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With Richard Sherman, seeing is believing

Posted Mar 7, 2013

During three stops in his old neighborhood on Wednesday, Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman challenged students to set a goal and not be deterred from achieving it.

COMPTON, Calif.Richard Sherman’s goal – no, mission – to become an NFL player began early.

Like when he was a 6-year old.

“At 6 years old, I kind of locked it in,” Sherman said Wednesday. “That was it. At 6 years old, they told me, ‘Man, they pay football players to play the game.’ And I was playing on Pop Warner for free. I was like, ‘Wait. Wait! Wait.’

“I always believed that I was going to make it; without a shadow of a doubt, I was going to make it to the NFL. I didn’t know how, or when, or how long it was going to take. But I had no doubt that was going to make it. That’s kind of how you have to be.” 

And here he is, 18 years later, an All-Pro cornerback for the Seahawks after leading the NFL last season in passes defensed (24) and tying for second in interceptions (eight).

This probably shouldn’t have happened, not when you consider where Sherman’s journey began and the constant obstacles and temptations he had to overcome and elude along the way. And it was that message, that challenge – setting goals and not allowing yourself to be diverted or tempted – which Sherman brought to more than 500 students on Wednesday during a three-stop tour de force to promote Students With a Goal (SWAG).

Sherman’s return-to-his-roots day began at Dominguez High School, his alma mater, for a seniors-only assembly; included another assembly at Verbum Dei High School in Watts; and concluded with another speech and Q&A session at the Brotherhood Crusade.

At each stop, Sherman delivered his message – or a variation on the theme. At each stop, the message was received, the effort respected.

“I thought what Richard had to say was very meaningful. I appreciate the time he donated to us and the organization,” Eric Bratton, a 17-year-old senior at View Park Prep, said after Sherman had addressed 45 students at the Brotherhood Crusade.

Bratton, who was cradling a football that Sherman had autographed, then smiled as he added, “I hope he gets to the Super Bowl.”

To Kalan Montgomery, a cornerback for the Dominguez High Dons last season who’s heading to San Diego State University in the fall, the best thing about his association with Sherman is that it’s not a one-day deal. It’s a one-on-one relationship.

“Richard is a real inspiration,” Montgomery said after Sherman had addressed the assembly, signed autographs and posed for pictures. “It makes me feel like if I’m lucky enough to make it to the NFL that I want to come back and just do a little more, because he always talks about being a better person.

“For me, there’s no better competition than somebody you look up to. I feel with him coming back all the time, I can too – if I make it – and help out.”

Sherman isn’t that much older than the senior football players at Dominguez, but he’s become a role model and big-brother figure because he takes the time to include them in his life.

“He’s always giving me good information,” Montgomery said. “If I need something, I can ask him. It’s not a problem. If I need help with something, I can call him. It’s not a problem. He’s always there. It’s never a problem. It’s never ‘No’ with him. It’s not even in his vocabulary.

“It’s just a blessing to have somebody like him in my life, in our lives. And I really appreciate it a lot.”

Sherman feels it’s his place – his turn, his obligation – to give back. Whether it’s time, advice, even equipment, he wants to be there for these students that now are where he once was.

“They know I’m tangible, they know I’m here,” Sherman said. “I’m not hard to find, I’m not hard to reach. Any chance I can get to give back – whether it be cleats, helmets or just someone to speak – anything I can do to help I try to get done. Because without this place, I don’t think I’d be the man or the player I am today.

“When you feel like you owe people things – in the same sense with your family and your parents – you want to give and reward them or repay them for everything they’ve done for you.”

Speaking of cleats, Sherman saw a player on one of his visits lifting weights while wearing them. For that particular player, and others as well, it comes down to having cleats to wear on the grass fields that Dons play and practice on, or tennis shoes to workout in. But not both.

“Seeing that, that’s when you want to give back,” Sherman said. “You want to find a way to get shoes on his feet so he can separate himself from weight room to the field. You can’t be in there lifting with cleats on, it’s just not safe.

“There are kids out there just trying to find a way. They don’t have much and they’re working with what they have. You’ve got to appreciate that. But also, in my heart of hearts, I want to make a better situation for them.”

Like the one Sherman finds himself in. But how did this happen, against the longest of odds and that tunnel of diversions that could have derailed the dream that began when he was 6?

To understand where Sherman is, it helps to understand where he came from, and some of the obstacles he turned into motivation.

He was asked at each stop Wednesday what his biggest source of motivation had been, and the answer was the same: Family – especially his parents, Beverly and Kevin; and older brother, Branton.

His mother said Richard’s competitive edge, which he continues to hone to the razor-sharp level, began when her younger son was trying to keep up with his older brother.

“Richard has always been very determined and a go-getter,” Beverly Sherman said. “He’s always been motivated. He couldn’t initially play when his brother started playing, but that kind of actually started this chip on his shoulder. He got a little irritated that they wouldn’t let him play.”

