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Smacktalk poet Richard Sherman delights in getting on others' nerves

Photo: Robert Beck/SI

Richard Sherman and the Seahawks will face off against the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The story below appeared in the July 29, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. You can subscribe to SI here and purchase the tablet edition here.

Richard Sherman's house is so quiet that you can hear kids playing in the cul-de-sac, the birds chirping in the pines, the charcoal crackling on the Weber. A fish tank gurgles and a flat screen hums. It is one of those endless summer days in the Seattle suburbs, the sun refusing to set before 9 p.m., Sherman grilling enough baby back ribs, chicken breasts and tri-tip to feed a good chunk of CenturyLink Field's 67,000 fans. Sitting at a picnic table on the wooden deck in his backyard, hidden by plumes of smoke, the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback is admiring a picture on his iPhone: two deer that he recently spotted in the forest flanking his property. The iPhone screen is cracked in three places, the result of a fumble one week earlier on Lake Chelan in north central Washington, where Sherman vacations with Seattle's other defensive backs, whiling away the hours on a pontoon boat. He savors tranquil moments, perhaps because they are so few.

MORE COVERAGE: Sherman explains postgame eruption | Watch it | Previewing Super Bowl

Sherman tears open a pack of Fruit Gushers—a kids' snack, though he has no kids—and the syrupy taste transports him from the serenity of summer to the bedlam of fall. See, Sherman gobbles Gushers every Sunday morning during the season, followed by a shower in the dark, followed by a game of catch with Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin. "Time to put on a show," Sherman announces, and Baldwin nods in agreement.

As training camp kicks off, odds are high that the next Super Bowl winner will come from the meat mincer that is the NFC West, a division defined by the Seahawks' and the 49ers' biannual battle royale. And Sherman is the face—or, perhaps more appropriately, the voice—of the NFL's most rollicking rivalry. "I'm not the type to let a sleeping giant lie," he crows. "I wake up the giant, slap him around, make him mad and beat him to the ground. I talk a big game because I carry a big stick."

Judging by sound bites, Twitter battles and disputed drug tests, the 25-year-old Sherman is a dreadlocked motormouth from Compton, Calif., with a fighter's instincts for promotion and confrontation. He unleashes freestyle raps in the locker room. He dances on the sideline. When receivers line up across from him, he studies their splits and broadcasts the routes they're about to run, applauding excitedly. "You want this noise?" When Sherman hollers, words come so quickly that his tongue can barely keep up. "You asked for this noise!" He begs quarterbacks to throw in his direction—"I'm just your friendly DB," he tells them. "Don't be scared to come my way." When they do, he eyes their coaches on the sideline and circles the ear hole on his helmet, as if wondering why anybody would be so deranged as to take him seriously. He is the rare player who has provoked the ire of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who has taunted Tom Brady, who has been punched by an opponent while congratulating him on a good game. (That would be 6'5", 325-pound Redskins left tackle Trent Williams.) "I used to tell him to quiet down," says Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. "Then I saw the results."

Sherman's brand of defense is not so different from his style of oratory. He stands 6'3", 195 pounds, with a 32-inch wingspan, arms that he unfurls to lasso receivers before they release. By Sherman's estimation, most NFL corners employ press coverage on two or three plays per game. He uses it on about 50, backing off only to bait quarterbacks, a strategy that yielded eight interceptions last year and 12 total in his first two pro seasons. Demonstrating this rugged technique, Sherman drops into his stance and instructs a 5'9", 150-pound reporter to run a slant through his living room. "A lot of corners will back up and give you room to move," Sherman says, planting a forearm in the reporter's neck. "Seahawks corners don't back up. We don't give you room. We stay in your face all day long."

Such is the blustery persona that he's concocted—in your face, all day long—which plays well on the Internet and on the sports talk shows, with footage of Sherman riding his personal watercraft to watch rookie camp at the Seahawks' Lake Washington facility, or quizzing fans on Bourbon Street about whether he's better than Darrelle Revis. The image of the showboat, the braggart, the outlaw, has helped make him the most famous fifth-round draft pick in the league. Like any caricature, though, it's based only partly on reality.

In the stillness of his Seattle yard, Sherman is giving the one speech he couldn't deliver: "I'm an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time, You're not from here. And that's the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you're like me, people think you're weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren't going where you're going. I know the jock stereotype—cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it."

