RENTON, Wash. – He named his dog Kobe.
Richard Sherman is so famous that the president talks about him, but at one time he had idols, too. So he paid his childhood hero the highest honor and named his dog after him: Kobe, for Kobe Bryant.
Sherman revealed details like that a few years ago on Twitter to fans who asked. Bryan Slater, a social studies teacher at Sumner High School, was one of those fans. He started asking questions sometime around 2011, Sherman’s rookie season, when Sherman’s followers numbered in the thousands.
A year later, Slater’s brother-in-law bought a customized jersey with Sherman’s name because the Seahawks’ team store didn’t sell them. When Sherman saw the jersey, he got so excited that he asked if he could sign it.
Today, Sherman’s jersey is the NFL’s eighth-best seller. He has 1.4 million Twitter followers. He had Kobe, the basketball player not the dog, appear at one of his celebrity softball games. His brother said he is no longer a famous football player but a celebrity, and he is not wrong.
“You could learn about Richard looking at his Twitter back then,” Slater said. “He was really candid until everyone started hanging on every word. They named their dog Kobe, right? And this was just three or four years ago that I had a conversation with him about this, about who he looked up to most, and he said Kobe Bryant. Then he and Kobe were hanging out in the locker room and shooting Nike commercials. In just an instant Richard was on the same level, relatively speaking. Kobe is obviously an empire, but Richard isn’t too far away.”
Sherman’s fame mirrors teammates Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch in timeline and success: Wilson has the NFL’s top-selling jersey while Lynch’s jersey ranks 12th, giving the Seahawks three players in the top 12. But they each got to that point in very different ways.
“It’s a good thing for our team because it’s a wide variety of personalities, right?” receiver Doug Baldwin said. “It gives everybody someone to relate to.”
Wilson’s rise and popularity is the easiest to understand. He is a successful quarterback on a winning team. He has followed the lead of one of his own idols, Derek Jeter, by rattling off clichés, avoiding controversy and keeping himself a safe distance from any real opinion or introspection.
He does what quarterbacks are supposed to do, which is act like a quarterback.
Sherman and Lynch have operated under different terms, and not just because one is a cornerback and one is a running back. Both have created their empires in the sand by bending the system to their desires.
“Here’s the real question,” said offensive tackle Russell Okung, one of the Seahawks’ most thoughtful players. “The real question is how much of an entertainment industry has sports become? Now you know the personalities of people as opposed to before you’d say, ‘He’s the quarterback of the team, and I’m more likely to get his jersey because he’s the quarterback of the team, and I know he’s going to be here for a while.’ But now there’s this fandom, this very segmented fandom and a segmented market that each player can create to have people get behind him.”
Okung sees Sherman and Lynch as examples of what a player can achieve for himself.
“Look at Sherman,” he said. “He’s more boisterous. Arguably one of the best in the league. His social media has gone crazy over the way he’s handled that and the way he’s able to manipulate it. And then you have Marshawn. He is the anti-hero, but his play makes him even more phenomenal. He is a football player, first and foremost. But there’s an attachment there that people have to the player for whatever reason – but all for different reasons as well.”
Lynch is more famous than he has ever been, and that’s mostly because of what happened at the last two Super Bowls.
He balked at talking until, at the last minute, he played along. Except he didn’t really talk. He spoke in slogans. He told people he was “just about that action, boss” and reminded everyone he was just there so he wouldn’t get fined.
Whether it was shrewd branding or Lynch being Lynch is almost beside the point. For two years, the biggest story at the biggest event in sports was first whether Lynch would even talk, and when he did, what he said.
He has played video games on “Conan,” appeared in a commercial for Xbox with Sherman and is on billboards all over the city. But he has become mainstream by rejecting the conventions players have used to reach that fame.
Sherman’s climb has always been calculated, which is only a pejorative if you see it that way.
“In the middle of our rookie season, he told me that his goal was to be a household name by the end of his sophomore season,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin, a close friend, understands Sherman has rubbed people the wrong way, and Sherman’s list of possible offenses is lengthy.
He set fire to controversial ESPN personality Skip Bayless during an interview, yelled at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on the field after a game, trash-talked Lions receiver Calvin Johnson and, most famously, called 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree “mediocre” in a rant on live TV after a playoff win.
But Baldwin sees Sherman as purely opportunistic, and the success of Sherman’s campaign is striking. Two of his closest peers at cornerback, Joe Haden and Darrelle Revis, rank 23rd and 47th, respectively, in jersey sales.
“He’s always had a plan,” Baldwin said. “He’s always plotted things out. And it’s not fake. Everything he does is genuinely who he is, but he uses his personality and who he is to his advantage so he can build his brand and build off what he’s accomplished and what he is now.”
In the two years since his rant about Crabtree, Sherman has been more selective. His two most memorable moments in the last year have been a skit with Baldwin mocking the NFL and when he spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement. Both were talkers.
This is all a bit strange for Slater, the teacher who only had interest in Sherman after meeting a nice lady in full Seahawks regalia at a 2011 exhibition game. Her son happened to be a rookie on the team, so Slater found him on Twitter.
Just about everyone in Seattle follows Sherman these days. His jerseys are all over town. Slater has helped out at Sherman’s celebrity softball games and even met Kobe – the basketball player not the dog.
But Slater eventually comes clean: He has never bought a Sherman jersey. Some day, he said.
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