“It's hard to be humble,” Muhammad Ali rationalized, “when you're as great as I am.”
In Sunday's contest between No. 1s, the Super Bowl's two most visible faces - Bronco Peyton Manning and Seahawk Richard Sherman - are case studies of Ali's theory.
Manning is football's undisputed heavyweight champion whose "aw-shucks" humility belies - and explains - his unrivaled ownership of five NFL MVP awards. Quick to credit his teammates, even after a seven-touchdown performance, the 13-time Pro-Bowler and comeback king leaves it to others to laud his game.
With his legacy on the line in his third Super Bowl, Manning is a sentimental favorite, even in Las Vegas where wagers pushed Manning's Broncos from underdogs to favored team.
There's also anti-Seahawk sentiment, fueled by Sherman's nationally televised Ali-like rant. The breast-beating cornerback's noise rivals Seattle's “12th-Man,” and with an NFL-leading 20 interceptions since debuting in 2011, Sherman's bite is as fierce as his bark.
Moments after his acrobatic championship clinching play in the “Bully Bowl” against San Francisco, Sherman trumpeted, “I'm the best corner in the game,” calling vanquished receiver Michael Crabtree “me-di-o-cre.” His unsportsmanlike conduct sent Twitter aflutter prompting even John McCain to declare for the Broncos “because I don't like that loudmouth' from Seattle.”
Before accepting the oft-tweeted critique that Sherman is an overpaid, classless embarrassment to professional sports, think again.
Judge the hyper-competitive Sherman on the content of his character, not the color of his commentary. Beneath the braggart's veneer is an inspiring life story derived from disciplined parenting, academic focus, hard work, and earned success.
A Denver billboard boasts, “Denver has a Champ, but Seattle has a Chump,” referring to Bronco's star cornerback Champ Bailey. It resonates, even for Sherman who has studied and admires Bailey. Chastened by blistering criticism and an NFL fine, the brainy sparkplug of Seattle's intimidating secondary - Legion of Boom - regrets that his adrenaline-infused, déclassé post-game antics overshadowed his team's football feats.
Sherman's braggadocio also eclipsed his life's remarkable trajectory from drug and gang-infested Compton, Calif., to high school salutatorian, to Stanford scholar-athlete, to renown as one of the NFL's best defenders - and he's only 25 years old. Squeaky clean and devoid of profanity, Sherman's one brush with scandal -- a suspension last year for using the amphetamine Adderall - was dismissed.
In contrast to the sporting world's men-children, Sherman is a magnetic and thoughtful personality whose social media posts reflect well-ordered priorities:
“Blanket Coverage,” the name of his charitable foundation which supports at-risk youth.
#GivingBackToTheCity (a frequently used Twitter hash tag), which he did on Christmas day at Seattle Children's Hospital.
Motivational messages like Ali's maxim, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
And gratitude, like the post: “Blessed to make the Pro Bowl with my brothers! We had this goal at the start of the year and accomplished it! To God be the Glory!”
There are few who rival Sherman's ability to reach and reform kids like those he still counsels in Compton. This is the African-American community's greatest challenge, considering black males suffer the highest rates of fatherless homes, high school dropouts, poverty, arrests, incarceration and unemployment in America.
Though a compelling role model, No. 1 NFL draft pick Manning was born with a pigskin-covered spoon in his mouth as the scion of a football dynasty headed by former NFL quarterback Archie Manning. His brother, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, is already a two-time Super Bowl winner.
Peyton's path to greatness was paved with hard work, intelligence, and perseverance in overcoming career-endangering neck injuries. But as the son of a garbage-truck driver, Sherman's impressive story is more likely to inspire black youth. Like Ali, Sherman is a driven, up-from-nothing champion eager to prove his worth in a world where he's felt doubted -- being a late-round draft pick still plagues him.
In an era littered with narcissistic celebrity-seekers eager to parlay airbrushed personas into power and money, Sherman stands out as authentically accomplished, albeit in need of a Dale Carnegie course. As disgraced New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez and Texas governor aspirant Wendy Davis proved last week, those who appear perfect are usually the best deceivers.
Sherman isn't perfect. He just lacks humility, which Manning can easily remedy by throwing a touchdown past the formidable ball hawk. Then Sherman can learn what a more sage Ali eventually concluded. “I never thought of losing,” he mused, “but now that it's happened, the only thing is to do it right. That's my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
To realize his life-coaching potential -- and be deserving of adulation -- Sherman needs the humility that comes with defeat. To achieve legendary status, pundits insist Manning must win this Super Bowl.
Wouldn't it be nice if both Sherman and Manning achieved the greatness they deserve? Go Broncos!Melanie Sturm is an opinion columnist with the Aspen Times. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions for editorials, available at this link.