SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The first question was quintessential Kobe.
“When I first called to check on him I said, ‘Are you all right, I want to make sure you are not being a baby about it?'” Kobe Bryant recalls of a November 2017 phone call.
On the other end of the line was San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, one day removed from suffering the right Achilles tendon rupture that would end his 2017 season and, eventually, his seven-year tenure as the shutdown cornerback of the Seattle Seahawks‘ famed Legion of Boom defense.
“When I first called to check on him I said, ‘Are you all right, I want to make sure you are not being a baby about it?'” Kobe Bryant on Richard Sherman’s injury
As Sherman prepared to face one of the most difficult challenges of his NFL career, a conversation with Bryant served as a springboard to his recovery and set the stage for the second phase of Sherman’s career, this time as a 49er. That begins Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings.
Long before Sherman’s injury, he and Bryant forged a friendship. For Sherman, who said Bryant was “essential” in his rehabilitation, there was no better person to speak to about recovering from such an injury. Bryant suffered the same injury in 2013, and he and Sherman share the same me-against-the-world mentality that has taken each of them to lofty heights.
As Sherman, who to that point in his career had never missed a game because of injury, set about trying to attack his recovery, it was Bryant who often served as a sounding board, offering guidance and checking in throughout his rehabilitation.
“He and I had a previous relationship and talked and texted all the time,” Sherman said. “So he gave me some pointers and things I needed to do early on in the process to make sure that I expedited the healing process and I was more proactive than reactive. I think that was one of the big things.”
Sherman and Bryant’s friendship dates back to just after the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, when the pair met at a photo shoot Bryant was doing for Nike.
The groundwork for that friendship, though, actually began many years earlier. Sherman, who grew up in Compton, California, had long admired Bryant as he was leading the Lakers to multiple NBA championships. Sherman was 8 when Bryant started in the league, and though he has said he wasn’t a huge basketball fan, he would watch games with his grandmother, who was.
Soon enough, Sherman identified Bryant as his favorite player, taking special care to note the unrelenting competitive drive, work ethic and determination that were hallmarks of Bryant’s career. When the two finally met, Sherman told Bryant how much he appreciated what he brought to the game. In turn, Bryant told Sherman he was also a fan of his.
The pair exchanged numbers and stayed in contact with Bryant, providing guidance on any number of things, including the business side of the game. Bryant even played in Sherman’s charity softball game in Seattle.
Meeting the challenge
When Bryant launched his new Nike shoe last August, Sherman appeared in Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality” ad campaign. Bryant subsequently challenged Sherman to break the Seahawks’ season interception record of 10, a challenge Sherman readily accepted.
So when Sherman suffered his Achilles injury in a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Nov. 9, 2017, it was only fitting that he followed Bryant’s lead. Immediately after Bryant tore his Achilles during an April 2013 game against the Golden State Warriors, he still managed to stay in the game to shoot two free throws before walking off the court.
“I walked it off, just like he did,” Sherman said. “That’s what I told him.”
As painful as that walk was, the hardest work was still ahead. While other more common injuries, such as torn ACLs, also require long, strenuous recoveries, those who have torn their Achilles will testify that it’s one of the worst injuries you can have.
Nobody knows that better than Bryant, who made a career of relying on his mental strength to push past any test.
“This is the ultimate challenge,” Bryant said. “I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. It’s horrible.”
When Bryant reached out to Sherman on that November day, he was prepared with plenty of advice on how to get through the grueling process. Bryant gave Sherman the name of a couple of doctors to reach out to about doing his surgery. He provided procedural advice on some of the day-to-day components of the recovery and laid out the different phases of rehab. Most of all, he wanted to make make sure Sherman had his mind right for what was to come.
“The most important part is not looking at the finish line,” Bryant said. “It’s so far away, it’s like starting at the base of Everest and you’re looking up at the summit. That’s big. That’s what the Achilles injury is like, man, it’s tough. You can’t think about the finish line. You have to just think about the day that’s right here in front of you now. You put one foot in front of the other and then next thing you know, time has gone by and you’re at the top of the mountain. But you have got to just take it one step at a time.”