Sherman had hoped to say those words seven years ago, on the day he graduated from Dominguez High, but only the valedictorian got to speak. Instead, he sat silently in a folding chair on the football field—his definition of corporal punishment—because obviously he did not finish first in his class. No, he actually finished second, his 4.2 GPA falling short by less than a tenth of a point. "That still hurts," Sherman moans, shaking his dreads.

*****

He never looked up to the guys who talked trash, but he idolized one who collected it. His father, Kevin, kept his garbage truck parked in front of the Shermans' garage, just outside Richard's window, and every day at 3:45 a.m., Richard would awake to the thrumming engine, his dad embarking on another post route through South L.A., from 120th Street to the ocean. Richard respected that truck—how the tentacles lifted cans into the air and dumped their contents into the back—because it meant that his dad didn't have to hand load anymore. Richard sometimes went to work with his father, but more often he joined his mother, Beverly, a senior clerk for California Children's Services. There, at the rehabilitation center next to her office in Downey, he spent summer days completing math problems and building block towers with kids suffering from muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy.

Decades earlier, Kevin had been desperate for acceptance after a go-kart explosion left him blind in his right eye at 14, so he joined a gang in high school. Later, he showed Richard the bullet wounds on his body. "I couldn't let the same thing happen to him," Kevin says. Richard and brother Branton, three years his elder, were not allowed to wear the Bloods' red. They could wear the Crips' blue, but only if paired with a neutral color like green. Lakers hats were O.K., but only Lakers, since everybody in L.A. claimed that team.

Kevin's shift stretched from 4 a.m. to noon, so he could always coach Richard's Pop Warner team at Ted Watkins Park, even though the child had seemed more comfortable as the mascot for his brother's teams. So lean was Richard that he needed sand packets in his uniform to make weight, and he repeatedly threatened to quit because he was terrified of contact. Kevin once grew so frustrated with his squeamish son that he picked him up in the middle of a tackling drill and tossed him like a hay bale. "I survived," says Richard. "And I was fearless after that."

Branton riled him up for games, fabricating stories about opposing players who allegedly insulted him. "That guy doesn't think I'm any good?" the younger Sherman brother would ask. "Then I'll get a pick, a fumble and score 10 touchdowns."

Meanwhile, Kevin built what might have been the biggest house in Watts: two stories with five bedrooms and four baths, surrounded by modest bungalows. In these early years, it was not uncommon for 20 of Richard's teammates to spend the night—the players upstairs, the cheerleaders down, and Beverly, known as Auntie by the neighborhood kids, patrolling the staircase in between.

It was Beverly who started to pay Richard $5 for every A on his report card, $3 for every B. At first he just liked the pocket money, but around 12 he saw a documentary about Muhammad Ali, and then he started to recognize what a potent brew knowledge and confidence could be. "[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world," Sherman recalls. "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."

As a freshman receiver at Dominguez, Sherman would get body-slammed by upperclassmen and hop up hollering, "I don't even know why you're out here. You're sorry. You can't stick me." Coaches didn't know whether to yell or to laugh. Ali was an influence, but so were the gritty wordsmiths who emerged from South L.A. to lay the sound track of Sherman's youth. He met Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg and Warren G. Dre sponsored one of Branton's youth football teams, and the Sherman boys once swam in his pool. "Richard never shut up," says Keith Donerson, Sherman's high school coach. "The way he talks, it's really fast and can be kind of intimidating. We'd go back and forth all the time, but when I tried to muzzle him, he went in the tank."

Donerson ran a double wing-T offense, so technically Sherman was a tight end, lining up outside and pleading for the ball like a mini Terrell Owens. He also started at cornerback, most memorably in a state semifinal game against Palos Verdes Peninsula High when he smothered a receiver by the name of Nate Carroll. Witnesses remember Carroll's father, then the head coach at nearby USC, screaming at officials from the sideline, demanding a flag for excessive contact. "Oh, Pete was so pissed," Sherman recalls.

Sherman squawked at teammates as much as opponents, but not with the standard material. He was an academic snob who saved his most biting remarks for those who ditched classes or failed exams. "Man, I'm going to love coming back from college and watching you guys at the J.C.," he'd bark. According to Donerson, eight players from Sherman's graduating class earned scholarships to Division I schools, several of whom had walked into the coach's office at one point or another to ask, "How do I get into college? Because if I don't, Sherm is never going to let me hear the end of it."

