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Protege Ahkello Witherspoon, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll reach out to Richard Sherman

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 7/31/2021 Gregg Bell, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Jul. 30—RENTON — Ahkello Witherspoon was beginning his second NFL season, trying to establish himself as a starter.

Richard Sherman was beginning his second NFL life. He was trying to get back from a torn Achilles and beat the team that drafted and raised him, turned him into a Super Bowl-champion superstar—then dumped him.

It was the spring of 2018. The Seahawks had just waived Sherman with an injury designation by the Seahawks, to save $11 million. That followed his seven iconic seasons as a charter member of Seattle's glorious "Legion of Boom" secondary with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

Sherman immediately signed with the San Francisco 49ers. Then he immediately sought to advise the young cornerback starting opposite him in San Francisco.

The most important lesson Sherman gave Witherspoon?

"The biggest thing is, just believe in yourself," Witherspoon said Thursday, just off the edge of the practice field at Seahawks training camp.

His idol told Witherspoon: "Having a presence on the field, and bringing your character out in your game, that affects people around you and makes the entire unit better. It's really just doing all you can to show who you are on every, single play."

Witherspoon said his relationship with Sherman "was more unique than just being in the cornerback room with him.

"But he definitely touched other people and other positions on the team," Witherspoon said. "Just more of a natural leader, and a figure that we all gravitated to for guidance and understanding—and just kind of following his competitive savvy."

Pete Carroll knows who Richard Sherman is.

And to the veteran coach, this month hasn't been the real Richard Sherman.

No coach, maybe no man, in Sherman's life knows him better. Carroll drafted the overlooked Sherman in the fifth round in 2011 out of Stanford. H then made Sherman him his prototype cornerback, the long, tall centerpiece—and mouthpiece—to how he wanted the Seahawks to play defense and carry themselves.

Carroll encouraged Sherman to be more brash, more in your face, more competitive than he already was.

Sherman thrived. So did the Seahawks.

They played in two Super Bowls in Sherman's first four years. They won Seattle's first and only NFL championship—then came within 1 yard from a second consecutive title, in February 2015.

Carroll turned that fifth-round pick into a $47 million cornerback with a national persona. Sherman turned Carroll into the NFL champion most thought the coach couldn't be, duplicating his championships and system from USC.

'I really believe in the guy'

This summer, Sherman is unsigned. His three-year contract with the 49ers expired.

On July 14, he was arrested and jailed by Redmond police for allegedly driving his Mercedes SUV drunk, then trying to forcibly enter his in-laws' home with his wife and children scared inside.

After that night, Witherspoon and Carroll acted.

They each reached out to support Sherman, who police allege drove impaired through an active construction zone along state Route 520 at 1 a.m. He then allegedly attempted to forcibly enter his in-laws' home at 2 a.m. Police reported his wife was inside, and his father-in-law tried to protect her and his family from Sherman's repeating charging into a bolt-locked front door by bear-spraying him.

Sherman, 33, responded to Witherspoon and Carroll in ways that made them concerned for his present, yet encouraged for his future.

"I have," Witherspoon said when asked by The News Tribune this week if he's reached out to Sherman since he was released from jail with no bail, pending a pre-trial hearing Aug. 13 in King County District Court in Redmond on his not-guilty pleas to five misdemeanor charges

Asked how Sherman is doing, Witherspoon said: "He's doing great."

Court records show the King County Sheriff's Office early this year obtained an extreme risk protection order which remains sealed. A harrowing 911 call from his wife from their Maple Valley home said Sherman was acting suicidal that night, before he got into his SUV and drove to Redmond.

On July 16, Sherman pleaded not guilty to third-degree malicious mischief for domestic violence, driving under the influence and reckless endangerment of roadway workers (gross misdemeanors) plus second-degree criminal trespass for domestic violence and resisting arrest (misdemeanors).

That day, he released a statement.

"I am deeply remorseful for my actions on Tuesday night," Sherman wrote on his Twitter account. "I behaved in a manner I am not proud of. I have been dealing with some personal challenges over the last several months, but that is not an excuse for how I acted. The importance of mental and emotional health is extremely real and I vow to get the help I need. I appreciate all of the people who have reached out in support of me and my family, including our community here in Seattle. I am grateful to have such an amazing wife, family and support system to lean on during this time."

Carroll elaborated where Witherspoon did not want to, describing his recent talks with Sherman before and after the incident.

"I have been in communication with Richard throughout the offseason, as I told you before (in June the) last time we met. And we've had more since then," Carroll said Wednesday.

"He's got a lot that he's working on right now, and I wish him and the family the best and that everything works out.

"I really believe in the guy. He's a brilliant person. And he'll figure this out and put everything back in order the way it needs to be headed.

"That's what I believe in. And I'm rooting for him."

Full circle

Now 26, Witherspoon is again in a unique position.

He is in Sherman's old job, the one that made Sherman rich, famous and a champion in Seattle.

Witherspoon signed a one-year, $4 million contract with the Seahawks in free agency this spring. For that price, Carroll and general manager John Schneider aren't planning for Witherspoon to sit the bench.

Many around the NFL see a one-year deal as dangerous, or a slight, in a league where very little is guaranteed beyond the year a veteran is in.

Carroll and Schneider love to hoard motivated players. In this year of an unprecedented, reduced salary cap in a pandemic, they are using one-year deals to save money and motivate veterans.

This offseason they also signed new tight end Gerald Everett from the Rams, re-signed offensive lineman Ethan Pocic, defensive ends Aldon Smith and Robert Nkemdiche and defensive tackle Al Woods to one-year deals.

Witherspoon says he's "honored."

He sees it as a huge opportunity, one for which he is renewed and motivated.

