The Storms had come before, howling tempests in the brain that filled Anthony Sherrod's head with thunder and made his heart feel as if it were about to explode. But the storm on Tuesday, April 10—the last Tuesday of his life-was outside, and as Sherrod sat watching television, rain lashed at his windows and a black funnel cloud was sighted not far from his apartment in College Park, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. The wind blew and the lightning crashed in distant cannonade, but Sherrod felt nothing.
This is an article from the May 28, 1990 issue
A little less than two weeks earlier, Sherrod had watched on television as his former teammates at Georgia Tech lost to UNLV in the Final Four. Sherrod had missed Tech's dream season by a year, having already used up his eligibility, but it might as well have been a century. The excitement of the NCAA tournament was at some remove from his own particular March madness of mounting bills, a newborn baby and his claim that he was having academic problems that would prevent him from graduating.
"We got in the NCAA tournament, and I guess we kind of lost track of him," says guard Dennis Scott, the Yellow Jackets' leading scorer this season. "We didn't know where his mind was."
On the night of April 10, Sherrod's mind was three days ahead as he and his cousin June Powell watched the movie Jesus of Nazareth on TV. "We were talking about Good Friday," says Powell. "I said, 'If Jesus Christ could endure the pain of the crucifixion, then you can take the pain of some of the little things like not passing a class.' "
Sherrod seemed to find deeper meaning in his cousin's observation, repeating the words "Good Friday" over and over. "It had some sort of effect on Anthony," says his mother, Johnnie Mae, "the sight of Christ bearing the cross."
When Powell awoke that Friday morning, she heard a voice on the radio say that it was both Good Friday and Friday the 13th. "It's going to be a beautiful day as long as you're not superstitious," said the voice.
However, even the dawn couldn't break the black storm that was at that moment raging inside Sherrod's head. He had driven around much of the night, his ears ringing with the voices that frequently tormented him. Now he stood in a clearing of a wooded area less than a mile from the apartment he shared with Powell and another cousin, Annie Johnson. He had a .357 Magnum revolver in his right hand. The last thing Sherrod heard was the roar of the storm as it blew out the left side of his head.
When Powell and Johnson went to Sherrod's room later that day, they found his Bible open to The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Thessalonians. Chapter 5 was circled in ink:
For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them...and they shall not escape.... For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him.
Wedged between the pages was a small color photograph of Sherrod's family and a newspaper column in which Sherrod had underlined a long quotation from Larry Bird about the virtues of hard work and shooting the last shot. Throughout the Bible, Sherrod had scattered a number of horoscopes for Pisces, which was his birth sign. "He was real superstitious," says his mother. "He didn't like it if a black cat crossed in front of him while he was driving down the road. He would put an X on his windshield, or turn around and go the other way."
Sherrod, who was 23 when he died, used astrology and religion almost interchangeably to deal with the crosses he had to bear. Yet had those crosses not been colored by a manic-depressive illness-thought to be genetic in origin and possibly brought on by stress—Sherrod might be alive today. "He would worry about things, lie awake nights thinking about things you or I wouldn't give a second thought to," says Georgia Tech assistant coach Bruce Dalrymple.
For all of Sherrod's amiability, the litany of his problems became a source of frustration to his friends. "He seemed like something was always bothering him," says guard Brian Domalik, one of Sherrod's closest friends on the Tech basketball team.
Even when the first indication of trouble finally came, there was nothing terribly alarming about it. After starting at forward against North Carolina State in February 1989, his senior season, Sherrod felt he had played poorly. Following the game, he drove to his cousins' apartment (he had not yet moved in with them) and marinated his problems in vodka. While driving back to his dorm that night, he was arrested for driving under the influence. When Domalik and Sherrod's roommate, forward Willie Reese, went to the Jackson County jail to bail him out, Sherrod was making claims to other inmates about his father's membership in the Mafia. "By the time we got him out, he was even talking about leading a jailbreak," says Domalik. Sherrod was suspended from the team for three games, and the matter was more or less forgotten.