Sherman remembers one of his first scholarship offers coming from USC, when the Trojans were in the midst of their 34-game winning streak, back when Carroll could have been elected mayor of Compton. The first time the coach visited Sherman at Dominguez, Carroll had to wait 2½ hours in the football offices because his recruit had refused to duck out of an advanced placement course. "My son didn't win salutatorian for nothin'," says Beverly. "Petey had to wait."

Carroll had viewed Sherman as the prototypical corner for his bump-and-run defense—long and physical—but Sherman instead chose to play receiver for a Pac-10 also-ran. "I wanted to make a statement," says Sherman. "It was weird. It didn't sound right. But I had to prove it was possible: Compton to Stanford."

*****

Sherman was a schoolboy paradox: a football star, a class clown and a self-described nerd. "It took 45 minutes for him to walk across that Dominguez campus," says Wayne Moses, the running backs coach at Army who eight years ago recruited Sherman to Stanford. "He talked to everybody." When Sherman committed to the Cardinal, Dominguez teachers rejoiced, but family members weren't sold. "Bro, I'm not too fond of that idea," said Branton, then a receiver at Montana State. "You should go to SC."

Kevin worried too, about culture shock in Palo Alto, but Stanford coaches found a way to ease the transition, making Sherman the rare incoming freshman football player to enroll in the summer. "I was with kids from prestigious private schools, and they were drawing comparisons between Plato and Aristotle," says Sherman. "A lot went over my head. I hadn't even read The Iliad yet. I had to check out all these books just so I could know what everybody was talking about."

While Sherman led Stanford with 34 catches as a freshman, in 2006, the Cardinal went 1-11, and shortly thereafter hired Harbaugh. "I met him in his office, and he was full of energy," Sherman recalls. "He was so fiery. I think I was his favorite guy. I don't know why that changed. But it did."

Through the first eight games of 2007, Sherman was Stanford's leading receiver, with 36 catches for 635 yards. But in the ninth game, against Washington, he caught just two passes for 11 yards and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct while covering a punt. Senior receiver Evan Moore challenged Sherman on the sideline to control his emotions, prompting a shoving match, and Harbaugh suspended Sherman for the following game. He caught just one pass for five yards the remainder of the season. "He and Harbaugh clashed more than once," says Kevin.

"You learn to harness some things in college—intensity, competitiveness—and Richard did a good job of that," says Harbaugh. "I have long and good memories of when we were together. With coaches and players, if you end up being friends, that's great. But it's far more important to me personally that we took care of his future."

Sherman redshirted 2008 because of a left-knee injury, fell down the depth chart and called home, wondering if he should transfer. "You're going to leave Stanford for some rinky-dink school just because you want to play football and don't get along with some coach?" Beverly asked, incredulous. "No. You go make it happen."

Harbaugh was in charge of the offense but delegated defensive duties, so Sherman texted the coach and asked to switch to cornerback, the position Carroll thought he should have been playing all along. "That call saved him," Kevin says, "because Richard didn't have to deal with Harbaugh anymore. They were out of each other's hair." In the winter of 2009, reporters asked Harbaugh about Sherman's new position. His response: "Don't know if he'll be able to beat anybody out over there or not."

Harbaugh and Carroll were just beginning their West Coast feud—that November, after Harbaugh tried a two-point conversion late in a 55--21 trouncing of the Trojans, Carroll unforgettably asked, "What's your deal?"—and Stanford defensive coordinator Ron Lynn sat smack in the middle of it. Having previously served under Carroll in the NFL with the Patriots, he was now working for Harbaugh, installing the same bump-and-run system that he'd employed with Carroll. He gave Sherman training tape of other rangy cornerbacks, many of whom Carroll had tutored, such as New England's Steve Israel. "On offense Richard was becoming problematic—he wasn't doing what he wanted to do or needed to," says Lynn. "He had come to the end of his rope, the end of the line, and he was about at the abyss. He knew this was his last shot. I told him, 'You may never play football again, but your chances will be greatly enhanced if you keep your mouth closed until you know what's going on.' "

Lynn saw in Sherman what Donerson had: a player fueled by the sound of his own voice, but occasionally distracted by it. You can't silence him ("That's like taking the spear from a hunter," Sherman says), but you also can't let him turn the field into the Improv. "Leave enough oxygen for everybody else," Lynn advised.

Sherman started at corner his final two years in Palo Alto, applying the knowledge that he'd gained as a receiver. "He's able to look at formations and tell you what's going to happen," says Doug Baldwin, who was a teammate of Sherman's at Stanford before Seattle. "If a receiver has an inside edge split or an outside edge split, he can determine what type of route it will be. He reads everything and does it fast."

