Back in the winter of 2011, Richard Sherman stood silently on the sideline of the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the recipient of the type of blunt verbal attack he has become known for giving.
Seconds before halftime, Sherman bit on a double move. At the break, Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, leading Sherman’s “North” team, found him and chewed him out: “That’s why you’ll never f—ing make it in this league.”
Sherman didn’t bark back. He didn’t point out that he recovered on that play and broke up Andy Dalton’s underthrown pass. He didn’t remind Lewis of his end zone interception earlier in the game. He didn’t explain that it wasn’t an actual game and “North” wasn’t his actual team. He just took it.
Lewis chuckles at the memory of Sherman and that game, though he said he wouldn’t have used those words with a player. “He was big, could run and very smart,” Lewis said. “But there were 20 seconds left in the half. You can’t do that.”
The coach’s point was a fair one: Jumping a route in that situation is the type of dumb play that will get you run out of the NFL. Lewis was trying to shock Sherman, then a fringe prospect, into seeing beyond his next move, seeing the entire board. He was trying to send the message that plays aren’t just isolated events, they exist in a broader context, a context that can be mined for clues, and a context that should alter your risk profile.
Lewis thought that a player who sees the entire board wouldn’t be dumb enough to be aggressive in that situation. But Sherman – a former wide receiver who understands offensive situations and concepts as well as most offensive coordinators – saw the entire board, and he saw the people behind the board too.
Sherman had been playing corner for only two years, and he knew that his rep going into this game was that he struggled with speed and might not cut it. He was only even at this game as an injury replacement after another cornerback got hurt. For the childhood math whiz, the calculation was simple: The chance to snag his second interception and the attention of potential employers was worth the risk of giving up a big play in an exhibition game.
“I needed to make plays,” Sherman remembered. “I was just trying to get noticed.”
Notoriety is no longer a concern. In the 10 seasons since that game, Sherman has been named first-team All-Pro three times and a Pro Bowler five. He is a Super Bowl champ (he played in three) and a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s an impressive career for any player, let alone a fifth-round draft pick. A career Sherman himself acknowledges may not have gone nearly this well had he started it on another team, surrounded by different people. Because Sherman knows something that we all should remember as we watch the draft, that the situation is as important as the player.
In what would prove to be the most accomplished defensive draft since the famed class of 1981, Sherman wasn’t ever considered one of the prized prospects. Recruited to play wide receiver at Stanford, Sherman led the Cardinal in receiving yards as a freshman and sophomore before a season-ending knee injury in 2008. But after he had surgery, Sherman said, Jim Harbaugh accused him of quitting on the team and moved him to defense the following season, where he played cornerback for co-coordinators Andy Buh and Ron Lynn.
With just two years of defensive stats on his resume, Sherman struggled to get on the radar of NFL decision-makers. A few months after the Senior Bowl, the defensive backs at the 2011 combine were split into two groups. Sherman was in the same group as Patrick Peterson, the consensus best cornerback prospect to enter the draft in years. Peterson had an ESPN scout grade of 97. Sherman’s grade was just 30. Three Shermans weren’t as good as one Peterson.
Sherman didn’t have any formal interview requests at the combine, though that wasn’t surprising – those tend to be deep dives attended by five or more coaches and front-office staff members, meant to grill potential high draft picks. Guys like Sherman tend to get interviewed on the informal night, when players hang out in the “train station”– a hotel ballroom that once was an Amtrak terminal – waiting for a coach to grab them for a chat. On his group’s informal interview night, Sherman stood in a train-themed conference room, watching coaches pull aside players in whom they were interested. “I didn’t get one interview,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have a meaningful interaction. “He just wanted to talk about life,” Sherman said of Kris Richard, then a young defensive assistant for the Seattle Seahawks, who struck up a conversation with Sherman. That short talk was the start of a bond that lasts to this day and a relationship that Sherman sees as foundational to his success in Seattle. “It had nothing to do with football,” said Richard, who is now the defensive backs coach for the New Orleans Saints. “We can teach you all that. We just want to know that you’re going to be willing to learn and willing to do the work and humble enough to take correction.”
This wasn’t some sort of sneaky recon mission for Richard, himself a 2002 Seahawks third-round pick. Though it would be easy for him to say now, Richard doesn’t claim to have seen something in Sherman that no one else could see, and he doesn’t remember that conversation having any impact on the Seahawks’ evaluation of Sherman as a prospect.
But Richard does remember that while Sherman was ESPN’s 38th-ranked cornerback, “we had him ranked 10th,” he said. “We loved how he covered the fade” – a route that a heavy press coverage team like the Seahawks would see often. “One play stands out in my mind,” Richard said. “Against UCLA, he broke up a go to a 6-foot-5 guy named [Nelson] Rosario.” It was evidence of Sherman’s comfort tracking the ball in the air. “He just flipped his head around, leaped, intercepted the ball so natural,” Richard remembered. “And it was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
Sherman was at least on the Seahawks’ radar, but they weren’t projecting him as a top-of-the-draft prospect. “People were kind of all over the place on him,” general manager John Schneider said. “But I had seen him play live at Arizona State [as a receiver], and you could just tell the swagger he had and the confidence he had.”
