The people who paid up to $99 for tickets to an autograph signing line up at a strip mall in Mill Creek. The poor souls without tickets idle in the poorly lit parking lot. They’ve come on faith, standing out in the cold in hopes of stumbling into an autograph or a picture.
A uniformed police officer tells the crowd to be respectful of the cars in the parking lot; one already has been damaged. Then — and this draws a reaction — he says Richard Sherman will arrive in five or 10 minutes.
Two days earlier, immediately after the Seahawks’ NFC Championship Game, Sherman had triggered a national debate with an angry, 20-second rant during an on-field interview with FOX’s Erin Andrews. Now he is scheduled to sign autographs at Mill Creek Sports, an earlier commitment that has turned into a circus.
Camera crews. Photographers. And two off-duty police officers, one of whom says something that seems both completely ridiculous and entirely believable: An ex-Marine with a rifle is on a roof across the street. Just in case.
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Ten minutes later, Richard Sherman walks across the parking lot, smiling.
He would still be smiling a week later, during Super Bowl week, as he and his teammates prepared for the spectacle of Tuesday’s pregame media day and the biggest game of their lives.
BEVERLY SHERMAN’S FINGERNAILS are painted green and blue. Big, sparkling earrings, with the number 25, dangle from her ears.
There’s no mistaking that she’s Richard Sherman’s mom.
She walks into WildFin Grill in Renton on Saturday morning and greets a stranger with a hug. She’s in a hurry, she says. She landed in Seattle an hour ago and is signing autographs at Mill Creek Sports in 90 minutes.
This has been a crazy week. She’s ready for the circus to leave town.
“What worries me is I feel like Richard needs to focus on the task at hand,” she says. “There’s all this media attention on him, and it has taken away from everything the team has done to get here. That’s disappointing for him, and me as well. I just want it to die down.”
Keith Donerson, Sherman’s high-school coach in Compton, Calif., apologizes for taking another call. “That was one of our coaches,” he says. “He was teasing me about all the interviews I’m doing every day. This thing has really blown up. He’s like Michael Jackson now.”
Jamie Fritz, Sherman’s agent, spent the days after the interview talking with national media outlets. “I don’t usually do media,” he says. “But this is a situation where I had to do damage control. Because this got real ugly and real out of control.”
Shaun Guerrero, the vice president of the Richard Sherman Family Foundation, answers the phone just after seeing comments from Arizona Sen. John McCain calling Sherman a loudmouth. “He’ll get pissed if he hears about it,” Guerrero says, “but somebody compared him to Miley Cyrus.”
RICHARD SHERMAN HAS become the most controversial player in the NFL. He had taken steps last season that led to this point. After the Seahawks beat New England that year, he tweeted a picture of himself and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with the caption “U mad, bro?” He trash-talked with Falcons receiver Roddy White, got into a back-and-forth with fellow all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, was shoved in the face by an offensive lineman after a playoff game and lambasted ESPN analyst Skip Bayless on national TV.
The thing about Sherman’s FOX interview last week is that he’d actually had a quiet season until that moment. He usually spoke in formal news conferences at a podium, limited how many radio interviews he did and generally watched what he said.
“At one point I think there was an issue trying to keep some of this stuff down, and I think it came from Pete Carroll,” Fritz said. “Ninety percent of what comes out of Richard’s mouth is spot on. It’s the 10 percent that Pete Carroll worries about. But if it’s that 10 percent that allows him to play at the level he plays at, the guy’s going to get a hall pass.”
Fritz doesn’t want Sherman to tone it down. Beverly Sherman doubts her son will ever tone it down.
“I can’t say it’s a flaw, because that’s him,” Donerson said. “Of course we want him to be politically correct, but he wouldn’t be Richard Sherman.”
SHERMAN’S ANTICS CAN sometimes feel calculated. He did, after all, change his Twitter handle to Optimus Prime last season before playing Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson, whose nickname is Megatron.
“You have to understand,” Donerson said. “There’s a method to his madness.”
But Donerson and Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin agree that Sherman comes by those moments naturally. During training camp and practices, Sherman screams at Seahawks wide receivers and quarterbacks after they throw at him. He plays with a passion bordering on anger, and he has talked trash all his life.
What people saw in his interview — the emotion, the intensity, the bravado that didn’t sit well with so many people — was a glimpse into how Sherman plays the game.