Sherman blended in at Stanford after all, earning a degree in communications in June 2010. Meanwhile, six of his high school teammates graduated from major colleges around the same time. "He was helping those guys all the way through," says Donerson. "He was calling them, texting them—reminding them what they needed to do." Sherman mourns one former teammate who didn't make it. "He was about to enroll at Cal State--Dominguez Hills," he says. "We had the paperwork in. We had the financial aid set. He was right there." In May '07, Marcus (Scooby) Peters was shot and killed outside an apartment complex in Long Beach—so says the newspaper article hanging outside Sherman's bedroom at his parents' new home.

Beverly and Kevin now live in a well-landscaped community in Compton, but she still works for Children's Services and he still drives his truck every morning at 4 a.m., a Seahawks sticker plastered across his helmet. Their home is wallpapered with pictures of their children: Richard, Branton and 22-year-old Kristyna, who runs a hair salon out of the Shermans' garage. (Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice is a client.) The first photo you see, upon opening the front door, is of Richard's commencement ceremony at Stanford.

Across the street lives an English teacher from Dominguez named Michelle Woods who charters a bus every spring break for Dominguez students to visit colleges throughout California. "Most of them think Cal State is their only option," she says. When Sherman was at Stanford, he made sure the bus swung by Palo Alto, and he led the tours himself. "I'm here; you can be too," he told the group every year as he advised them on classes and grants.

Sherman believed he was ready to move on to the NFL in 2011, but scouts weren't as sure. He watched 153 players get chosen before him while he stewed in a suite at the Rio in Las Vegas for what was supposed to be his draft party. Two years later Sherman swears he can recite the names of every defensive back picked ahead of him. He is forever bitter over where he was drafted but eternally grateful for where he landed. Carroll, 16 months into his tenure as the Seahawks' head coach, called him up in that Rio suite, then asked for Auntie. "We have history," he told her.

Today, Seattle's roster is crowded with players Carroll failed to sign (or failed to beat) when he was at USC. Sherman fits both categories. A year after the Seahawks picked him, he persuaded the club to add Baldwin as an undrafted free agent. By then, Harbaugh was in San Francisco, but the Stanford pipeline remained flowing to Seattle.

"How do they feel about [Harbaugh]?" Kevin asks. "It's a passionate hate."

*****

One night last summer, Sherman was relaxing at a club called Munchbar when Seattle's patron saint of smack approached him. "I see what you're doing out there," said former Sonics point guard Gary Payton. "I like it."

When Sherman arrived in Seattle back in 2011, friends warned him he was headed to "South Alaska" and predicted that nobody would ever talk about the Seahawks. "We're not getting ignored," Sherman replied. "There's going to be noise made." Since then, he has labeled Harbaugh "a bully," called Falcons Pro Bowl receiver Roddy White "an easy matchup" and urged Revis on Twitter to "Get ya picks up!" After a win over the Patriots last October, while waiting for a table at P.F. Chang's in Seattle, Sherman retweeted a picture of himself yapping at Brady, along with the caption, U MAD, BRO? Sherman didn't write the soon-to-be-meme, but his endorsement spawned a cottage industry of T-shirts, some of which outfit his family today.

More alarming, Sherman tested positive last November for performance-enhancing drugs—allegedly the amphetamine Adderall. The NFL overturned a subsequent four-game suspension when the cornerback successfully argued that his urine sample was contaminated upon collection. "All they did was throw a gasoline station on my fire," says Sherman, still insisting he did not take the drug.

With Brandon Browner, who is 6'4", 221 pounds—and who has also failed a drug test, making that five Seahawks who have done so in the past two years—Sherman makes up the biggest cornerback tandem in the NFL. Browner is the more physical of the pair, but what separates Sherman, according to Seattle safety Earl Thomas, is his "genius." Sherman has a near-photographic memory—he can rattle off the entire wireless code in his house, a nonsensical jumble of 18 letters and numbers. The little he can't remember, he stores for safekeeping: He takes detailed notes on his iPad about every opposing receiver. When he's about to face one, he watches the team's previous 12 games, asking himself a series of questions. Is the quarterback lobbing it up or darting it in? Is the ball going over the front shoulder or the back? Is the receiver leaning inside or out? Is he rising up or slowing down and beating a drum with his hands? Sherman cracks codes.