"Absolutely," he said. "I mean, I'm motivated by the opportunity, obviously, to compete at the game's highest level. And then, just the opportunity to prove myself and set my value (again) with a one-year deal, it's an incredible opportunity. It's not just something that is thrown around the league very often.

"So I am honored, and I have to go do the other part—which is put it on tape."

He's fully back from a hamstring injury that limited him to 11 games and four starts last season with the 49ers, who played Emmanuel Moseley instead.

This offseason, Witherspoon had a Tenex procedure in his leg. Developed at the Mayo Clinic, Tenex is "a minimally invasive procedure that can help eliminate chronic tendon pain by precisely targeting and removing damaged tissue without the need for conventional surgery," according to the Boston Sports and Biologics center.

It has been shown to help tendon pain in over 85% of patients. The ultrasound-imaging procedure is minimally invasive. Witherspoon said it was an "an arthroscopic needle" that went into damaged tissue, leaving alone healthy tendons and leaving a micro-incision small enough to not need stitches.

"It wasn't a surgery," he said.

He is where Sherman was in 2011, learning the details of Carroll's unique, step-kick technique of jamming then running with receivers off the line of scrimmage. He's been the Seahawks' starting left cornerback in most drills and scrimmages during the team's mandatory minicamp in June plus the first days of training camp this week. Former Green Bay Packers starter Damarious Randall is competing with Witherspoon for the starting job.

Witherspoon and Sherman are nearly the same size. Each measured 6 feet, 2 1./2 inches at the NFL scouting combine before they got drafted. Witherspoon is listed at 6-3, same as Sherman, and at 195 pounds, Sherman's weight entering the 2011 draft.

Carroll has famously never drafted a cornerback for the Seahawks who didn't have the 32-inch arms Sherman has. Witherspoon's are 33 inches long.

Sherman ran the 40-yard dash in 4.54 seconds at the 2011 combine. Witherspoon's 40-time at the 2017 combine: 4.45.

Asked if Witherspoon fits the Seahawks-cornerback prototype Carroll set with Sherman, the coach said: "Yeah, he does. He's exactly the kind of guy we play with quite a bit here.

"He has had a lot of quality reps," Carroll said. "He hasn't been a legitimate, all-time starter, but he has started enough (33) games over the (four) years when we played against him.

"He's got a real nice style about him, because he uses his length and he's a 4.4 guy. He's got good hands, good eye coordination. He's made plays with his eyes, which shows awareness.

"He's just a young kid coming up. So it's a great opportunity for him and for us to see if we can develop him and make him a front-line player."

Multiple sports were key

Witherspoon grew up in Sacramento, California, playing four sports, year round, well into high school. He was an outside defender during 12 years of soccer, often overlapping and making deep runs into the attack. He was a second baseman and center fielder during 15 years of playing baseball. He hit .300 with 21 stolen bases as a second baseman and center fielder as a senior at Christian Brothers High School. He capped 15 years of basketball by averaging 16 points and seven assists per game as a senior point guard at Christian Brothers.

His only year of football was his senior year of high school. He played one year at Sacramento City College before he signed and starred at Colorado.

He and Everett, Seattle's new $6 million tight end, each played multiple sports and football only as seniors in high school. That underscores how important playing multiple sports is in a society that often pushes young athletes into specialization.

In track, Everett ran the 4x100 and 4x400 relays plus the high jump and triple jump. He also was an outfielder in baseball and shooting guard in basketball at Columbia High School in Decatur, Georgia.

Witherspoon majored in ecology and evolutionary biology at Colorado. He wanted to be a doctor when his athletic career ended.

Four years ago, when Sherman was entering what became his final season with Seattle, Witherspoon thought Carroll was going to draft him. He had visited the Seahawks from CU. Carroll loved that Witherspoon played the press-coverage style Seattle uses; he says he was in press at the line at Colorado about 70% of the time.

But in that 2017 draft, the Seahawks took the infamously failed Malik McDowell in the second round and LSU center Ethan Pocic later in round two. Pocic is battling Kyle Fuller to be Seattle's starting center this season.

San Francisco drafted Witherspoon in the third round, at 66th overall. With Witherspoon off the board, Seattle selected cornerback Shaquill Griffin from Central Florida at 90th overall later in round three. Griffin started for the Seahawks for four years, replacing Sherman at left cornerback through last season. He signed with his home-state Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency this spring.

Now Witherspoon is replacing Griffin, who replaced Sherman while Sherman was playing with Witherspoon in San Francisco.

It really is all related.

Witherspoon mirrors Sherman in size, length, speed—and, thanks to Sherman's advice, style and bravado.

In his first press conference after the 49ers tired of his injury issues and let him sign with NFC West-rival Seattle, Witherspoon sounded like Sherman.

"When I was healthy (with San Francisco), I was the best corner in the league," Witherspoon said in late May.

"And I'm not going to settle for anything else."

Witherspoon looked like Sherman during the second practice of training camp Thursday. During an 11-on-11 scrimmage, Witherspoon was sprinting back toward the right sideline as Tyler Lockett cut a deep out route in front of him. Russell Wilson threw a pass he thought was safe from Witherspoon. The cornerback ran up and off the sideline, pounced toward the pass, leaped high in front of Lockett and tipped the ball away, seemingly out of nowhere.

A 6-foot cornerback wouldn't have been able to reach that pass.

That's why Sherman, and now Witherspoon, were and are Seahawks.

Yes, amid his idol's troubles and their talks, Witherspoon has thought about having Sherman's old job in Seattle.

"Yeah, I have," he said. "To me, it just makes me want to work hard. Do the right things. Take the guidance and the stuff that he taught me and put it to work—and just represent this team well. Represent the cornerback position well across the league."


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