Like most players who have been the stars of their high school teams, Sherrod, who played at Jenkins County High in Millen, Ga., expected to have far more good moments than bad ones playing college basketball. "Anthony was big stuff in Millen," says Powell. "But when he got to Atlanta, he was on the same level with a whole bunch of guys."
As a freshman, the 6'7" Sherrod showed up for practice weighing nearly 210 pounds, 25 pounds more than his high school playing weight. "When Coach saw him," says Reese, "he said this wasn't the guy he recruited." Sherrod averaged 4.42 minutes a game and scored only 49 points during his first two seasons with the Yellow Jackets.
"He is probably the closest thing we had to a local hero," says Ray Miller, the coach at Jenkins County High, where Sherrod still holds the career scoring record of 1,382 points. "It was really tough on him his freshman year at Tech. He had started every game he'd ever played in, had all these college coaches telling him how great he was. Then he wasn't even playing. I'd pass people in the street, and they'd ask, 'Why isn't Anthony playing more?' "
"I think he felt like he had so many people to please," says Johnnie Mac. "It seemed like he always wanted the approval of other people. Anthony was concerned about what the community thought of him."
Sherrod, in fact, had never wanted to attend Georgia Tech. He went there because he thought that his family and his friends expected him to do so. "Anthony wanted to do what Anthony was supposed to do," says Crystal Griffin, the mother of Sherrod's six-month-old son, Christopher.
What an impostor he must have felt like when Tech coach Bobby Cremins suggested that he transfer to a smaller school following his sophomore year. "I told him I didn't think he could start here," says Cremins. "He wanted to play in the NBA, and I told him I didn't think that was in the cards for him."
Sherrod was desperate to play, and he might well have thrived at a smaller school. However, he would never have left Georgia Tech because he wasn't good enough. How could he have faced the people back in Millen? "I think if he had transferred he would have thought of that as failing," says Miller.
There was a moment when Sherrod must have known he was not a complete failure, a defining moment that would follow him for as long as he trod on Georgia clay. A photograph of that moment ran in newspapers all over the state the next day. It showed Sherrod turning to run upcourt after having tipped in the winning basket to give the Yellow Jackets a 78-77 victory over archrival Georgia, in December 1987. Almost everyone else in the picture—cheerleaders, players, even a referee—has arms raised in triumph. In the middle of the frame stands Sherrod—a look of supreme sadness on his face, arms stretched horizontal, left foot over right-in ungainly repose. In the greatest moment of his life, Sherrod looked like Christ crucified.
Buoyed by the modest success of his junior season, Sherrod considered redshirting as a senior—an almost unheard-of practice—to propel himself into the pros with what he hoped would be a final season filled with heroics. "I think he was tired of seeing things happen to other people and thinking they should be happening to him," says Dalrymple. "There's huge pressure to succeed in college athletics. When an athlete's four years are up and he doesn't make the pros, he becomes a nobody."
Sherrod would not allow himself to become a nobody. "He really didn't want to go back to Millen," says Reese. "Sherrod always wanted to be real, real special. He wanted to be the guy who came from the small town and made it in the big city. He didn't want to go back. He told me, 'There's nothing for me back there.' "
Sherrod wound up averaging 3.2 points and 2.0 rebounds a game for Georgia Tech, but when his career was over, he could not let go of the idea that his talents would flourish in the NBA. "Anthony was obsessed with playing in the NBA," says Domalik. "He used to get up at five or six in the morning and run, lift weights, then play basketball all day. He was always wanting to call the pros to see if he could get a tryout. He felt he never got a fair chance at Tech. I don't know how many times I sat with him in my room while he would talk about that. Then he would cry and cry and cry."