Nobody was – except for Sherman’s parents. “I told them I wasn’t going on the first day,” he said. “But they maxed out the credit cards renting rooms and flying people to Vegas to watch the draft.” On Day 1, there were about 40 people in a room in the Rio Hotel – reacting with disappointment after every name was announced. “I remember hearing them say ‘Aw’ after every pick,” Sherman said.
Day 2 came in the same room with fewer people, but more optimism. Sherman expected to get drafted in the second or third rounds. His agent had told him that the New England Patriots were deciding between him and Ras-I Dowling, a cornerback from Virginia. With the first pick of the second round, the Patriots selected Dowling. “Awww,” went Sherman’s shrinking contingent. His agent told him that the Baltimore Ravens were the only other team that had shown interest, but they had already used a first-round pick on Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith. His phone never rang.
When Day 3 arrived, just four people remained in the room with Sherman: his mom, dad, cousin and girlfriend. After 153 selections, his phone finally rang: “It was a 425 area code.” It was Schneider.
As his family loudly celebrated, Sherman left the room so he could hear Schneider welcome him to the team. Schneider passed the phone to head coach Pete Carroll, who talked to Sherman about press technique, before abruptly ending the call. “They had pick 156 too, so they were getting ready to make that pick,” Sherman said.
Sherman returned to his joyous family – but he wasn’t celebrating. “I was pissed,” he said. It had taken too long.
Sherman was joining a Seattle team that was being remade in the images of Carroll and Schneider, who both had started the year before. Schneider said that they were trying to build a “bully team” that ran the ball and played defense like the Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers rivalry. They had traded for Marshawn Lynch early in the 2010 season. Other than Lynch, who was entering his fifth season, Schneider and Carroll wanted to focus on young players and planned to build through the draft.
But they weren’t looking just for talent, or guys that fit their scheme. More importantly, they wanted guys who had shown the ability to persevere. “It was a conscious effort … when we got here,” Schneider said. In the 2011 draft, they asked one question of every potential pick: “What’s the adversity you’ve faced – what have you overcome? What is your grit level, basic rule?”
That led them to players such as Sherman, whose rise at Stanford interested Schneider, as well as players such as Walter Thurmond in 2010 and Doug Baldwin, who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2011. It even extended to the 2012 draft, when they took a flier on Russell Wilson in the third round.
“That’s Pete’s core philosophy,” Schneider said. “The fundamental foundation for our success is competition – having guys feel like they have a shot.” The players knew that once they stepped on the field, draft position and contract status meant nothing: “Every position was wide open.”
Schneider built the team, Carroll introduced the philosophy, but the culture is out of their hands. They can draft, sign, trade, yell, preach, coddle, but it stops there. The guys with offices have a great deal of power, but the guys with helmets have the control. Their habits are what develops the expected behaviors, the culture. Normally, coaches keep some seasoned vets around to show young guys the “right” way to do things. That wasn’t the case in Seattle. The roster was full of young, unproven players, clashing daily, earning each other’s respect. And holding each other accountable. Sometimes that made things tense, but it was always honest.
“You had to prove it every f—ing day,” said Baldwin, who went on to lead the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns as a rookie. “We had to fight. We would run guys out of camp.” Baldwin still has a scar on his face from a fight in practice with his college teammate Sherman in 2016. “The environment was hostile, but we were family.”
Sherman got a taste of that family atmosphere before he even arrived at camp. Because of the 2011 lockout, the workouts, OTAs and minicamps that would have introduced Sherman to his teammates and the team’s defensive scheme were off. It seemed like he was on his own.
Until Seahawks second-year cornerback Thurmond called and invited him to work out together. Sherman and Thurmond, a 2010 fourth-rounder out of Oregon, knew each other through gaming. “In college, we played Rainbow Six and Call of Duty together,” Thurmond said, along with other Oregon defensive backs Patrick Chung, T.J. Ward, Willie Glasper and Marvin Johnson.
Sherman would ride to West Covina, California, to run sand dunes, do drills and study. “We really had to get him up to speed with what we were trying to do defensively,” Thurmond said. Thurmond, who had been mostly a backup in his rookie season, understood that he and Sherman were after the same spot. But “iron sharpens iron,” he says now. “I wasn’t going to be one of those veteran guys that will keep information from you because I feel threatened. How are we going to win any games if that’s the mentality?”
