It's strange how far we've come, collectively; how removed we feel from what existed before. After spending the better part of four decades virtually defining a league-average franchise, the Seahawks have entrenched themselves in the NFL's upper echelon. A few years of relative dominance has done much to cloud the memories of years past, prior seasons blending inconsequentially together like so many hoodies in Mark Zuckerberg's closet.
It wasn't all that long ago that the roster we married our Sundays to was a mismatched patchwork quilt of over-the-hill free agents, unheard-of draft picks, and a couple Ruskellian holdovers. We cheered for a team that was either devoid of an identity, or flush with an uninspiring one. Then, somewhere in Africa a butterfly flapped its wings, an elephant got startled, and at the tail end of that cataclysmic chain, a whirlwind touched down in Seattle. Pete Carroll and John Schneider invaded the Emerald City and unleashed a series of then-baffling roster decisions that had many of us wondering what the hell was going on.
Little by little, however, the Seahawks that our parents grew up with began, gratefully and with all due respect, ceasing to exist. The curious signings and widely-panned draftees that accompanied PCJS' arrival slowly began to transform into something different, something special, a gridiron Voltron whose whole exceeds the sum of its parts. Gone are the mediocre rosters tenuously buoyed by the occasional above-average talent. In their place is a collection of bloodthirsty rogues superior in both ability and hunger, a relentless force bent on destruction where once only the occasional token playoff appearance stood.
And as this wave of neo-Seahawks came into their own, they began to force themselves upon the NFL's consciousness. The new era of Seattle football was young, loud, brash, and skilled, and no one personified the blossoming swagger more than a little known 5th round converted wide receiver by the name of Richard Sherman. And before he became a household name, before he launched the Seahawks into Super Bowl 48 with the most important defensive play in franchise history and called Michael Crabtree "sorry" and "mediocre" in a nationally televised interview, Richard Sherman made his mark.
Like I said, it seems like ages ago when the Seahawks were still a surprise, even to us. Back when we hoped for victory instead of expecting it. It was then, when the 'Hawks were on the upswing but before it was palpable to us, that Sherman announced his arrival. It was then, after the unknown afterthought of a cornerback, tucked inconspicuously away in the Pacific Northwest, got in the face of the NFL's poster child, that everyone was forced to take notice. I wrote about it, back in 2012, in a piece that still surprises me, about how these Seahawks were not the same old same old but rather a different breed of football team- a roving band of marauders whose alpha bravado forced us out of the quiet, seven-to-nine-win comfort zone to which we'd been conditioned.
All of a sudden, this young kid from Compton who was too tall, too inexperienced, too lightly recruited to play corner in the NFL, became an inescapable feature on pro football's landscape. There was no more ignoring Richard Sherman, or the rest of the primal pirates he rolled with. Now, no one debates his greatness, only the degree to which said greatness has reached. And with that recognition, and undoubtedly with age, we've seen Sherman settle into his perch atop his position, spending most of the plays in most of the games quietly shutting out whichever receiver has the misfortune of lining up on his side. He has become the elephant graveyard for opposing quarterbacks, a shadowy place that one must never go for fear of a savage reprisal.
And yet when you speak with him, you're reminded how thoughtful, how educated, and how calculated he is. The public outbursts are less frequent and less aggrandizing these days. Maybe that's because of age, or because he's "arrived". Or maybe it's because he's a father now, something he told me doesn't affect his preparation or performance, but "makes coming home afterward a lot more fun." Regardless, he remains an unquestioned leader in that locker room and a man whose play manages to speak even louder than his multitudinous words. The All Pro corner and Body Armor spokesman- "the most natural, effective sports drink I've ever used", he tells me- took some time out of his day to give Field Gulls an interview and he was every bit as forthcoming as you'd expect.