"He was living a dream," says Scott. "He wanted to be a superstar. He used to watch NBA players, see them driving fancy cars, wearing fancy clothes, and he always wanted to have that, to be part of that crowd. You've got to have reality along with confidence, and reality was just something Anthony couldn't face."
Sherrod, who was still on scholarship after he had stopped playing, continued to attend school at Tech last year, and one spring night, while he and Domalik were out for a drive, a car nearly hit Sherrod's. Sherrod shouted something at the driver. According to Domalik, the other car pulled alongside, and the man behind the wheel pulled out a gun and shot at them twice. Somehow, both shots missed Sherrod's car entirely. Shortly thereafter he bought a .38-calibcr revolver, which he kept under the seat of his car.
Sherrod fired the gun several times out his car window while driving on the interstate after a night of drinking with Domalik and the teetotaling Reese. "This is a nice gun, isn't it?" said Sherrod as he started blasting away into the early morning sky near the southern perimeter of Hartsfield International Airport.
It was the same gun that Cremins would take from him in November, when Sherrod showed up at Cremins's house one day. Several days later, after not having eaten or slept in a few days, Sherrod ran more than eight miles and then collapsed on Domalik's bed. "This kid looked like he was going to die, he'd lost so much weight," says Domalik. "I gave him a hug and said, 'Anthony, that's it. We've got to get you some help.' I took him to Coach Cremins's office, and he lay down on the floor and cried."
Sherrod was taken to Parkwood Psychiatric Hospital, where his condition was diagnosed as an acute manic episode. "It was like a nightmare to him," says Dr. Ben Eubanks, the psychiatrist who treated him. "He was extremely disorganized, confused, psychotic, delusional, suspicious and paranoid. But he was aware that his thinking was wrong. His preoccupying thoughts were, Am I going crazy? and Will I be O.K.?"
Domalik visited Sherrod every one of the 10 days he was in the hospital. "I know one thing," says Domalik. "Anthony didn't want to go back in that hospital. He hated it. He had never been around people who were mentally ill. None of us had. The people who were in there knew he was normal. People would start shouting for no reason, and Anthony would just put his arm around them."
After being released from Parkwood, Sherrod took doses of lithium—to eliminate the mood swings brought on by the manic-depressive disorder—and Thorazine, an antipsychotic tranquilizer. The drugs helped stabilize his behavior, but they also caused him to sleep day and night.
Sherrod finished the medication in December, and Eubanks did not renew the prescription. "Everybody who has an acute psychotic episode does not need to be on lithium the rest of his life," says Eubanks.
Sherrod was supposed to see Eubanks regularly, but he canceled several appointments, including one the week before he shot himself. "He was scared of going back in the hospital," Eubanks says. "Maybe I was associated in his mind with that." Eubanks's office is across the street from Parkwood Hospital.
For a time after he left the hospital, Sherrod returned to Millen to stay in the home on Chance Street where he had grown up with his mother and maternal grandmother, Jennie Mosley, 74.
Johnnie Mac dropped out of school in 1966, when she got pregnant with Anthony while in the 12th grade. Two years later she had another son, Richard. When Anthony was four, she moved back in with her parents after she and her husband had separated. "I started to move once," says Johnnie Mac. "My father told me I could go, but I could not take the children with me. He and my mother were real attached to them.
"There were 10 of us kids," she continues. "Five boys, then four girls and my baby brother. I was the oldest girl. My brother Robert, the second oldest, got killed in Vietnam when he was 26. All six of my brothers were in the service, and four of them were in Vietnam at the same time. We had our ups and downs, but we were always one big happy family."
Mosley had left school after the eighth grade, and her husband, Buster, dropped out after the third grade. So when Anthony was given an opportunity to attend Georgia Tech on a scholarship, there was little question that he would go. Sherrod was taking his final nine hours of classes this spring and was to graduate in June.
