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"Sometimes I called him Son," John remembers. " 'Son, do this or do that.' I wasn't slipping up, either. And he really responded to that."
"Knowing how Jackie grew up really helps me now when he acts in certain ways that I just can't fathom," Peggy says. "His separateness from everything—he'll forget that there are two of us, and a family here, and that he has to come home for dinner. What he was deprived of as a child he now wants to be as an adult. It's like he needs to be everybody's daddy."
As a senior in high school Jackie was already man-size, big and strong, an All-America fullback who had colleges from all over the South recruiting him. When Bear Bryant came to visit, he and Jackie spent about two hours sitting around and talking. It has long impressed Sherrill that Bryant didn't once ask him to play for Alabama. Every other school had pressured him to commit, but Bryant just told stories about his players and about how nice a place Tuscaloosa was.
"I want to play for you, Coach," Jackie said to Bryant.
"I remember Coach Bryant telling me later on that that had never happened to him before," John says. " 'As many boys as I've recruited and scholarships I've given,' he told me, 'your brother Jackie is the first to want to play for me rather than the school.' The coach was very impressed by that."
At 17 Jackie had found the next man to fill in as his father. He had also met the one he would try to emulate for the rest of his life.
One of Sherrill's first big scores as a coach came in 1972 when he recruited future Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, winning a hard-fought campaign against Penn State for Dorsett's services. Sherrill, then an assistant at Pitt under Johnny Majors, became such a regular at the Dorsett home that Tony used to wonder if he had moved in.
"You went to school in the morning," Dorsett says, "and there he was, hanging around the coaches' offices. Made it home at the end of the day, and he was sitting there with your mother, eating pecan pie." Sherrill had learned that pecans were a favorite of Myrtle Dorsett's, so he made a point of bringing her a pie.
"I can tell you I chose Pitt for one reason," Tony says now, "and that was Jackie Sherrill. I thought he was a guy who could communicate with black ballplayers. He could really talk to you. Maybe it had to do with his background, how he grew up."
One night in 1975 Dorsett was thrown in jail after arguing with a cop. He had gone out for a sandwich and was returning to his dorm when he spotted a police officer writing a ticket for his illegally parked car. Dorsett and the cop began to argue. "The guy had this dog," Dorsett says, "and he put the dog on me. He ends up taking me to a station downtown."