"If I'm studying tape and I see a play with two receivers, and one runs a dig while the other runs a hitch inside, and the quarterback throws to the dig, I'll remember how that looks," he says. "If I see that formation on third-and-10, with the same splits, I know what's coming. That's why I ask quarterbacks to throw me the ball. I know the routes. I'm almost cheating. Take Matt Ryan from Atlanta: He's a great quarterback with two great receivers. But he puts the ball in certain places. I won't tell you where—but I go to those places."

Last August in training camp, the Seahawks ran a play in which Sherman found himself matched up against an offensive tackle, eligible as a third tight end. "If you ever see this look," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told him, "it's an automatic blitz." Three months passed before the Seahawks met the Jets on Nov. 11; in the fourth quarter of that game, trailing 21--7, New York summoned tackle Jason Smith to line up as a third tight end. Sherman hadn't blitzed all season, but he flashed back to camp and promptly bulldozed quarterback Mark Sanchez for a sack and a fumble, which teammate Jason Jones recovered, and which Sidney Rice turned into a game-sealing touchdown six plays later. "I've been around people who are really cocky, and they usually think they have all the answers," says Bradley, now the Jaguars' coach. "Richard Sherman isn't like that at all. He wants to learn."

*****

On Sherman's first day as a Seahawk, Bradley had told his new charge, "A commitment must be made, a plan must be laid, a price must be paid." Sherman appreciated the poetry—made, laid, paid—and still mutters the words to himself, like a mantra. "Things I do probably look like madness, like I'm totally out of control, but there's always a plan," he says. "It's part of a greater scheme to get some eyes, to grow the market, to grow Seattle. Now people are paying attention, and they'll probably be disappointed this year because I will be a lot more reserved." Time will tell if such restraint is possible.

Sherman claims to yap only 10 or so plays per game, which sounds like a dramatic understatement until the best receiver in the NFC West confirms it. "He really doesn't talk to me," says the Cardinals' seven-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald. "But I don't talk to him, either."

Perhaps there lies the secret to shutting up Sherman. "If you don't say anything, he doesn't say anything," explains Baldwin. "If you do, all hell breaks loose." Sherman's admiration for Fitzgerald runs so deep that on his mantel he keeps a framed picture of himself defending the Arizona dynamo. In it, Chancellor is rushing over for an interception. "Look at that," Sherman gripes. "All the work I did, and Kam steals my freakin' pick."

Thievery aside, the Seattle secondary, which trademarked the nickname Legion of Boom, remains tight. They've taken five vacations together, and the Boom Brothers—Sherman, Browner, Chancellor and Thomas—lay customized rugs in front of their lockers emblazoned with their four jersey numbers. "We all come from the same background, hearing we couldn't make it," says Chancellor, who was supposedly too big (6'3", 232) to play safety. Thomas was too small (5'10", 202). Browner spent four years in the Canadian Football League.

Then there's Sherman, the fifth-rounder from Compton, the kind of player you adore if he's on your team—and despise if he's not. His charity softball game, held in early July at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium, drew 7,000 fans. Sherman's handpicked umpire was Lance Easley, the former replacement referee who made the dubious touchdown call last season that gave Sherman's Seahawks a victory over the Packers. At a party the night before the game the pair chatted like old pals about why Green Bay cornerback Tim Jennings went for the interception on that fateful play. "I'd have just batted the thing down," Sherman declared to Easley's delight.

Even Fitzgerald showed up, chatting with Sherman's family. "When you get to know him," Fitzgerald says, "you see his fiber."

Sherman's intellect is among the most powerful forces in the NFL. He can use it to clog airwaves (and deepen the stereotypes he was so eager to quash), or to open minds. Football players at Dominguez High reminisce about the time last spring that Sherman returned and gathered the team in the weight room. "Who wants to make the NFL?" he asked. Fifty-odd hands shot up. "Now, tell me how long the average NFL career lasts?" he said. One boy guessed 10 years, another seven, another five. "Three-and-a-half years," Sherman interrupted. "So what are you going to prepare for: Three-and-a-half years? Or the rest of your life?"

He is the salutatorian and the swashbuckler, a rare duality, addressing schools and agitating receivers. Sherman is loosening the vocal chords for another camp, another season, more speaking engagements. He has, of course, memorized the itinerary: Harbaugh in Weeks 2 and 14, Fitz in Weeks 7 and 16, Roddy in Week 10. Oxygen is on the way.

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