn’t happy with himself, either. He came to the Super Bowl knowing he had some repair work to do for his diatribe, in which he called Michael Crabtree a “sorry receiver” and “mediocre” and howled he was the best corner in the league. He said at Media Day, “I just regretted attacking a man. . . . You never want to talk down to a man to build yourself up and things like that.”
It wasn’t the first time he taunted or brayed. He once asked Tom Brady sarcastically after a loss, “You mad, bro?” and trash-talked Trent Williams into punching him following the Seahawks’ playoff win over the Redskins last season. Earlier this season he lashed out at commentator Skip Bayless, saying, “I’m better at life than you are.”
If Sherman was painted with a broad brush by his critics, “Sometimes I make it easy for them,” he admitted.
The question remains why Sherman felt the need to scream. One of Sherman’s most interesting reflections this week came when he tried to puzzle that out. He resisted the default excuse that he had reverted to Compton and its hard asphalt vowels. His parents, he stressed, had “the ability to look past the negative. Watts and Compton, they’re not the best neighborhoods, but they never made us feel that way about it.”
He was an A student, second in his class at Dominguez High School who chose Stanford over USC specifically because he wanted the “culture shock” and the social and intellectual flexibility he knew it would give him.
According to Guerrero, Sherman has a tendency to use the word “mediocre” a lot, and when he does he is generally shouting down all the forces that can conspire against a ambitious young athlete, ruin his will, defeat his attempt at self-fashioning. Sherman’s foundation provides decent clothing, gear, textbooks, etc., to kids from poor urban schools, aiming to bolster their self-confidence and give them vision.
“The way Richard grew up in Compton, he has a saying that ‘mediocre is the arch-enemy of greatness,’ ” Guerrero said. “If you came from Richard’s neighborhood, mediocre would have been gang violence, drugs, carrying a certain attitude. Not making it.”
But mainly the answer to Sherman’s shouting lies in the obvious fact that he plays in the NFL, not in a chamber orchestra. The shouting is partly a warming-down exercise for a man who plays a position of staggering violence. Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor has observed that defenders go to “a dark place.” Maybe what the screaming really expressed was the tremendous expenditure of energy it takes for Sherman to survive in the NFL.
“I think it does help to have a certain attitude and a certain mind-set about your opponent, especially playing defender and playing corner and being out there on an island,” Sherman said. “Kam Chancellor calls it ‘the dark place,’ and he has a really dark place where he goes, and I don’t really want to go there. I go somewhere where there’s a lot of animosity, there’s a lot of frustration, there’s a lot of focus . . . and I pull from that place when I need to.”
Sherman will never be the perfect representation of virtue some would like him to be. The tension between his erudite and competitive sides likely will result in a long public struggle, and he seems resigned to that, even proud of it. He also seems content to be regarded as an ordinary being with the same flaws as the rest of us, who, like all of us, fears failure. Who may also choke — and gloat — or be controversial. Or not.
“I’m going to be myself every time — good, bad or indifferent — and it’s not always going to be entertaining. Sometimes I’m going to be intellectual. Sometimes I’m going to use words that people have to look up in the dictionary.”
Above all, Sherman will resist single labels. If you want to call him something, call him “a pragmatist,” he says. Or “a philanthropist.” Or a football player. Out of all these fragments, the man will cohere.
His friend Guerrero has one more word for him.
“Richard is a mirror,” he says. “That’s the best way to say it. He will reflect exactly what you put out. You put out love and respect, and he will put it out. You come in trying to disrespect him, he will put that out. The secret for the Denver Broncos is to be really nice to him. If I’m the Denver Broncos, I’d send him some bubble gum and press clippings of how awesome he is. Send him some cookies.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.