Mike Sherrard was not a walk-on, he was a stroll-on . . . He literally strolled onto campus and into our office with a girl on each arm. The kid is skin and bones, he's got girls hanging all over him and he's telling us he thinks he can play football for UCLA.
--HOMER SMITH, UCLA offensive coordinator, 1983
There was a time when Mike Sherrard would try to refute the story of how he strolled into Westwood, the long, tall ladies' man with the cocky attitude.
He would argue that his imaginative coach was taking poetic license. He would tell a much more sedate version.
But as he prepares to play in his third Rose Bowl game for the Bruins, as he takes his place in the record books as the Bruins' all-time leading receiver in both number of catches (124) and number of yards (1,937), he has come to realize the impact of his success story.
A skinny kid from Chino enrolls at UCLA as a good student and then presents himself to the football coaches, who not only did not recruit him, but who have never even heard of him. In 1981, Mike Sherrard stood alone as the only person who thought he could make it as a wide receiver at UCLA.
"I guess it is a pretty good story, and it's better the way Homer tells it," Sherrard said. "Maybe we should leave it alone. It's becoming something of a legend."
To become a true legend, the story must be passed from generation to generation. This one got its start in a newspaper, was passed on to other newspapers, was picked up by Sports Illustrated and was then passed on to countless other newspapers. It now has a life of its own. No doubt it will be told to Sherrard's children and grandchildren. That will really make it a legend.
A Mike Sherrard by any name or description is still a wonderful wide receiver. To have him arrive, by any means, was a fine stroke of luck for UCLA.
As Smith says, "Manna from heaven."
But how, the questions is always asked, could every major college program in the country miss a talent like Sherrard? Well, for starters, Chino isn't exactly a football factory or rendezvous point for recruiters.
And then there's the difference between Sherrard then and Sherrard now.
Smith said, "When Mike came out of high school, he was very light. And he was diluted by too many different sports and, I assume, diluted by having to do too much in every sport."
Sherrard was already 6-2 when he came out of Chino High School, but he weighed just 160 pounds. Now he's 6-2, 182 after lots of work in the weight room.
He looks fragile at 182. Imagine what he looked like at 160.
"Not long after he came here," Smith said, "he got mononucleosis and lost a lot of weight. He was a rack of bones. I don't even want to know what he weighed.
"He had shown us some good things, but we weren't overly impressed. We first 'discovered' him when we asked another coach, who didn't know one receiver from another, to make a highlight film of some of our practices. On that film, he didn't concentrate on Dokie (Williams) or Cormac (Carney) or anybody else. It was Mike Sherrard. On every deep pass, any time someone was getting open one-on-one, it was Mike Sherrard on that film.
"That is what Mike does best. He gets open. He has that deceptive speed so that he can slip by them and he has that loose body so that he can reach out and bring in the ball . . .
"He has those long legs and you see that nice, easy stride and you don't realize how fast he's going because you don't realize how much grass he's spanning with every stride. Before you know it, he's changed his pace and he's reaching for even more grass with those big shoes."
Smith is more impressed, though, with Sherrard's work ethic, calling him "a natural worker, the best worker I have ever coached, and I have coached a lot of good workers."
And he's even more impressed with Sherrard's intelligence.
"He almost never makes a mistake," Smith said. "I make more mistakes than he does. The other day, I skimmed over a point, not explaining fully how a play should be executed, and he nailed me with a question. He's always thinking.
"The pros (scouts) gave him their little IQ test and he scored higher than any wide receiver since James Lofton of Stanford. The only player they could remember scoring higher was Rick Neuheisel of UCLA."
The pros have also let it be known that they expect Sherrard to be a first-round draft pick.
Sherrard says that he would like to play pro ball, but he would also like to get started on work toward a master's degree in business. He'll graduate from UCLA in March with a degree in history. "The ideal thing would be to play pro ball and start working part-time toward my MBA," he said.
Pro scouts who attended the game against Arizona State, the game in which Sherrard became UCLA's all-time leading rusher and then went out with a broken collar bone, were not overly concerned about the effect of that injury on a pro career. Although he eventually missed five games while the fracture mended, it's not the kind of injury that would be expected to recur.
"I'm fine now," Sherrard said last week. "I felt ready for the USC game (in which he caught just one pass.) It doesn't bother me at all any more."
He's back at full speed now, and that's pretty speedy. Working with John Smith, UCLA sprint coach, Sherrard has improved his 40-yard dash time from 4.5 seconds to 4.36 seconds in the last year. It was 4.6 the first year he started for UCLA, and the pros are noting the steady improvement.
No doubt he inherited a lot of his ability, considering that his mother, Cherrie, was a sprinter on the 1964 U.S. Olympic team and his father, Robert, played college basketball and semipro baseball.
"My mother is a very fast lady," Sherrard said. "She continued to compete after the Olympics. She used to take me with her out to practice--I never had baby-sitters--and she'd build me little hurdles and teach me how to run. That had to help me."
He ran track in high school, of course, but as Smith points out, he spread himself pretty thin. There were no scholarship offers. He was told he'd be welcome to play at places like Chico State (where both parents are on the faculty) and Idaho State. But he figured he'd have to go the junior college route to earn himself a scholarship. He would probably end up with a major college scholarship in his third year out of high school.
It all worked out by walking on at UCLA. It's an alternative for a player like Sherrard, who is as serious about his education as he is about football.
Sherrard joins of list of celebrated walk-ons at UCLA, a list that includes such notable figures as Neuheisel and even Coach Terry Donahue.
"A lot of guys ask me if I would recommend walking on and I tell them that you really have to set your mind to it," Sherrard said. "You have to take all the steps that are necessary. I redshirted my first year, caught two passes my second year and didn't really get to play until my third year. I didn't get a scholarship until then. A lot of guys walk on, play on the scout team for a couple of weeks and then quit.
"It's not an easy way to go. If you want to walk on and make it, you really have to hang in there."
And it helps to have realistic expectations. Not too many guys are going to live the kind of Cinderella story that Mike Sherrard has lived.
"I think a large part of it was being in the right place at the right time," Sherrard said. "When I came here, I thought that there was a possibility that I could play for UCLA. They had great receivers here when I walked on. But when some of them graduated, and I got my chance, the team was going great. Three Rose Bowl games. That's incredible.
"I never expected to start for UCLA. I didn't even consider setting records or playing in Rose Bowl games or thinking about a pro career. I never dared to have those thoughts."
He didn't need to. He only needed to dare to do walk . . . er, stroll on.