Priest Holmes, the superb running back for the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 2000s, would shake his head every time we talked about postgame interviews. The whole thing just didn’t make any sense to him. Holmes was no taller than 5-foot-9, by midseason he probably weighed 200 pounds, he wasn’t exceptionally fast by football standards. He had blown out one knee, blew it out again, got his hip knocked out of joint and had been hit so hard he was not sure how he made it to the sidelines.*
*These were not necessarily called concussions in those days ... and those days were not that long ago.
Somehow, though, he was for a brief time the best running back in the NFL. In 2001, he led the NFL in rushing. In 2002, he was on pace to the greatest season a running back ever had until he blew out his hip after being horse-collared in Denver (this was one of the plays that led to the no-horse collar rule). In 2003, he set an NFL record for touchdowns.
He did it with study, with precision (he was like Jerry Rice in the way he would repeat his steps) and with an otherworldly toughness. In an average game, he would get hit 40 or 50 times by angry men the size and with the torque of Ford F-150s. After a game, he would need a half hour of massage and an hour in a hot tub just to feel something close to human again. This is not unique. This is football.
“Do you have any idea what kind of mental state I have to get myself into to play a game?” he would ask.
“No,” I would say.
“It’s pretty extreme,” he said. “It’s like I have to become another person. It’s like I have to become a warrior. We all do.”
Then he would smile and shake his head and say, “And then, five minutes after the game ends, y’all are asking us questions about how we feel and what did we think of this play, and what’s it like to lose, and we’re supposed to talk like none of that just happened.”
I’ve thought about those conversations a lot. On one level, we all understand how brutal a sport football can be. In a way, calling it a “sport” is changing its shape, making it seem a lot like the touch football game we play on the church lawn or the flag football games we used to play in college. Pro football really isn’t a sport like that. Pro football is about men who can bench press trailers crashing into each other, and guided missiles in helmets colliding with human gazelles and gruesome injuries that happen with such regularity that we can schedule commercials around them. Not to mention the concussions. You’d have to hypnotize me to play in a professional football game.
And these men do. They hypnotize themselves into this fevered state.
And we expect them to just let it all go when the whistle blows, and we snap our fingers.
This, of course, has to do with Richard Sherman’s postgame interview Sunday. Sherman, you certainly know, is the Seattle cornerback who sparked the big tip play interception at the end of the game that clinched Seattle’s six-point victory over San Francisco and sent the Seahawks to the Super Bowl. Sherman, you might know, is a fascinating and gripping character. He grew up in Compton, was a brilliant student, went to Stanford as a wide receiver, suffered a devastating knee injury, came back as a cornerback, graduated and began working on his master’s degree, was drafted in the fifth round, immediately became a starter, quickly became an All-Pro and might have been the best defensive player in the league this year. He also was suspended for performance enhancing drugs, won his appeal, has been as outspoken as anybody in the NFL.
He believes he’s the best in the game. He’s not unwilling to share this opinion.
A moment or two after his astounding play, Fox’s Erin Andrews went in for the postgame interview.
Erin Andrews: “Joe thank you so much,. Richard, let me ask you, the final play, take me through it.”
Sherman: “Well, I have to credit my teammates and coaches. We all gave 110%. Each and every one of us. We were lined up man-to-man ...
Andrews: “As opposed to zone.”
Sherman: “Exactly. And that means I had the responsibility for the deep route on receiver Michael Crabtree. He’s a tall guy, you know a tall drink of water, and he has made some big plays late in games, so it became clear to me that they were probably going to try and throw over the top, which is something I’ve worked really hard on with my coaches. And ...”
No, wait, that’s not what happened. Let’s try it again.
Erin Andrews: “Joe thank you so much. Richard, let me ask you, the final play, take me through it.”
Sherman: “I’m the best corner in the game! When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree that’s the result you’re gonna get! (Looking into camera). Don’t you ever talk about me!”
Andrews: “Who was talking about you?”
Sherman: “Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best! Or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick. LOB!” (Which stands for “Legions of Boom” ... it had sounded to me like L.L. Bean)
Andrews: “All right, before ... and, Joe, back over to you!”
OK. Well, people are going to have an opinion about that. Compared to the usual pointless, passionless, perfunctory postgame interviews, this thing was a bit like the first time people raised on Bing Crosby saw Chuck Berry play rock and roll. Instead of cliches, we got fury. Sherman was angry and hyped and cartoonish -- I wrote on Twitter that the only thing that was missing was the Ric Flair “Whoooo” at the end.
Tony Dungy wrote on Twitter that Sherman should have showed more class. That’s true. Others wrote that they would be rooting for Denver in the Super Bowl because of Sherman’s act. That’s fine. Others thought it was a bad example for kids which is a whole other conversation because there is a lot about watching a football game on TV that is not great for kids.
Then again, some thought Sherman was funny (I have to admit, I laughed for like 10 minutes), and his talk was real, and it was way better than watching someone sputter cliches that don’t mean anything.*
*Speaking of cliches: A few minutes later, Fox’s Pam Oliver was interviewing losing coach Jim Harbaugh. And at some point he said, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
“Is that a quote?” Oliver asked.
I have to say, that was a weird exchange.**
**It is a quote. It is Hemingway, from Old Man and the Sea.
I wish it had been a dream now, and that I had never hooked the fish and was alone in bed on the newspapers.
“But man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
But to the point: Why do we ask these players (and coaches) questions so soon after they were under fiery hypnosis, so soon after they were smashing into each other and breaking bones, right as the adrenaline is draining and the pain is beginning to surface? And, more, why do we expect their answers to fit our expectations? I’m certainly not saying that Sherman acted admirably after his interception, the choke sign he made toward quarterback Colin Kaepernick the taunt, then the “Don’t open your mouth about the best” soliloquy. Of course it wasn’t admirable.
But I have no idea what Richard Sherman has to do to himself to play professional football at the level he plays it. I have no idea what his state of mind must be like when he’s trying to match up to the violence of the moment. When Priest Holmes would finish games, he would almost never come out to his locker to talk. Sometimes, though, I would wait for him. An hour, An hour and a half. Sometimes two. The locker room would be empty. The equipment guys would ask me to turn out the lights when I left. Finally, he would limp out, and he would walk over to his locker, and he would slowly put on his clothes. And we would talk.
“I don’t see how those guys do it,” he would say of the players who had already spoken to the press. “If I had to talk right after the game, I’d say the craziest things you’ve ever heard.”