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RICHARD SHERMAN'S house is so quiet that you can hear kids playing in the cul-de-sac, the birds chirping in the pines, the charcoal crackling on the Weber. A fish tank gurgles and a flat screen hums. It is one of those endless summer days in the Seattle suburbs, the sun refusing to set before 9 p.m., Sherman grilling enough baby back ribs, chicken breasts and tri-tip to feed a good chunk of CenturyLink Field's 67,000 fans. Sitting at a picnic table on the wooden deck in his backyard, hidden by plumes of smoke, the Seahawks' All-Pro cornerback is admiring a picture on his iPhone: two deer that he recently spotted in the forest flanking his property. The iPhone screen is cracked in three places, the result of a fumble one week earlier on Lake Chelan in north central Washington, where Sherman vacations with Seattle's other defensive backs, whiling away the hours on a pontoon boat. He savors tranquil moments, perhaps because they are so few.
Sherman tears open a pack of Fruit Gushers—a kids' snack, though he has no kids—and the syrupy taste transports him from the serenity of summer to the bedlam of fall. See, Sherman gobbles Gushers every Sunday morning during the season, followed by a shower in the dark, followed by a game of catch with Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin. "Time to put on a show," Sherman announces, and Baldwin nods in agreement.
As training camp kicks off, odds are high that the next Super Bowl winner will come from the meat mincer that is the NFC West, a division defined by the Seahawks' and the 49ers' biannual battle royale. And Sherman is the face—or, perhaps more appropriately, the voice—of the NFL's most rollicking rivalry. "I'm not the type to let a sleeping giant lie," he crows. "I wake up the giant, slap him around, make him mad and beat him to the ground. I talk a big game because I carry a big stick."
Judging by sound bites, Twitter battles and disputed drug tests, the 25-year-old Sherman is a dreadlocked motormouth from Compton, Calif., with a fighter's instincts for promotion and confrontation. He unleashes freestyle raps in the locker room. He dances on the sideline. When receivers line up across from him, he studies their splits and broadcasts the routes they're about to run, applauding excitedly. "You want this noise?" When Sherman hollers, words come so quickly that his tongue can barely keep up. "You asked for this noise!" He begs quarterbacks to throw in his direction—"I'm just your friendly DB," he tells them. "Don't be scared to come my way." When they do, he eyes their coaches on the sideline and circles the ear hole on his helmet, as if wondering why anybody would be so deranged as to take him seriously. He is the rare player who has provoked the ire of Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who has taunted Tom Brady, who has been punched by an opponent while congratulating him on a good game. (That would be 6'5", 325-pound Redskins left tackle Trent Williams.) "I used to tell him to quiet down," says Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. "Then I saw the results."
Sherman's brand of defense is not so different from his style of oratory. He stands 6'3", 195 pounds, with a 32-inch wingspan, arms that he unfurls to lasso receivers before they release. By Sherman's estimation, most NFL corners employ press coverage on two or three plays per game. He uses it on about 50, backing off only to bait quarterbacks, a strategy that yielded eight interceptions last year and 12 total in his first two pro seasons. Demonstrating this rugged technique, Sherman drops into his stance and instructs a 5'9", 150-pound reporter to run a slant through his living room. "A lot of corners will back up and give you room to move," Sherman says, planting a forearm in the reporter's neck. "Seahawks corners don't back up. We don't give you room. We stay in your face all day long."
Such is the blustery persona that he's concocted—in your face, all day long—which plays well on the Internet and on the sports talk shows, with footage of Sherman riding his personal watercraft to watch rookie camp at the Seahawks' Lake Washington facility, or quizzing fans on Bourbon Street about whether he's better than Darrelle Revis. The image of the showboat, the braggart, the outlaw, has helped make him the most famous fifth-round draft pick in the league. Like any caricature, though, it's based only partly on reality.
In the stillness of his Seattle yard, Sherman is giving the one speech he couldn't deliver: "I'm an awkward guy. People used to tell me all the time, You're not from here. And that's the way I felt, like somebody took me from somewhere else and dropped me down into this place. I was strange because I went to class, did the work, read the books and was still pretty good at sports. If you're like me, people think you're weird. They pull you in different directions. But those people aren't going where you're going. I know the jock stereotype—cool guy, walking around with your friends, not caring about school, not caring about anything. I hate that stereotype. I want to destroy it. I want to kill it."
Sherman had hoped to say those words seven years ago, on the day he graduated from Dominguez High, but only the valedictorian got to speak. Instead, he sat silently in a folding chair on the football field—his definition of corporal punishment—because obviously he did not finish first in his class. No, he actually finished second, his 4.2 GPA falling short by less than a tenth of a point. "That still hurts," Sherman moans, shaking his dreads.
He never looked up to the guys who talked trash, but he idolized one who collected it. His father, Kevin, kept his garbage truck parked in front of the Shermans' garage, just outside Richard's window, and every day at 3:45 a.m., Richard would awake to the thrumming engine, his dad embarking on another post route through South L.A., from 120th Street to the ocean. Richard respected that truck—how the tentacles lifted cans into the air and dumped their contents into the back—because it meant that his dad didn't have to hand load anymore. Richard sometimes went to work with his father, but more often he joined his mother, Beverly, a senior clerk for California Children's Services. There, at the rehabilitation center next to her office in Downey, he spent summer days completing math problems and building block towers with kids suffering from muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy.
Decades earlier, Kevin had been desperate for acceptance after a go-kart explosion left him blind in his right eye at 14, so he joined a gang in high school. Later, he showed Richard the bullet wounds on his body. "I couldn't let the same thing happen to him," Kevin says. Richard and brother Branton, three years his elder, were not allowed to wear the Bloods' red. They could wear the Crips' blue, but only if paired with a neutral color like green. Lakers hats were O.K., but only Lakers, since everybody in L.A. claimed that team.