For a number of years now, the Seahawks secondary has taken on an almost mythical persona, the Legion of Boom becoming almost as feared and as marketable as the team itself. Sherman, of course, is one of the stalwarts of that unit, along with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. It is that fourth starter, however, that seems to be in a constant state of flux. First it was Brandon Browner, then Byron Maxwell, then Walter Thurmond, then Cary Williams. This season, with the return of DeShawn Shead, Sherman will lead a secondary onto the field that boasts extensive experience in the Seahawks system at every DB position. It's a situation he's looking forward to. "I'm really excited about our depth this year," he told me. "There are going to be some cool match ups in practice. You get to see guys grow into the players you always knew they could be."
One of those budding players is Jeremy Lane, a fearless, spindly defensive back that approaches the game with the same tenacity and ferociousness as Sherman himself. I attended a 'Hawks training camp some years back and during that practice, a fight broke out between Lane and Golden Tate. The kerfuffle between them spread like a rash through the rest of the team and in a manner of moments, players were being shoved, facemasks were being grabbed, and Lane was kicked out of practice. I asked Sherman about that, not because Lane was dismissed, but because when he was, it was Sherman who walked him all the way back inside the VMAC before returning to practice with the rest of his teammates. He remembered it perfectly:
"He didn't mean to fight. He's just a scrappy dude that was trying to show he belonged on the field, that he belonged on this team. He didn't back down. I just wanted to tell him that you gotta channel that energy, that there's only one way to do things here and that's hard and focused and he's done that." It's true, Lane has grown from a late round draft pick to a valuable asset in the defensive backfield, a contribution that was rewarded this offseason with a $23 million contract.
You see, that's one of the toughest transitions an up-and-coming athlete has to make: to go from arriving to arrived, from upstart to mentor. It's what separates the great from the good, the ability to grow from a contributor fighting to make a name and a living to a leader that others come to for advice on how to do the same. It's not a role Sherman takes lightly, either, and it's because the game means something more to him than just the game. "It runs deeper than football, man," Sherman says. "There's more to it than that. These guys are my friends. We enjoy being around each other- there's more to them than just football players."
It's a camaraderie that extends beyond the locker room too. Sherman stays in contact with lots of former teammates, and admits to trying to recruit players to Seattle as well. One such recruitment was former/current Seahawk Chris Clemons, who claims Sherman and Michael Bennett talked him into coming back this offseason. Sherman doesn't deny it, "to be honest, we were kind of hoping Clem would get released. Just so we could get him back cuz we know what he's capable of."
Ultimately, however, the reason Richard Sherman thrives, the reason we buy his jerseys and follow him on Twitter, why you're reading this article, is his unwavering pursuit of excellence. Everything, he says, flows from that. "I feel like greatness is innate. It's not something that can be taught. It's like an inner desire that no one can bring out of you except yourself. It's about getting as close to perfection as possible." We've heard plenty of other athletes echo that sentiment but for Sherman, it goes further. "The most important thing about greatness is consistency. Being at an elite level all the time, not letting yourself fall off. It's about doing it every day for yourself, not for anyone else's approval." Which, he says, includes making sure his body and mind are right, and that's why Sherman, pitchaman that he is, is so selective with the products he endorses. "That's honestly why I and my teammates were drawn to Body Armor, it's the best sorts drink I've found because it's all natural and gives you what all the other drinks claim to without any of the stuff that's bad for you."
I think that's something that gets lost when we talk about great players. We tend to view greatness as flashes of superlative performance displayed at opportune moments; big plays or big games that stand out from the rest. And yet, Sherman says, it comes down to repetitive excellence. The ability to be elite not just on occasion, but in everything you do. It means practicing at an elite level, even if it means shutting down a teammate WR all day long. It means developing a routine, "getting a feel for the field, stretching, putting the headphones on, and eating a few Gushers." For all of the moments that Sherman has had, all of the memorable plays and quotes, it's all a product of that unwavering consistency, the constant preparation that puts him in those positions to succeed. It is, in a word, sustainable, and that might be my favorite thing about him.