• Shelly Holt

Leading From the Front: What Richard Shermans Comments and Actions Say About 49ers Veteran Leadershi

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

It’s rare when a football team is able to bring in a veteran player still in the prime of his career and who also helps a very young team flourish in the midst of a rebuild. Luckily for the 49ers, that’s exactly what they did when they signed free agent cornerback Richard Sherman to a three-year deal last off-season.

While San Francisco has struggled to get wins this season, that’s had nothing to do with the thirty-year old former Seahawk who has become a cornerstone of the Niners’ young defense improving with every game.

From the very beginning of his tenure as a 49er through the ups and downs and the many injuries sustained by several other defensive players this season, Sherman has been a coach, mentor, adviser and champion for the team on the field and off.

When former 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster was arraigned for domestic violence charges in April of this year, Sherman was one of only a few players on hand to support the troubled first-round draft pick in the courtroom. He was new to the team only for a few weeks, but the four-time Pro Bowler wanted to be there because Foster was alone in the area without family or friends. “I’m here to support him. I’m here to support a teammate,” he said.

Sherman also arranged for (and paid for) group outings early on with other members of the secondary, even before he suited up for the first time as a 49er. He understood that one of his main assets was working with young players. "I think that one of my best attributes is leadership and helping guys get the best out of themselves," Sherman has said. "… Whatever that may be. If that means on the field just communicating better, if that's off the field, just getting your affairs in order in a better way that's more conducive of success, I think that's my job and I take that responsibility seriously."

During practices before the season started (when he was still not recovered from late 2017 Achilles surgery) Sherman participated as a de facto coach, giving the young players tips and sharing his experiences. This effort did not go unnoticed by his young teammates who felt his support. Second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon said about Sherman, “He teaches me a lot. He's very active and hands on. He just wants to see my game propelled [to] the next level."

Sherman has said he’s fully recovered from the Achilles injury and finally feeling back to normal. On the field, opposing teams have hardly targeted him, but his play has been solid, dependable, and competitive. And, even when the chips have been down and the defense has struggled, Sherman has remained steadfast in his support for the other players and defensive coach Robert Saleh who has been criticized in the media heavily this year. Importantly, Sherman never pointed fingers or threw Saleh under the bus. He’s done what a veteran leader should do in moments like this before the winning comes in front of impressionable young players: remain positive and keep pushing forward.

If all that wasn’t enough to confirm Sherman as a consummate professional football player the 49ers have benefitted from and respect, he also has proven to have his fellow teammates backs, even in the midst of altercations on the field. During the fourth quarter of the Week 16 game between the 49ers and Bears when a fight broke out on the Chicago sideline, Sherman ran into the brawl to defend outnumbered rookie safety Marcell Harris who was attacked by Bears players when they thought he delivered a late hit to their young quarterback. Sherman wound up getting involved in the melee himself and ultimately was the only 49er to get ejected for fighting that day. Afterwards, Sherman said, “As a leader, you can’t let them do your teammate like that. Regardless of the circumstances, regarding of what’s going down, I felt like they went over the top and I responded with over the top.”

All of these leadership skills definitely come from experience. After being drafted by the Seahawks in 2011, Sherman made the Pro Bowl four years in a row (2013-2016) and was a member of Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” which helped the team win the Super Bowl in 2013. Before that, he was a star high school player in Compton, California where he performed as a wide receiver, cornerback and punt/kick returner while also running track and excelling in school. When he committed to attending Stanford, he became the “first student in 20 years qualified to attend Stanford on both academic and athletic merits.”

But, on the bio page of his website, Sherman seems to credit his parents the most for setting him up to be the great football player, person and teammate he has become. They instilled in him a tremendous work ethic, penchant for bouncing back, and dedication to everything he sets out to accomplish. Of course, he mentions his “determination to help lead his new team both on the field, and in the locker room.”

Richard Sherman’s presence has made San Francisco a better team and under his continued contributions, they can only get better. Perhaps 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh summed up the attributes he brings to the team best when he said, “[Richard] really is a great leader. He’s got tremendous knowledge of football and he’s got all these little player tricks that he can share with these guys. We’ve got such a young group that when he does speak, they do listen. But the great thing about him is he’s always backed it up, and not only from a playing standpoint, but from a mental standpoint, from effort standpoint, from a studying standpoint. Just in general as a football player, he’s always backed it up, so that’s what makes his words more powerful than some who don’t embody that."

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