By Danny O’Neil
JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Richard Sherman is that most American of success stories, someone who grew up amidst poverty in Southern California and made good through a combination of academic dedication and athletic competition.
He is also that most modern phenomenon: the professional athlete as a brand, whose business plan includes bold statements, even better performances and a willingness to put more than just his best foot forward.
Sherman is going to be scrutinized more than any other player at the Super Bowl this week right down to the fact he had to explain the shirt he wore to the Seahawks’ introductory press conference Sunday. Or at least what was printed on it: Motivational slogan.
“What does that mean?” asked one of the literally hundreds of reporters present, a question that clearly illustrated both the intensity with which Sherman would be analyzed and the attempts to divine deeper meaning from anything regarding Seattle’s 6-foot-3 chatterbox of a cornerback.
“Everybody can fill the blanks in with whatever they got,” Sherman said. “That’s why it’s a motivational slogan. Everybody’s got a different one.”
Welcome to Super Bowl week, Seattle. Prepare to watch your lockdown cornerback’s coverage skills get tested repeatedly between now and Sunday’s game as the nation’s assembled sportswriters do their best to poke, prod and parse the words of a player whose interview on the field after the NFC Championship Game sparked a national debate on everything from racism to sportsmanship.
The NFL may be a quarterback-dominated league, but it’s a cornerback who has commanded the most suspense. He’s the whopper in the fish bowl that is Super Bowl week, someone whose willingness to break from the script of the typical professional athlete and pick very public fights with other players makes him both compelling and controversial.
Is he going to say something?
That question is the reason he had more cameras around his podium than quarterback Russell Wilson Sunday night and why he’s going to draw a crowd at the cattle call that is media day on Tuesday.
If the past week since his postgame roast of Michael Crabtree is any indication, Sherman is opting for discretion.
Asked about Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on Sunday, he said: “I think that he’s a great receiver and a great competitor.”
Well, how about Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey?
“I think Champ Bailey is a fantastic person and player,” Sherman said. “I think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer once his career is done.”
Yawn. No mention of mediocre. No proclaiming himself the best. “The mouth that bored,” read the headline on the back page of the New York Daily News.
So far, Sherman has been able to navigate a path in which he expressed regret for the spectacle his statements caused without apologizing for either what he said or who he is. He didn’t reach out to Crabtree in the days afterward and has not backed away from characterizing the 49ers receiver as mediocre, but he also toned down the level of his conversation.
Don’t call this week a challenge for Sherman. That would imply he’s having to temper everything he says. It’s not a test, either. There is no code of decorum that professional football players must adhere to.
What Sherman has this week is a decision: He has the nation’s attention, and now he gets to decide what he’ll show everyone as they try to answer the question, “Who is Richard Sherman?”
“I’m just a guy trying to be the best,” Sherman said. “A guy that wants to help his team win and is a fiery competitor who goes out there and puts his life into his work.”