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Richard Sherman was at home with his family, celebrating on the night the 49ers won the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. The mood was relaxed and festive until his brother decided to light the fuse.
Branton Sherman is Richard’s older brother by three years and his business manager. He’d gotten wind of a tweet authored by former All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who opined Richard was “hiding in a Cover 3 zone,” the implication being the nine-year veteran would never be a real cornerback until he shut down wide receivers in man-to-man coverage.
To Branton, this was red meat to be tossed into the lion’s cage. The Kansas City Chiefs await Sunday in Super Bowl LIV in Miami, and it was time to get Richard in the right frame of mind.
As in worked up, agitated and angry.
The conversation, according to Branton in a recent phone interview, went something like this:
“Bro, look. Revis is right. You’re going to have to cover ’em. They got Sammy Watkins. They got Tyreek Hill, they got the young one, Mecole Hardman. I hope you’re ready because they’re coming at you.”
Branton could see Richard’s blood beginning to boil, and reminded him of getting beat on a 65-yard pass play against the Packers from Aaron Rodgers to Davante Adams. Surely, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had noticed.
“If I was the other team, I just saw you get beat on the deep ball by Adams, so I’m going to take my chances in the Super Bowl,” Branton said.
Richard fired off a tweet telling Revis “I would go in on this but I have a Super Bowl to prepare for. Enjoy your view from the couch.” Before the Twitter skirmish was over, Richard reminded Revis that his own ninth year in the NFL had gone much smoother than Revis’ had. Ever the Stanford man, Richard even corrected Revis’ grammar.
Mission accomplished. Richard was mad at Revis for the tweet. Mad at the Chiefs for supposedly being too fast to cover. Even though Richard knew exactly what Branton was doing and why he was doing it, he was helpless to stop it.
“We’re going to be 90 years old and he’s still going to be able to push my buttons,” Richard said Friday. “It’s sibling rivalry, a sibling connection. He understands what makes me tick as well as anybody.”
And what makes Richard Sherman tick at age 31? Same as when he was a pre-teen.
“I enjoy seeing people wrong and myself be right,” Richard said.
With the Seattle Seahawks, Sherman once ate a turkey leg on the Levi’s Stadium turf after a Thanksgiving Day win. He made an end zone deflection of a Colin Kaepernick pass (intercepted by Malcolm Smith) in Seattle that denied the 49ers the Super Bowl — and then famously taunted intended receiver Michael Crabtree.
An adrenaline-filled post-game interview with Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews six years ago is the image many fans will always have of Sherman.
— NFL (@NFL) January 19, 2020
At Stanford, Sherman stood out as a cornerback after moving from wide receiver but sparred with coach Jim Harbaugh and resents him to this day.
“Sherm holds grudges,” former Stanford and Seattle teammate Doug Baldwin told The Athletic. “He definitely holds grudges.”
Seattle released Sherman after a torn Achilles, a career-threatening injury for a cornerback in his 30s. He signed an incentive-laden contract with the 49ers, betting on himself, and this season was a Pro Bowl selection and second-team All-Pro.
Away from the bombast of social media and sound bites, Sherman has morphed into “Uncle Sherm,” a steadying presence in the 49ers locker room. He’s revered by teammates as a rational authority figure willing to offer advice on football, life and anything in between.
Problems at home? Talk to Uncle Sherm. Money issues? Run it by Uncle Sherm. Relationship troubles? Step into Uncle Sherm’s portable office.
“He’s not one of those guys that sits in his locker space and just talks to guys around him,” tight end George Kittle said. “He’s always around. He doesn’t really force knowledge on you. He’s definitely an open book. He’ll sit and talk football all day. But he’ll talk about other things if they have problems. He knows how to read guys, and he definitely knows how to bring the best out of each and every single person in this locker room.”
It should be no surprise that Richard Sherman idolizes Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champ who made talking famous.
“Ali was able to talk trash and be the best at what he did but never cross the line,” Sherman’s father Kevin Sherman once said. “At the end of his career, everybody was still talking about him.”
If Sherman is Ali, then Branton fits nicely as Drew “Bundini” Brown, the trainer and cornerman who constantly stirred the pot with the champ, feeding him poems and building on slights real and imagined.
The comparison amuses Richard.
“I guess if you were to write a book, people would take it as (Branton) being my antagonist,” he said.
Branton realized he had this power when Richard was 9 years old and playing Pop Warner football. The league’s best player was Marvin “Biggem” Johnson, who would later go on to be Richard’s teammate at Dominguez High School and a Pac-12 rival as a safety at Oregon.