Despite all of Sherman’s work, he was buried on the defensive depth chart. Not only was he behind veteran cornerbacks, but according to Schneider, “Byron Maxwell, the guy that we drafted two hours after him, was actually ahead of him, I would say, two or three weeks into camp.” Maxwell, a sixth-rounder out of Clemson, said, “We ran the same defense in college, so I kind of already knew what I was doing,” while Sherman was still playing catch-up.
“When he first showed up [at camp], I would say the first thing that stood out about him, was the hunger and thirst for knowledge,” Richard said. “The next thing was, he’s behind. He’s behind technically, right? He’s behind fundamentally. And he never blinked. Never counted numbers. Never complained. Just continued to absorb and to work and to be disciplined and to study.”
A few weeks into training camp, Maxwell suffered a high ankle sprain. When the season started, Sherman was exclusively a special teams guy until the injury bug bit starting cornerback Marcus Trufant. Thurmond replaced Trufant in the starting lineup, and Sherman was elevated to the nickel package where he would play outside corner. After Thurmond broke his leg in a Week 7 collision with Earl Thomas, Sherman was one of the last men standing. The following week he joined Kam Chancellor, Thomas and Brandon Browner in the starting lineup. “After that, it was pretty much over,” Schneider said.
In his rookie season, Sherman had four interceptions. He doubled that mark in 2012, which was good for second in the league. In 2013, he led the league in picks with another eight – on only 57 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
By then, the Legion of Boom had established itself as one of the best secondaries in history. In 2013, Seattle led the league in points allowed (231), yards allowed (4,378) and takeaways (39). The last team to lead the league in all three was the 1985 Chicago Bears. The Bears did it with all but four of their starting defenders drafted in the top 38 picks. The Seahawks were full of lower-rounders.
“That was the balance that we had in that room,” Thurmond said. “ ‘Cause everyone had chips on their shoulders. Even Earl, being the 14th overall pick – when you see him day in and day out at practice going 120%, it’s like, OK, it wasn’t just talk. He was actually out there and living it. And so again, it’s just kind of one of those things of just, respect for people and what they were bringing to the game and how they prepare for them.”
By 2017, when Sherman left Seattle, he had won a Super Bowl, lost one and cemented himself as one of the best players of his generation. It’s a remarkable story for a player whose first career goal, after being drafted 154th overall, was to get to “three and three,” he told me: the mark of three games in three seasons that makes NFL players eligible for pensions.
Ten years ago, on that Alabama sideline, Sherman wasn’t shaken by Lewis’ words, nor was he fueled by them. He wasn’t rocked by that experience, but he hasn’t forgotten it.
Sherman had already made peace with all the potential results of his decision before the play, and he felt sure that the attempt was worth it. And in the 10 years since, he has built a Hall of Fame career and outsize cultural presence rooted in the same conviction.
When he decided to be his own agent. When he debated Darrelle Revis on Twitter. When he criticized the decision that cost him his second Super Bowl. When he was at odds with Wilson and Carroll. When he yelled in the presence of reporter Erin Andrews. When he dared to trash-talk Tom Brady.
For most NFL followers, those incidents fit nicely into a preexisting archetype defined by impulsivity and arrogance. And, for Sherman, conviction always has been similar to self-confidence – a trait we laud in those who succeed, chide in those who don’t, without ever considering that often the only difference between those two groups is the outcome.
Results are context-dependent – a fact that is conveniently omitted from the hero’s journey story template we regularly apply to almost every great person in our society. And we aren’t any better at understanding context when it comes to tragic tales, either. It’s hard to separate ourselves from these reductionist frameworks, because facing the fact that one’s determination isn’t determinative would call for a reimagining of a fairer society.
Sherman’s NFL journey will end in Canton, Ohio, a fact that, after the first 10 years of his career, feels like it was preordained. But, does the journey end in Canton if it had started in New England? Or Baltimore? Or anywhere other than Seattle, where he helped to create one of history’s greatest defenses? Sherman believes he could have still had this kind of success, but he knows that it’s improbable to say the least.
Sherman knew all that as he was preparing to enter the league. Even then – before he was an NFL player, a Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl champion, a surefire Hall of Famer – Sherman had conviction in his methods, and he trusted that the results would follow. From the Senior Bowl sideline to the combine to a draft night that turned into a draft weekend as Sherman waited days for any team to call, he remained confident.
And 10 months later, in October 2011, injuries forced Sherman into his first NFL start. With 4:34 left in the third quarter, Sherman was in press coverage against A.J. Green, a player drafted 149 spots ahead of Sherman in that year’s draft. Green ran a go along the sideline, Sherman whipped his head around, located the ball, leaped and snatched his first career interception – on a pass thrown by Dalton, the player he faced in the Senior Bowl. After going down, Sherman sprang to his feet and strutted down the Bengals sideline – right past Lewis, the coach who told him he’d never make it.
He tossed the ball in their direction and skipped backward to his bench.