Asked about that, Sherman smiled and offered, “There might be something to that. He’s been the big brother for a long time. I’m the bigger brother now. So things have changed. But there’s something to that. He wouldn’t let me play with them. And then I got better. And then I got better. And then I got better. Now, he can’t play with me. So there. But I’m sure there’s something in there.”

Once he reached high school, Richard Sherman also found motivation from Keith Donerson, the football coach at Dominguez. The 6-foot-3 Sherman might be the poster player for the Dons’ program, but Donerson has had 16 other defensive backs play in the Pac-12 – including Aaron Hester at UCLA and Brandon Beaver at the University of Washington; while Seahawks safety Jeron Johnson went to Boise State out of Dominguez High.

“I tell the kids stories about Richard all the time,” Donerson said. “But like I tell the kids that leave and are successful, ‘It’s just a story. But then you come back, it’s true. They can actually see you, touch you and ask you questions.’ So it helps the kids a lot.”

Offered Branton Sherman, “That’s how it is out here. Most of the children, they’re ‘show me.’ They want to see it in person. So it’s a beautiful thing that Richard can come back and show them that this is real and you can do this thing.”

As for those obstacles that became motivation, it happened when Pete Carroll came to Dominguez to recruit Sherman when the Seahawks’ coach was at the University of Southern California.

“Richard only had cleats and they wanted him to run his 40 (yard dash) on the track,” Donerson said. “So he took off his shoes and ran barefoot.”

Reminded of the day, the ever-present smile Sherman was wearing on this day disappeared momentarily.

“And I didn’t run well. That was a bad day,” he said, before adding through a smile, “We’ve come a long way.”

Then there was the decision to attend Stanford University, rather than USC. Sherman wanted to prove that a kid from Compton could not only get into the prestigious institution but also graduate and play football. Having a 4.2 grade point average and a 1,400 test score didn’t hurt. But part of that process involved writing an essay. Sherman opted for his experience with the mentally and physically disabled kids his mother works with through California Social Services.

“In high school, we had to do 100 community-service hours. I did all mine there,” he said. “I watched one kid, he was like 26, but he had the mental capacity of a 9 year old. He looked like a grown man, but talked like a child. Some people can’t get better. Some people will always be 9 years old. And some people can get better. I watched him get better. I helped him get better.

“That’s what I wrote about in my Stanford essay.”

So off to Stanford the kid from Compton went. He graduated, with a degree in communications – his Plan B, as he called it, in case football didn’t work out. He played football for the Cardinal, but as a wide receiver and then a cornerback – a situation which left him available in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft for the Seahawks, and continues to maintain the chip on his shoulder.

As a rookie, Sherman was wondering if he’d even make the 53-man roster. He did, of course, but didn’t get into the lineup on the left side until Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond were lost to injuries. Sherman didn’t just step in, he stepped up. The other three members of the secondary – free safety Earl Thomas, strong safety Kam Chancellor and right cornerback Brandon Browner – played in the Pro Bowl that season. But by season’s end, it was Sherman who was regarded as the team’s best defensive back by scouts from other teams.

Last season, Sherman didn’t just pick up where he left off; he picked up his already considerable game.

“He had a phenomenal year. He really had a breakout year,” Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said at the Pro Bowl last month. “So it is surprising that he’s not here. But I know he’ll have many more moving forward.”

While Sherman’s rapid ascent to the top of his profession, and position, has surprised some, don’t count his mother and brother among them.

“Has this surprised me? No, because of his determination to be someone in life,” Beverly Sherman said. “Richard wanted to be an example. So this is just a blessing, and I’m very proud of him because he’s putting the word out there.”

Offered Branton Sherman, “Honestly, Richard hasn’t surprised me because he’s had this vision since a child. He would always say he was going to do miraculous things. I would be like, ‘Um, let’s see it.’ He would do at least half of it, and half of it would still be amazing. So it doesn’t surprise me. But that this moment is really here, it’s still surreal.”

That’s why Richard Sherman was a great get as the first spokesperson for SWAG. He has been where the students he talked to on Wednesday are. He is proof that keeping a fine focus on the task at hand, as well as the long-range dream, does pay off.

“I want these kids to know that there’s a big world out there and that goals can be achieved and it really doesn’t matter where you come from or what situation you started from,” Sherman said. “Here, you start from a city where nobody really gives you a chance. Everybody goes for the statistics – this amount of people go to jail or are murdered.

“People don’t try to pull out positives. I’m trying to show them there are positive sides to the city. There are some building blocks here. There’s a lot more to it. There’s a lot more to them than they even know. And I want them to know they can achieve anything they put their mind to.”

And Sherman didn’t limit his message to the football players or even athletes.

“The message transcends sports. It transcends even education,” he said. “Because they can be an artist if they want to. They go out and come up with some biomolecular discovery. Just change the world. That’s really what my message was.”

As Sherman’s whirlwind day was winding down, SWAG founder and president Romel Tune was the one who said it all.

“This is what NFL players should be doing,” he said. “They should be giving back.”

And going back to where it all started for them.