“When I first met him at Stanford, he was that way,” said Baldwin, who was also Sherman’s teammate in college. “When he first got into the league, he was that way. It’s rubbed people the wrong way ever since I’ve known him. Controversy has followed him.”
Baldwin remembered Sherman’s sophomore season at Stanford. Both were receivers at the time. Sherman caught four touchdown passes that year, but Baldwin and his teammates liked to add an asterisk: All four touchdowns came against busted coverages.
“We would always make fun of him because he’d say, ‘I did that to the coverage. I messed up the coverage because they thought I was doing this,’” Baldwin said. “It was in a serious tone, but it was also joking. That’s how he is on the football field.”
Baldwin started laughing.
“I always joke with him: He’s not always right, but he’s never wrong.”
Sherman held a news conference on Wednesday afternoon — MSNBC and CNN broke into it live — and he was far more measured, thoughtful and funny in that setting.
“That’s the off-the-field Sherman, but I wouldn’t say that’s the real Sherman,” Baldwin said. “Because the Sherman you saw on the field after the game, that’s the real Sherman, too. That’s just when he’s in the mode and state of mind he has to be in.”
FRITZ, SHERMAN’S AGENT, saw Sherman’s postgame interview with Andrews and immediately thought, “That just took away from arguably the greatest single play of his career.”
Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s safety, watched the interview and started laughing. “Especially with the faces he was making,” he said. “It’s funny, man, because we know Sherm. When you know him, it’s funny.”
Coach Pete Carroll listened to Sherman’s interview the next morning on his weekly show with 710 ESPN Seattle. “Poor Erin,” Carroll said, laughing. “Jeez. Oooh God.”
Uriah Leiataua, who goes to the same high school Sherman attended and has verbally committed to play at Stanford, had no problem with it. “I know how it feels to be in the middle of a hard game, in the middle of a huge rivalry,” Leiataua said. “I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I think he was in the right to say it.”
And Baldwin saw the interview after the game and thought it was hilarious. “He asked me if I thought it took away from anything or if I thought he was out of line,” Baldwin said. “I told him as his friend and teammate I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it. It’s hard for me to take an unbiased opinion because I know Sherm so well that I know he didn’t mean anything negative by it.”
FRANK SCIOSCIA SAW the backlash to the interview on Facebook and decided to respond. Scioscia is a 49ers fan. He works at Stanford, but he never taught Sherman. He also didn’t particularly care for Sherman’s postgame interview.
“There’s not any hero worship here,” Scioscia said.
A few years back, Scioscia’s two kids attended a summer sports camp hosted by Stanford. One of their counselors was Richard Sherman. Scioscia’s kids had a blast with him.
During the following football season, after Stanford pulled off a big win, fans rushed the field. On the crowded field, Scioscia’s son, Colin, started hollering, “Sherm, Sherm!”
Sherman turned around, remembered Colin’s name and came over to him.
“One, remembering his name is a pretty good starting point,” Scioscia said, “but it was so much more than that. He took the time to acknowledge someone of no importance to him in the scheme of things.”
Colin had his picture taken with Sherman and a couple other players on the field that day. Later that year, Scioscia and his wife wanted to have the picture autographed for Colin as a Christmas gift. Scioscia sent Sherman a quick email seeing if he’d be willing to stop by his office to sign it. He did.
“Character is what you look like in the dark,” Scioscia said. “It’s when somebody is not watching. That’s a true testament to your character. That’s where I feel like Richard is. That’s what I saw.
“That is a truer testament to who he is than what he’s doing in the circus that is NFL football.”
BEVERLY SHERMAN IS TIRED of the circus. At one point, when asked a question, she pauses, smiles and sighs. “I don’t know,” she says. “I’ve talked so much.”
So has Richard. “I can hear in his voice that he’s just been talking so much and done so many interviews that he can barely talk,” she says. “His voice is so raspy right now.”
Her phone rings. It’s Richard’s older brother, Branton, calling to make sure she’s on her way to the autograph signing.
“Yes, son, we’re leaving,” she says. “We’re headed that way. We’re wrapping it up right now.”
Just before Beverly gets up from the table and leaves, a 20-something waitress comes over.
“So, just to let you guys know, we’re going to cover it this time,” she beams.
Beverly thanks her and starts to gather her stuff. The waitress hangs around a little longer.
“Just to let you know, you have a really inspirational son,” she says. “No matter what they say.”
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org