On Wednesday, April 11, two days before he died, Sherrod telephoned his mother and told her he had bad news. He said that among other things, he had received word—an academic official at the school disputes Sherrod's assertion—that he was getting an incomplete in one course. "He said he wasn't in school anymore," recalls Johnnie Mae. "He was going somewhere to get in shape to try out for a [pro] team. I asked him where, and he said, 'I don't know. Somewhere.' "
The other fact that Sherrod revealed to both his mother and his cousins that day was that he had obtained another gun. Johnnie Mae cannot remember whether she said anything to him about it. "He knew how I felt about that," she says.
He mentioned the gun to Powell when he told her, almost casually, that he had already attempted suicide twice, the first time with pills. "And I tried to do it once with the gun," he added, "but you were upstairs." Stunned, Powell said she thought Cremins had taken away his gun. Sherrod gave her a level look and replied, "I am not going to give you my gun."
The following night Sherrod told Griffin about the gun, completing the circle of the women in his life who knew. Perhaps he had hoped one of them would intervene. Perhaps not. In any case, he told none of his male friends. 'After he was hospitalized in the fall," says Reese, "Anthony said, 'Man, I'm glad they took the .38 away from me, because I was hearing voices. I could have shot myself without even knowing what I was doing.' "
On April 11, in a sudden burst of energy, Sherrod started packing his belongings. Then, just as suddenly, he lay down on his bed and went to sleep. "His heart had started hurting him again," says Griffin, "the way it had before he had his anxiety attack in November. His heart would pound in his chest so hard he couldn't sleep."
The next morning, Sherrod mailed $20 to a friend, the balance of a $200 loan. In addition to sending the money, he asked the friend to tell Johnnie Mae he was sorry he was "such a flop." Sherrod called his mother that afternoon. Recalls Johnnie Mae, "He said, 'Say a prayer for me.' I told him I would, but that he also had to say a prayer for himself, too."
At about 12:30 on Friday morning, the operator called Johnnie Mae, asking permission to charge a long-distance call to her number that was being placed by Anthony Sherrod to another number. "I thought that was unusual," she says, "but I was mopping the floor, so I didn't worry about it."
Sherrod was making what would be his final phone call to Griffin, who was nearly asleep at her home in Millen when the phone rang. She repeatedly asked Sherrod where he was, but he would say only that he was somewhere in Augusta, a two-hour drive from Atlanta but only an hour from Millen. After they had talked awhile, Griffin became so sure that Sherrod was trying to say goodbye that she asked him if he was trying to break up with her. He said he wasn't. "I'm about to go, Crystal," said Sherrod. "It's getting cold out here."
"For some reason I felt I had to keep him on the phone," she says. "Finally, he told me he was going to go home, get some rest, and in the morning he would see his doctor. He made me promise to call him Friday afternoon. I asked him if he would tell me what had been bothering him, but he said, 'No, I've taken care of that.' When he hung up, I remember thinking, This wasn't long enough."
Johnson returned home from work that night around 1:30 a.m. She waited up for him until 4:30 before going to sleep. At about 6:30, she recalls, she heard a car pull into the driveway and the car door slam. "I thought he had come in," says Johnson. "But June came into my room and asked where Anthony was. She said he wasn't in the house."
Troy Edwards, another of Sherrod's cousins, who had moved from Millen to Atlanta, may have been the first person to see the body as he and his wife drove to work on Friday morning along Rock Hill Drive, a wooded back road less than a mile from Sherrod's apartment.
Sherrod had reached the spot on foot, an abandoned driveway filled with old tires and discarded roofing material. Across the road, amid the fragrant honeysuckle and the tall Georgia pines, was a sign that read NO DUMPING, FINE $175.00, its rectangular metal face pitted with nine bullet holes. According to police, Sherrod's gun had been fired only once.
The funeral service was conducted in Millen four days later, at the Zion Baptist Church, where Sherrod had been an ordained junior deacon and had sung in the choir. "People ask us why he did it," says Johnson, "and we have no answers. For once, Anthony has all the answers."