Richard Sherman, who never has fielded a Super Bowl question he couldn’t answer, finally was flummoxed by a reporter Thursday. Asked if he’d abstain from playing Sunday to attend the birth of his son, the dependably chatty Seattle Seahawks star took what amounted to a verbal fair catch.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Sherman. “I think he’s going to be a disciplined young man and stay in there until after the game. He’s going to do his father his first favor and stay in there for another week or two.”
The quandary of a pro athlete skipping a meaningful game for the chance to experience a far more meaningful event is not new, but the Super Bowl enlarges and amplifies the issue. If Sherman is forced to decide Sunday, the tempest will make Deflategate seem like much ado about nothing.
It would be presumptuous of me to offer a grown man public advice on this most private of matters, so I won’t go there. But my general philosophy on the responsibilities of parenthood is that while the first day of a life is a milestone not to be missed, neither is a first step, nor a first day of school, nor a first game of catch, nor all the other firsts fathers don’t always share with their sons.
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As a prospective father, Sherman might want to consult Seahawks linebackers coach Ken Norton, Jr. about the challenges that await. Norton’s father, the late boxing great Ken Norton, was able to balance a high-profile athletic career with his duties as a dad.
Sherman and Norton Jr. already are connected by Muhammad Ali. Despite their generational gulf — Sherman was born more than six years after Ali’s final fight — the Hawks cornerback regards him as an inspiration.
Norton Jr. admires Ali as well, but sees the Ali legend from a unique perspective: His father had three bouts with Ali, none more illustrious than the 1973 upset recalled for Norton’s jaw-breaking punch in San Diego.
“Ali is an icon to us all,” Norton Jr. said. “He was really good at what he did, he backed it up, he talked about it, and he put it in your face. He was really special at a time we needed someone to be special.
“Richard feels the same way a lot of people do. My father liked him, as well. They fought three times, and he was able to become the fighter he was because of Ali. Those are the fights he’s remembered for.”
An accomplished all-around athlete in high school and college, Norton Sr. learned how to box in the Marines. He did not fight for the fame associated with owning the distinction as baddest dude on the planet. He did not fight because he lacked skills to succeed outside the ring.
A single parent with custody of his children, he fought to support his kids.
“To the rest of the world, he was the guy that broke Ali’s jaw,” said Norton Jr. “To me, he was more of a father. He was my inspiration. He took me in and showed me everything I’ve ever known. Every waking moment, I’m always thankful for the time I’ve spent with my father.”
On the night before Norton Jr. turned 10, his father was in the Bronx, going the distance — 15 rounds in those days — with Ali at Yankee Stadium. Two years later, when he was old enough to baby sit for his little sister, a nervous Norton Jr. wondered how his dad was doing in his heavyweight title match against young challenger Larry Holmes.
For obvious reasons, Norton Sr. didn’t want his children to see him fight on TV. But on the night of June 9, 1978, Norton Jr. couldn’t resist. He went upstairs to take a peek at what many boxing historians regard as one of the top 10 fights of the 20th century.
As Norton Jr. would tell the Los Angeles Times, he tuned into a late round of the brutal brawl in Las Vegas and thought: “Wow, my dad’s pretty special.”
Richard Sherman, it seems to me, has the potential to be another pretty special father. But that commitment requires more, much more — thousands and thousands of days more — than being present for a sacred moment.
Ken Norton Sr., cited twice by the L.A. Times as “Father of the Year,” took beatings for the sake of his children. He earned championship belts and a no-doubt place in the Boxing Hall of Fame, but as he shared in his autobiography, no honor compared to being known as a father involved in the lives of his children.
“Of all the titles that I’ve been privileged to have,” he wrote, “the title of ‘dad’ has always been the best.”
There is no thrill like hearing a baby’s healthy cry in the delivery room, and there is no anguish like confronting a teary-eyed teenager cut from a tryout.
Only one can be hugged.