SEATTLE – With a wave of his hand, Richard Sherman made the biggest play in Seattle sports history.
With a few words from his mouth, he became the most polarizing football player anywhere.
Sherman batted a Colin Kaepernick end zone pass into the hands of teammate Malcolm Smith to cement a Super Bowl-clinching final score – 23-17 over the San Francisco 49ers – but there were other scores. Old scores. Like the one with Michael Crabtree, which began in Arizona months ago in the offseason, when the Niners receiver said something to the Seahawks corner that he refuses to publicly divulge. And when that potential game-winning pass came toward Crabtree with less than a minute left in the game, and Sherman leapt in the air to knock it away, the self-proclaimed "best corner in the game" returned to the ground not in glory, but in rage. Fox reporter Erin Andrews came over to Sherman after the victory with a microphone, and Sherman put Crabtree on blast.
"When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree," Sherman said, "that's the result you gonna get. Don't you ever talk about me. Don't you open your mouth about the best or I'm gonna shut it for you real quick."
Sherman left the field, put on a sportcoat and bowtie, and came right back at Crabtree in the postgame news conference. He called him mediocre. Twice.
"Med-i-ocre," Sherman said, enunciating every syllable as if he was chewing on something rancid.
Why the venom? What happened to start this?
"He said something to me personally," Sherman said. "So I'm gonna make it tough on him the rest of his career."
There was little soaking up of the glorious moment. There was much soaking up of the moment when a rival was taught a lesson.
Sherman was asked about the choke sign he directed at the Niners' sideline. Was that for coach Jim Harbaugh?
"That," Sherman said, "was for Kaepernick."
Even before Sherman said all that, the sports world was either laughing or jeering or simply aghast at the cornerback's on-air comments. Sherman's Wikipedia page was vandalized with racially-toned anger. Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander tweeted:
So Russell is a class act! Sherman on the other hand.... If he played baseball would get a high and tight fastball.— Justin Verlander (@JustinVerlander) January 20, 2014
Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright returned to his locker after the greatest win in his life, picked up his phone, and saw text after text about … Richard Sherman.
"That's just like Sherm, though," Wright said about the instant controversy. "He always speaks the truth."
The Seahawks all agreed. "Sherm being Sherm," Cliff Avril said.
As for Crabtree? He had some postgame words of his own:
"Sherman made a good play," he said. "That's probably the only play he made in the whole game … He knows what time it is. When we're on the field he isn't doing nothing. That's one play. He knows. He's a TV guy. I'm not a TV guy. I play the ball. He makes one play and he talks."
Oh, he talks. Asked if he's going to talk like this in New York, with every media outlet on the planet listening intently, Sherman said, "Pretty much, why not?"
Sherman is now the anti-Manning: lined up across from the legendary quarterback not only on the field in the Super Bowl in two weeks, but also in the minds of many fans. Peyton Manning, the ultimate ambassador for the sport, is jovial and polite. Sherman is jovial and impolitic. Manning is indisputably good for the game. Sherman? Well, that will be the endless debate.
The cornerback will not have vengeful words for Manning, who everyone greatly respects – "When you try to get in Peyton's head," he joked, "you get lost" – but he stands for this team and this unapologetic way. He is the brawn of a physical defense just like Manning is the brains of an intellectual offense.
Sherman and the Seahawks are going to find slights everywhere in the next two weeks. If it snows on Super Bowl Sunday, the 'Hawks will think Mother Nature is trying to clown them with Denver weather. The Seahawks will play the Broncos, but they will see the Niners, the media, and even the other group Sherman called out Sunday: the "a-hole fans."
"All the a-hole fans," Sherman said from behind the podium. "We appreciate the motivation. You helped us."
If you think Sherman's teammates might try to calm the man down, you are wildly mistaken. They could actually try to stoke him even more. At the beginning of the Niners' final drive, cornerback Jeremy Lane went over to his teammate and yelled, "They haven't tried you yet!"
"I know," Sherman shot back with a glare.
Lane walked away thinking, "If they do try him, there's gonna be trouble."
Sherman actually did face one pass during the game, in which he was called for holding, but he figured he would walk off the field without seeing another. That has been a problem for Sherman in the past – staying focused during games in which he never sees a ball – but when Kaepernick threw one toward him, the reaction was not excitement, but shock and insult.
Sherman and the Seahawks will carry that insult, whether real or perceived, all the way across the country to metropolitan New York. Fellow defensive back Kam Chancellor said after the game he was incensed at Niners tight end Vernon Davis because of comments suggesting, "in the previous game he had me beat." Lane was irate when an inactive Niners player bumped him to the ground when he went out of bounds during punt coverage. "I think he was trying to get in my way," Lane said, eyes wide. "I was very upset." Even mild-mannered receiver Doug Baldwin announced, "I pray to god they continue to talk about us and doubt us."
So there are two ways to see this Super Bowl: Manning's anointing or Sherman's revenge. Those are the two storylines, merging quickly into one. Sherman said Manning can fire toward him "as many as he wants." Surely that challenge applies not only to Manning, but to everyone.
A batted ball by a shutdown corner culminated a steady climb to the Super Bowl here on Sunday. But it also started something else: General Sherman's scorched earth march to New Jersey. The Seahawks are coming for Peyton Manning and all the demons in their collective imagination. They do not expect to win new friends. They do expect to win one more game.