Last August in training camp, the Seahawks ran a play in which Sherman found himself matched up against an offensive tackle, eligible as a third tight end. "If you ever see this look," defensive coordinator Gus Bradley told him, "it's an automatic blitz." Three months passed before the Seahawks met the Jets on Nov. 11; in the fourth quarter of that game, trailing 21--7, New York summoned tackle Jason Smith to line up as a third tight end. Sherman hadn't blitzed all season, but he flashed back to camp and promptly bulldozed quarterback Mark Sanchez for a sack and a fumble, which teammate Jason Jones recovered, and which Sidney Rice turned into a game-sealing touchdown six plays later. "I've been around people who are really cocky, and they usually think they have all the answers," says Bradley, now the Jaguars' coach. "Richard Sherman isn't like that at all. He wants to learn."
On Sherman's first day as a Seahawk, Bradley had told his new charge, "A commitment must be made, a plan must be laid, a price must be paid." Sherman appreciated the poetry—made, laid, paid—and still mutters the words to himself, like a mantra. "Things I do probably look like madness, like I'm totally out of control, but there's always a plan," he says. "It's part of a greater scheme to get some eyes, to grow the market, to grow Seattle. Now people are paying attention, and they'll probably be disappointed this year because I will be a lot more reserved." Time will tell if such restraint is possible.
Sherman claims to yap only 10 or so plays per game, which sounds like a dramatic understatement until the best receiver in the NFC West confirms it. "He really doesn't talk to me," says the Cardinals' seven-time Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald. "But I don't talk to him, either."
Perhaps there lies the secret to shutting up Sherman. "If you don't say anything, he doesn't say anything," explains Baldwin. "If you do, all hell breaks loose." Sherman's admiration for Fitzgerald runs so deep that on his mantel he keeps a framed picture of himself defending the Arizona dynamo. In it, Chancellor is rushing over for an interception. "Look at that," Sherman gripes. "All the work I did, and Kam steals my freakin' pick."
Thievery aside, the Seattle secondary, which trademarked the nickname Legion of Boom, remains tight. They've taken five vacations together, and the Boom Brothers—Sherman, Browner, Chancellor and Thomas—lay customized rugs in front of their lockers emblazoned with their four jersey numbers. "We all come from the same background, hearing we couldn't make it," says Chancellor, who was supposedly too big (6'3", 232) to play safety. Thomas was too small (5'10", 202). Browner spent four years in the Canadian Football League.
Then there's Sherman, the fifth-rounder from Compton, the kind of player you adore if he's on your team—and despise if he's not. His charity softball game, held in early July at Tacoma's Cheney Stadium, drew 7,000 fans. Sherman's handpicked umpire was Lance Easley, the former replacement referee who made the dubious touchdown call last season that gave Sherman's Seahawks a victory over the Packers. At a party the night before the game the pair chatted like old pals about why Green Bay cornerback Tim Jennings went for the interception on that fateful play. "I'd have just batted the thing down," Sherman declared to Easley's delight.
Even Fitzgerald showed up, chatting with Sherman's family. "When you get to know him," Fitzgerald says, "you see his fiber."
Sherman's intellect is among the most powerful forces in the NFL. He can use it to clog airwaves (and deepen the stereotypes he was so eager to quash), or to open minds. Football players at Dominguez High reminisce about the time last spring that Sherman returned and gathered the team in the weight room. "Who wants to make the NFL?" he asked. Fifty-odd hands shot up. "Now, tell me how long the average NFL career lasts?" he said. One boy guessed 10 years, another seven, another five. "Three-and-a-half years," Sherman interrupted. "So what are you going to prepare for: Three-and-a-half years? Or the rest of your life?"
He is the salutatorian and the swashbuckler, a rare duality, addressing schools and agitating receivers. Sherman is loosening the vocal chords for another camp, another season, more speaking engagements. He has, of course, memorized the itinerary: Harbaugh in Weeks 2 and 14, Fitz in Weeks 7 and 16, Roddy in Week 10. Oxygen is on the way.