It isn't easy to catch an All-Pro cornerback flat-footed, but that's what happened to Seattle's Richard Sherman on Wednesday when he stopped by a pre-calculus class at Compton Dominguez High, his alma mater, and was asked to solve a problem on the chalkboard.
Even though he graduated with a 4.17 grade-point average, and went on to get a degree from Stanford, Sherman was stumped. At some point, all the exponents and orthogonal angles in his head had to make room for a career in Xs, O's and angles of pursuit.
"I can't remember much past trigonometry," he said sheepishly.
Typical of Sherman, he found a way around the problem, scanning the front row and finding a student to come up and work through it with him. And that in essence was his message to Dominguez students upon his return: You will be confronted with challenges, you need to use your intellect to get past them, and giving up is not an option.
"If you put in the work, put in the time, put in the effort, you're going to reap the benefits," said Sherman, who has returned to the school multiple times but surprised the students with Wednesday's visit. "But if you don't put in the work and the effort, you can't expect to be successful."
The concepts aren't revolutionary. Coming from Sherman, though, they're relevant — especially to a gymnasium full of students who participated in a question-answer session with him after he dropped in on the math class. He has 1.1 million followers on Instagram, 1.35 million on Twitter, and was swarmed as he walked up and down the bleachers hunching his lanky body to pose for pictures with them.
His routine: Step, smile, selfie. Step, smile, selfie. He traded playful barbs with a student who immediately identified himself as a fan of the New England Patriots, who beat Sherman's Seahawks in the Super Bowl two months ago. He helped another student through a question after the kid fell victim to stage fright.
"I think what resonates with the kids is the idea that someone who comes from here and works hard can do well," said Vanessa Landesfeind, the school's principal. "But it's like any other person that becomes a professional athlete, it's almost like they won the lottery. He obviously had a lot of support at home, he connected well with the staff here, and that's what flips the switch with kids."
Said senior Alvin Lepule, a football player transfixed by the talk: "Richard Sherman is an inspiration and role model to us kids. He shows us he cares about this city and us kids."
Sherman credits his solid start to his parents, who still live in Compton. His father, Kevin, drives a trash truck. His mother, Beverly, works with inner-city children who have mental and/or physical disabilities.
"They've had the most essential role of all," said Sherman, 27. "They're there at the beginning and the end, and they kind of mold the path that you're on, the morals that you have, directing you through the rights and the wrongs of the world. That's where some of these kids get shortchanged, because they have to create their own morals and their own rights and wrongs. Sometimes street justice is all they know. Can't blame them. They didn't pick the situation they're in, whether both parents were there or not, or whether both parents were worth a damn.
"I just happened to fall into a great situation where both parents were going to work every day and doing the best they could so we didn't have to deal with the nonsense."
Sherman is among four people profiled in "Heroes of Summer," a digital campaign produced by Oberto, the beef jerky maker that is headquartered near Seattle. The subjects of the advertisements were chosen because of the compelling nature of their stories and how their personal triumphs reflect the overall theme of "You get out what you put in."
The campaign also profiles a blind athlete who participated in a Tough Mudder obstacle race, a woman who refused to give up dancing even after losing her foot in the Boston Marathon bombing, and a 6-year-old boy who has battled leukemia almost since birth and is the inspiration behind an all-star lacrosse team.
"The message is no matter what obstacles life puts in your way, you can overcome them through perseverance and a positive mind-set," said Court Crandall, who is directing the ads and coordinated Sherman's return as part of the campaign. "What I like about Richard is he's an enlightened guy and views life in a way where he puts a lot into his sport and believes in putting a lot back into the city of Compton.
"There's a karmic element to this, so if you go out and put good into the world, good will come back to you."
Sherman has reaped his share of benefits, but success didn't come easy. He emerged from a tough neighborhood as a top student and athlete, got a football scholarship to Stanford as a receiver. He overcame a major knee injury in college, made an unusual and difficult transition to cornerback, was good enough to be drafted but wasn't selected until the fifth round, and since has risen to the top at his position.
He's also among the league's most polarizing players, beloved by Seattle fans and derided by opponents. He's given to talking trash, thumping his own chest, and often making big plays in big moments. He was a pivotal player in the past two Super Bowls — a victory over Denver in 2014, and a loss to New England this year.
"It's day and night," girlfriend Ashley Moss said of Sherman's public and private personas. "Richard outside is big, loud and outspoken. He gets home and he's quiet, he plays video games; he's a big kid. Over the past couple of years, he's grown into the man that he wants to be."
Four days after the Super Bowl, Moss gave birth to the couple's first child, a son they named Rayden. Mother and child were just off camera during Wednesday's shoot, with Sherman attentively checking in on them every few minutes.
"Just to see the bond between him and Rayden is truly amazing, it just melts my heart," Moss said. "He will strap the [carrier] on, he'll change diapers, he'll be feeding him, up in the middle of the night…."
Said Sherman: "It's just been a lot of fun. Everything is a new experience for him, and a new experience for me. Every facial expression, every time he moves his arms, everything. It's a pretty cool experience."
He's a natural as a dad, and clearly the baby has been a simple addition. For Sherman, that's just the kind of math he likes.