“I told him, ‘Biggem is killing it. He’s the No. 1 player in Pop Warner. He’s going to dominate y’all. You’re not going to tackle him,’ ” Branton Sherman said. “I do it until he’s pissed off at me, where he literally gets mad and walks away. Then he does what he always does — he’s successful, comes back and talks smack to me. I just shrug my shoulders and go on to the next challenge.”
Keith Donerson, Sherman’s coach at Dominguez High, initially tried to curb Sherman’s penchant for the running diatribe during practices and games. The request lasted a day before Donerson removed the muzzle.
“He moped around like a dog that had been kicked,” Donerson told the New York Times.
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Sherman is building a resume worthy of the Hall of Fame. With 35 interceptions, Sherman is tied with Aqib Talib among all active players. He has never lost a conference title game and is 1-1 in two Super Bowls with Seattle.
Sherman is angular, athletic, wins more 50-50 balls than he loses and once ran hurdles and competed in the triple and long jumps for the Stanford track team. He also processes more information than other top-flight corners who focus the entirety of the game on the man they’re guarding.
When the 49ers came calling, David Shaw, the Stanford coach who was offensive coordinator when Sherman was there, understood completely.
“When you have a guy in the NFL that has field credibility and works really hard, you don’t want that guy to be a church mouse,” Shaw said. “You want that guy to give his opinion and help the coaches. And more often than not Richard is right. He knows that is why he was brought in to San Francisco.”
Ron Lynn, a former NFL defensive coordinator who coached the Stanford secondary when Sherman moved from wide receiver to cornerback, believes Sherman’s personality may have obscured his work as a cornerback.
“Richard has continued to re-write his story on how to play the corner and restrict receivers,” Lynn said. “He doesn’t get enough credit for that.”
Sherman has closed out each of the 49ers’ playoff wins with an interception, and had this to say after intercepting Kirk Cousins while guarding Adam Thielen one-on-one against Minnesota.
“I get tired of hearing, ‘Oh man, he’s a zone corner,’” Sherman said. “I get tired of hearing the excuses of why I’m great. It was man coverage, I covered the man, I picked the ball off. In the playoffs, in big games, I show up. I show up year-in, year-out, whether it’s 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014. Unless I tear my Achilles, I’m out there and I’m doing my job at a high level. I get tired of excuses for why I’m good.”
Sherman won’t let go of the feeling in 2011 when he lasted until the fifth round and was the 34th defensive back selected.
“His whole life he’s been told he can’t,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “And he’s always trying to prove he can. And that’s him. He’s always going to have that chip on his shoulder. You always have to have a ‘why’ as a human being. He’s always got a ‘why’ for why he needs to be better than he is today. That’s what makes him special.”
Bobby Wagner, Sherman’s former teammate with the Seattle Seahawks, once said, “He doesn’t move on. He doesn’t forget until he gets the last laugh.”
Sherman doesn’t see a dichotomy between “Uncle Sherm,” the sage veteran, and the Richard Sherman who rails against injustice, whether socially or on the field, when the mood suits him.
“I’m in the same body no matter what,” Sherman said. “But you treat people and carry yourself differently. One of them you’re on the battlefield, you’re there to do a job. In the locker room you’re a different person because you’re around your teammates and you’re there for a purpose. And at home, the circumstances change.
“To me, that’s like asking a person, ‘Hey, as a lawyer, are you the same way in the courtroom as you are with your wife?’ . . . it’s going to be a different preparation, a different seriousness, a different tone.”
Regardless of the tone, Sherman is hitting all the right notes with his teammates.
“I think I’ve benefited from having Richard Sherman here as much as anybody else has and I’m an offensive tackle and he’s a DB and we don’t normally trade notes,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s all about the mentality of who you are as a player, and the way that you prepare and the confidence that you play with every Sunday. That’s what he’s trying to instill.”
Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw, a fifth-round draft pick, mostly watched and learned before getting up the nerve to talk with Sherman.
“He’s going to keep it real with you. He’s going to let you know how it is, what to expect,” Greenlaw said. “He walks with confidence and he speaks it, but he can back it up. Whatever he thinks, he’s going to say, and he’ll say it in the right way. Sometimes it may come off a little harsh, but you always think, ‘You’ve got a point.’ He’s a leader, he’s a legend.”
As for getting Sherman fired up, Greenlaw leaves that to others.
“I got no reason to question him about who he can cover and who he can’t,” Greenlaw said. “He feels like he can cover anybody in the world and I believe him.”
With Branton Sherman around, there will be no shortage of motivational material.
“He knows I can get to him and he wants to prove me wrong so bad,” Branton said. “I hold a special place in one of his mental files where I can always stir it up and get him going.”
Staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this story.