Richard Sherman looked into a camera moments after helping send the Seahawks to the Super Bowl two years ago and shouted, "I'm the best corner in the game." The moment was both a spontaneous, heat-of-the-moment outburst and also a years-in-the-making expression of confidence and bravado honed from a childhood spent studying one of the most influential athletes in history.
Sherman never met Muhammad Ali. The Seahawks cornerback was born years after Ali retired and more than a decade after Ali's most memorable fights. Yet Sherman has always felt a strong connection to Ali, the self-proclaimed "greatest of all time" who was more than able to live up to that title, which why Sherman was moved by the news of Ali's death Friday.
Sherman wasn't a boxer growing up, but having been introduced to Ali's fights—and more importantly, his interviews—by his father, Kevin, Sherman quickly found an athlete to emulate.
"It was just his demeanor, the way he carried himself, the things he said really resonated with me—'I'm the greatest, I said that before I knew I was,'" Sherman said Monday. "It was something that just made total sense to me. You speak it into existence, you manifest your own destiny and you don't let anybody tell you different. Even as a kid, I believed that you don't let anybody tell you no. My parents used to always encourage me to do it. As long as you can stand up for what you believe in and make it true, then do it. If you can back it up, you can say whatever you want. He was a guy who really embodied what it meant to be an athlete and to be somebody who knew where they were going.
"I found as many interviews, quotes, video clips as I could find. I tried to emulate how he carried himself, how articulate he was, how he interviewed, how sure of himself he was."
And let's get one thing out of the way before we go any further—Sherman in no way thinks he's Muhammad Ali, neither in athletic achievement nor impact on the world. But what Sherman was able to take from Ali was a willingness to speak his mind, whether that's to talk trash to an opponent or to speak on a far more serious topic like race. Sherman didn't just learn swagger from Ali; he learned what it was to be an intelligent, thought-provoking human being who days after that 2013 NFC championship game addressed those who were calling a Stanford-educated man with no criminal history a thug: "It seems like it's the accepted way of calling somebody the N-word nowadays… I know some 'thugs,' and they know I'm the farthest thing from a thug. I've fought that my whole life just coming from where I'm coming from. You hear Compton, you hear Watts, you hear cities like that, and you think 'Thug, he's a gangster.' Then you hear Stanford and they're like, 'Oh, that doesn't make sense, that's an oxymoron.' You fight it for so long, and to have it come back up and people start to use it again, it's frustrating."
"(Ali) showed me how to be genuine, to be willing to step away from the mainstream and be thoughtful and insightful," Sherman said. "Understanding the issues and not being afraid to give your opinion, right, wrong or indifferent, because you'll be criticized either way. Obviously there's no comparing anything I've done to what he did, because it's pebbles to a mountain. What he did, at the time he did it, is incomparable. What we're doing, the time, the landscape we're in, it's not even close."
Sherman faced his own obstacles growing up in Compton, but he also knows he didn't face some of the things Ali did growing up in a segregated South. Modern athletes haven't had to choose between their careers and war the way Ali did when he was drafted into the Army but chose to risk prison and his career as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
"That says a lot about his character and who he was," Sherman said. "He knew what he was doing was right. At the time, there was still segregation, there was still discrimination, it was a serious problem, so he wasn't going to go out there and fight for a country that wouldn't give him the right to use the same bathroom as other people, the right to drink from the same water fountain, the right to go out and live as a normal human being. At a time when a lot of people weren't willing to take those kinds of risks, he was, and that's what made him who he is, that's what made him a global icon, and not just an icon in the world of sports or boxing. He went out of his way to make an impact on the civil rights movement."
Why Ali meant so much to a generation of athletes who never saw him fight has less to do with his greatness in the ring than it does the way he demonstrated to athletes who came after him that it's OK to not just be great, but to go ahead and tell the world about it while you're at it.
"What stands out most is that he was willing to put himself out there, to make himself the most vulnerable," Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin said. "Some people called that a lack of humility the way he expressed himself, but in this game of life, you have to have confidence in yourself to be successful in whatever craft you put yourself into, and there are a lot of internal thoughts going on saying, 'Yeah, I want to be the greatest, I am the greatest. I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' But he was the first person to say that out loud. That's something to admire that he made himself vulnerable, he put himself out there as a target because ultimately he knew it would bring out the best in him. That's why he's the greatest of all time.
"He was so devout in his thoughts and his beliefs, that he's going to verbalize how he thinks, how he feels. It was no different with political issues or whatever was going on in the world, he was right there in the forefront because he wasn't afraid to speak his mind."
Sherman almost got a chance to meet Ali once after Ali's wife, Lonnie, invited Sherman to a charity event, but Ali was unable to attend due to illness. "I never got a chance to meet him," Sherman says, a tinge of regret in his voice. "That was the closest I got."
But had Sherman had a chance to meet one of his biggest influences, this is what he would have told Ali: "I would have said I appreciate him. I appreciate who he is, what he stands for. I appreciate him being who he was. I would have said, 'Thank you for paving the way for athletes to have a voice of their own and to be genuine, and to be able to speak up on the issues of today and step outside of sports to make a meaningful impact.'"