For Bryant, the hardest part of the recovery was the day-to-day tedium of the endeavor. Any sort of misstep could result in a serious setback that could delay, or potentially kill, a return. Bryant learned all about how to do each day’s activities without overstretching the tendon. From there, it became a waiting game. Unlike rebuilding a muscle, the tendon seems to work on its own schedule, which means you have to patiently work to strengthen it and then let it tighten again.
Sherman took that advice to heart and Bryant gave him some techniques to make sure that he didn’t let the muscles in his foot atrophy while it was in a cast, for that would have only extended an already lengthy process.
“The most important part is not looking at the finish line. It’s so far away, it’s like starting at the base of Everest and you’re looking up at the summit. That’s big. That’s what the Achilles injury is like, man, it’s tough.” Kobe Bryant
Bryant also suggested finding ways to make some of the monotonous exercises into mini competitions. For example, one of the most common exercises for anyone coming off a serious foot, ankle or Achilles injury is to pick up marbles with your toes and place them in a bowl or bucket. Bryant pushed himself to try to pick up more marbles, and faster, than the day before. As he now says, he wanted to dominate those exercises.
“Every little thing is a challenge in and of itself that you have to approach as the most important thing in your life,” Bryant said.
Sherman described his recovery as “three or four hours a day of constant motion and strengthening muscles that kind of die after you tear your Achilles.” Heeding Bryant’s advice and drawing on his own competitive drive, Sherman chose to view the challenge as another in a long line of them.
“You can look at it like, ‘Damn, woe is me, why did this happen to me and oh my God, why did I have to go through this?'” Sherman said. “Or you can look at it as ‘Man, I needed another great challenge and I needed another mountain to climb and I look forward to climbing that mountain.’ So that’s the way I treated it every day, as another step, another growth. Obviously, there are always setbacks both mentally and physically and emotionally, but it’s one of those things where you allow yourself to see what you’re really made of when you go through things like this. And I appreciated that journey.”
Back in action
Sherman said he felt at full strength about three or four months ago, and though he had a brief setback during training camp in the form of a hamstring injury, he made it through the preseason and is poised to start Sunday against the Vikings. Given a little perspective with the Achilles injury mostly behind him, Sherman even goes so far as to call it a “fun learning experience.”
In addition to the opportunity to conquer something, Sherman also took solace in the extra time the injury allowed him to spend with his children, who helped spur him along in his rehab.
“I saw a side of myself that I never even knew I had,” Sherman said. “It was one of those things where you don’t know you have to be as strong as you have to be until you have to be that strong. … Sometimes, I’m not saying it was complacent, but you get bored. It’s a routine, you get out there, you play 16 games, you play at a high level, you do your best, you go against these guys and you enjoy it but sometimes throwing a wrench in the plans kind of helps you and it wakes you up and reignites a fire.”
When Sherman steps on the field Sunday for his first regular-season game in 10 months, don’t be surprised if he has some special footwear for the occasion. Sherman asked Bryant for a pair of Kobe football cleats, a request Bryant and Nike happily accommodated.
Now it’s up to Sherman to put the injury behind him and play his usual, aggressive style without thinking about it. It’s one final piece of the puzzle, and it’s why Bryant isn’t going offer another statistical challenge before this season.
“For him, I think it’s just the mental aspect of forgetting the injury,” Bryant said. “That’s a challenge enough. When you come back from an Achilles injury, that really is the biggest challenge of just forgetting about it and understanding that there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Bryant was 35 when he suffered his injury. He returned after missing the first 19 games of the following season but had that return cut short by a knee injury. Injuries continued to plague him over his final two seasons, though he still averaged 17.6 points in the 2015-16 season. He retired after dropping 60 points on the Utah Jazz on April 13, 2016.
Whether Sherman can bounce back and return to his All-Pro form remains to be seen. Many top-level athletes were never the same after a ruptured Achilles. Sherman turned 30 in March and has heard from many of the same doubters who questioned whether Bryant could return to prominence.
Suffice to say, Bryant has no such questions about his friend’s comeback.
“His mentality is what separates him,” Bryant said. “From being overlooked, from being kind of thought of as someone who won’t be able to maximize his potential, I think he uses that as fuel to drive him and propel him.
“I’m excited for him to come back and show the world what he’s got, man. It’s going to be awesome.”