By Tom Silverstein Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
NEW YORK — Outside Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., athletic director Darryl Smith knows what answer his students will give, but he isn’t afraid to pose the questions to make a point to others.
“How many of you are gangbangers?” Smith says to the group.
“How many of you are gangsters?” he asks.
This is Compton, right? “You have to beat that stereotype,” Smith said.
Things would have been different if Richard Sherman were among those students. No way Sherman would have stayed silent on that one. It would have been dark before he was done saying what the others had expressed without speaking a word.
The guy who probably should have been voted “Student Most Likely to Trend on Twitter” (had Twitter existed back then), isn’t a gangbanger or a gangster. That part is indisputable.
But a “thug,” a term that, according to Deadspin.com, was used 625 times on TV last week, a day after the Seattle Seahawks cornerback went off on San Francisco 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree during a postgame interview?
You’ll only get one response from those who know him. Laughter.
“It’s kind of like … because you’re from Compton, it’s easy to find the word thug and attach it to somebody,” said Lionel Larry, a track star at Dominguez who was two years ahead of Sherman. “It’s so easy to call him that. I don’t think it’s coincidental.”
Sherman has been in the spotlight this week as his Seahawks prepared for Super Bowl XLVIII. A few days ago, his comments about Crabtree and his South Central L.A. roots were front and center with media covering the big game.
Compton became synonymous with drugs, gangs and despair after the group NWA described its take on growing up in South Central Los Angeles in graphic terms. Their album, “Straight out of Compton,” released in 1998, pioneered a new genre known as “gangsta rap.”
As bad as Compton got, it might not have been worse than many other places across America where crack cocaine had infiltrated poverty-stricken neighborhoods and created a breeding ground for gangs. Violence was all around and many middle-class families left the area, leaving others to weather the deterioration.
But from 1999 to 2011, crime dropped more than 30 percent and the murder rate was cut in half, according to city records. In the years Sherman grew up there, being young and impressionable didn’t necessarily mean a life of crime.
“We have that stigma (in Compton) and it’s going to be with us for a long time,” Dominguez football coach Keith Donerson told the Los Angeles Daily News. “But we have some great, great kids here.”
But that’s not what people want to hear.
“We do have our share of gangs and it’s not as bad as it used to be, but with gangs, some kids will rise above that and some will be in trouble,” Smith said. “A lot of times it has to do with drugs. As far as equating Richard with being a gangbanger, I’d laugh that off. Only the ones who don’t know him would say that.”
Sherman and Larry, thanks to a strong support system, never gave in. Sports and academics were their world and no one was going to infiltrate it. Sherman was as close to being a sports nerd as one could possibly get.
Both he and Larry were straight-A students.
“To us, it was no excuses,” Larry said. “No excuses for bad grades. No excuses for not doing what you’re supposed to do. We had to get out of the city and see if there was something better. We wanted to get into college. We were determined.
“Once you’re engulfed in that, everything outside of that is irrelevant.”
The two grew up in similar situations. Their parents made sure they weren’t drawn into the abyss that so many others growing up in South Central were. Sherman’s mother, Beverly, attended every sporting event her children took part in, determined to support them and keep an eye on them at the same time.
“She was the team mom,” Larry said. “That’s for any team he’s ever been on. Anyone who has been on his team knows her.”
Larry won a state track title in the 200 meters in 2003 and Sherman won one in the triple jump in 2006. Sherman only went out for track because the football coach demanded it, but Larry said it was Smith, then the track coach, who helped him refocus his abundant energy.
Smith first met Sherman during a pizza party he organized for the track team. Sherman’s brother, Branton, was on the team, and apparently had invited his little brother to tag along.
“The loudest kid there was one I hadn’t seen before,” Smith said. “It’s this eighth-grader. The kid was a stranger to me. He’s the shortest one there and he’s just running his mouth. And he’s eating all the pizza. Every other word, he’s taking a bite of pizza. I’m trying to make sure everyone gets some because we didn’t have that much.
“I find out it’s (Sherman). That’s just the way he was. Very friendly, but he was opinionated.”
It was during a track practice freshman year that Smith was able to get inside the loud-mouthed Sherman’s head. Though he had told Smith he wanted to win a state track championship, Sherman was slacking off in practice. Smith saw Sherman’s talent and challenged him.
“I didn’t think he was doing everything he should have been,” Smith said. “I said I’m going to give you a grade after every practice. And every day after that he’d (ask after practice) ‘What grade did a I get, what grade did I get?”’
Smith never gave him a grade higher than B-plus until he won the triple jump state title with a mark of 50.08 feet. Sherman fed off the notion he wasn’t good enough to win a title.
“He wanted to be the best,” Smith said.
Sherman’s advancement to Stanford and then the Seahawks has been well-documented. He isn’t the first guy out of Dominguez to make it big. Tayshaun Prince, Tyson Chandler, Brandon Jennings and Cedric Ceballos are among those who came out of Compton and made it into the NBA.
They just don’t talk as much as the Seahawks cornerback.
Sherman’s propensity for getting under opponents’ skin through constant yapping wasn’t universally known, but among football followers his Twitter feud with Tampa Bay cornerback Darrelle Revis over being the best in the business and a declaration that “half the league” was taking Adderall hadn’t been forgotten when he called Crabtree “sorry” in his postgame interview last week.
That the interview came minutes after Sherman had saved the game for the Seahawks with a phenomenal one-handed deflection of Colin Kaepernick’s throw into the corner of the end zone wasn’t forgotten in Compton.
Regardless of whether Crabtree had “dissed” Sherman during an off-season encounter, as Sherman’s brother had claimed, no one back home was surprised at his reaction when a mike was stuck in his face.
“It was classic Richard Sherman,” Larry said. “That moment was classic. That came as no shock to me or any of his friends. That is Richard Sherman at his most hyped moment. I wasn’t at all shocked by that.”
As he watched it on TV, Smith kept saying out loud, “Calm down, Richard, calm down.” Reflecting on the negative reaction Sherman’s comments received from some in the Twittersphere, Smith couldn’t help thinking it would have been different if people knew him like he knew him.
“It was a little over the top, but he was just excited,” Smith said. “He was still in attack mode. He was challenged. He was called out. You can be emotional without being considered a gangster.
“If you’ve ever met Richard, you’d walk away totally impressed. I totally trust him as a person. He’s the furthest thing from that stereotype.”