Kevin's shift stretched from 4 a.m. to noon, so he could always coach Richard's Pop Warner team at Ted Watkins Park, even though the child had seemed more comfortable as the mascot for his brother's teams. So lean was Richard that he needed sand packets in his uniform to make weight, and he repeatedly threatened to quit because he was terrified of contact. Kevin once grew so frustrated with his squeamish son that he picked him up in the middle of a tackling drill and tossed him like a hay bale. "I survived," says Richard. "And I was fearless after that."
Branton riled him up for games, fabricating stories about opposing players who allegedly insulted him. "That guy doesn't think I'm any good?" the younger Sherman brother would ask. "Then I'll get a pick, a fumble and score 10 touchdowns."
Meanwhile, Kevin built what might have been the biggest house in Watts: two stories with five bedrooms and four baths, surrounded by modest bungalows. In these early years, it was not uncommon for 20 of Richard's teammates to spend the night—the players upstairs, the cheerleaders down, and Beverly, known as Auntie by the neighborhood kids, patrolling the staircase in between.
It was Beverly who started to pay Richard $5 for every A on his report card, $3 for every B. At first he just liked the pocket money, but around 12 he saw a documentary about Muhammad Ali, and then he started to recognize what a potent brew knowledge and confidence could be. "[Ali] understood how to manipulate the world," Sherman recalls. "When he said, 'The champ is here,' he probably wasn't that cocky. He created a persona. He was a leader, an entertainer, and he knew how to break people down in the ring. I didn't really care about boxing, but I wanted to be like Ali."
As a freshman receiver at Dominguez, Sherman would get body-slammed by upperclassmen and hop up hollering, "I don't even know why you're out here. You're sorry. You can't stick me." Coaches didn't know whether to yell or to laugh. Ali was an influence, but so were the gritty wordsmiths who emerged from South L.A. to lay the sound track of Sherman's youth. He met Dr. Dre, Nate Dogg and Warren G. Dre sponsored one of Branton's youth football teams, and the Sherman boys once swam in his pool. "Richard never shut up," says Keith Donerson, Sherman's high school coach. "The way he talks, it's really fast and can be kind of intimidating. We'd go back and forth all the time, but when I tried to muzzle him, he went in the tank."
Donerson ran a double wing-T offense, so technically Sherman was a tight end, lining up outside and pleading for the ball like a mini Terrell Owens. He also started at cornerback, most memorably in a state semifinal game against Palos Verdes Peninsula High when he smothered a receiver by the name of Nate Carroll. Witnesses remember Carroll's father, then the head coach at nearby USC, screaming at officials from the sideline, demanding a flag for excessive contact. "Oh, Pete was so pissed," Sherman recalls.
Sherman squawked at teammates as much as opponents, but not with the standard material. He was an academic snob who saved his most biting remarks for those who ditched classes or failed exams. "Man, I'm going to love coming back from college and watching you guys at the J.C.," he'd bark. According to Donerson, eight players from Sherman's graduating class earned scholarships to Division I schools, several of whom had walked into the coach's office at one point or another to ask, "How do I get into college? Because if I don't, Sherm is never going to let me hear the end of it."
Sherman remembers one of his first scholarship offers coming from USC, when the Trojans were in the midst of their 34-game winning streak, back when Carroll could have been elected mayor of Compton. The first time the coach visited Sherman at Dominguez, Carroll had to wait 2½ hours in the football offices because his recruit had refused to duck out of an advanced placement course. "My son didn't win salutatorian for nothin'," says Beverly. "Petey had to wait."
Carroll had viewed Sherman as the prototypical corner for his bump-and-run defense—long and physical—but Sherman instead chose to play receiver for a Pac-10 also-ran. "I wanted to make a statement," says Sherman. "It was weird. It didn't sound right. But I had to prove it was possible: Compton to Stanford."
Sherman was a schoolboy paradox: a football star, a class clown and a self-described nerd. "It took 45 minutes for him to walk across that Dominguez campus," says Wayne Moses, the running backs coach at Army who eight years ago recruited Sherman to Stanford. "He talked to everybody." When Sherman committed to the Cardinal, Dominguez teachers rejoiced, but family members weren't sold. "Bro, I'm not too fond of that idea," said Branton, then a receiver at Montana State. "You should go to SC."