In 1979, Browns’ defensive tackle Jerry Sherk, had developed a boil on his arm which then became infected. Cleveland, under head coach Sam Rutigliano, was 6-3-0 and set to play on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles. During the 24-19 win, Sherk inadvertently scraped off the boil on the hard Veterans Stadium turf which had installed Astro Turf.
Monday was film review. Afterwards while driving to his house in Medina he felt a pain in his leg that became so severe, he could barely get out of his car and had to crawl to his front door. The infected boil had developed a staph infection which had traveled through his bloodstream. The first stop for the infection was his left knee.
He had surgery that Wednesday to clean out the staph infection to which he was hospitalized for six weeks. Meanwhile, the Browns placed him on season-ending IR. Ultimately, the injury would become career-ending. He was sidelined all of 1980 and became a situational pass rusher for the entire 1981 season, his final year with the Browns and in a sport he once was a dominant player in pro football.
Sherk has been called “the greatest defensive lineman of the Cleveland Browns.” He was drafted in the second-round of the 1970 NFL draft and became an instant starter. Sherk was named to four consecutive Pro Bowls from 1973-1976. In 1976, he was named the NFL Defensive Player-of-the-Year and twice voted All-AFC.
Is he the greatest Browns defensive lineman? Was he?
Broadcaster Howard Cosell said hell no.
“Monday Night Football” (MNF) is a television institution. The Browns hosted the New York Jets on the ABC Network on September 21, 1970 to a packed house. It was the very first airing of MNF. This was the era of Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath who had just won Super Bowl IV. This was also the first season that the NFL and American Football League had merged and was now one huge league.
It was also Jerry Sherk’s rookie season and his very first NFL contest.
The Browns won 31-21 in a very entertaining game. During the broadcast, ABC commentator Cosell, known for his abrasive personality, repeatedly dogged Sherk’s game performance especially the second half. During the game, Sherk had his chin split wide open. The newspaper headline the next morning sported, “Nightmare ends for Jerry Sherk.” Cosell’s style of broadcasting was to come up with a “theme” during the game and then pound that idea to death.
After football, Sherk became a sports photographer. He sold his talent to publications such as Sports Illustrated, newspapers and Pro! Magazine. In 2010, the Cleveland Touchdown Club Charities held a photo show of Sherk’s work entitled, “Thought the Eyes of a Defensive Lineman: The Cleveland Browns as Photographed by Jerry Sherk.”
The Browns were the only team Sherk played for. He had signed a rookie contract for three years that paid him $18,000, $20,000 and then $22,000 a year with a $17,500 signing bonus. During his career, he had 864 total tackles, 69.5 sacks, three interceptions, 12 fumble recoveries, blocked six kicks and started 131 of 147 games.
Sherk also received the very first “Bulldog Award” given to a defensive player by the NFLPA and sponsored by Mack Trucks which was voted on by the league’s offensive linemen.
Today, Sherk lives in California with his wife Ann, a marriage that is not quite 36 years. Sherk has two grown children: son Michael and daughter Hannah.
He has a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology and is the founder of the consulting firm Mentor Management Systems based in Encinitas, California. With the expertise in both one-on-one mentoring as well as group sessions, Sherk has assisted hundreds of mentoring organizations in the past two decades to develop their program structures as well as staff training.
DBN wanted to know what Sherk thought of how NFL defenders tackle these days, what inspired his passion in helping at-risk children, and why ABC Broadcaster Howard Cosell disliked him so much.
DBN: You attended Grays Harbor College after a very good football and wrestling career in high school. How did you end up at this school?
Sherk: I was a late-bloomer in high school and didn’t play football until my senior year. I wasn’t very big and the competition was good so I just didn’t go out just to see the bench. But in the summer of my senior year I grew and bulked up some and played pretty good. One day after the season I was helping to do some stucco work, carrying mud up the ladder and stuff. When I was coming down the ladder there was a man standing there. He introduced himself as Jack Elway and told me he wanted me to come play football at his school. I didn’t have any other offers. They had a good wrestling program which I was good at also in high school, so I went and played for John Elway’s dad.
DBN: You were a wrestling sensation in high school. When you attended Grays Harbor, you were part of two straight State titles. In 1968, individually you won two State titles. Is it true you pinned every single one of your opponents?
Sherk: My first year at Grays I was All-Conference. In high school, I went from not making the team to third in the State my first year which I thought was pretty good at the time. At Grays Harbor there was another wrestler by the name of Terry Crenshaw who taught me how to use my legs. The heavyweights had never seen it. Nobody had an answer for this and so I pinned every opponent.
DBN: You transferred to Oklahoma State. How did you end up there?
Sherk: Both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had great wrestling programs and were nationally known for their teams. I had seen film of both schools and it in my mind to attend one. I got a football scholarship to Oklahoma State and wrestled there also. The switch from Junior College to major college football wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I made All Big-8. Pro scouts started coming around to talk to me. I was pretty shy back then and just didn’t talk to the media much so I guess I didn’t get as much publicity as others. The scouts would ask me a bunch of questions, though.
DBN: The Browns drafted you in the second-round of the 1970 NFL draft. Back then this event wasn’t televised like it is today. How did you find out you were taken by Cleveland?
Sherk: I was on a wrestling trip to Southern Illinois. I was working out before a night match and someone said I had been drafted by the Cleveland Browns. Later, I got a call from Art Modell who said, “Welcome to Cleveland!” They had tracked me down to the college and somehow he was punched through.
DBN: Was your first training camp what you thought it would be?
Sherk: In college I had read Jerry Kramer’s book “Instant Replay.” In his book he talked about how rough it was in the NFL so I had that on my mind. It was the first year the two leagues came together, and so the veterans were to arrive later than the rookies. Then there was a strike which meant the veterans came in about five weeks later. That gave me a lot of extra time in. I had been wrestling the year before so I know what getting in shape is. In wrestling, we would run a lap with a guy on our back. The physical parts of football – learning the techniques – took some time to adjust with. The Browns had wanted to upgrade the position of interior defensive line so that’s why they took me. They had traded Marvin Upshaw. I had a great coach, Dick Modzelowski. He had played for Cleveland and the Giants on the defensive line and knew stuff. He was a great coach.
DBN: How did you work with the veterans once they arrived?
Sherk: I played really well in camp. Went full-speed every down, every play. I thought I was doing really great until we played an actual game. I found out all those guys had another gear. There was a lot more intensity than I was anticipating. I had to work even harder to keep my head above water.
DBN: As a rookie, you played in the very first Monday Night Football telecast against Joe Namath and the New York Jets who were reigning Super Bowl champions. At the time, did you think it was odd to be playing on a Monday?
Sherk: It was my first year in the league so I didn’t know that this wasn’t normal. It was a little strange because I had never played on a Monday any other time. At the time, I didn’t think it would be big. People still had to go to work the next day. But it was the first time that games were re-capped and showed highlights from other games. There wasn’t any SportsCenter back then, so at halftime, they showed highlights.
DBN: Howard Cosell gave you grief all night during the telecast. How did you find out that he had ripped you all game, and did this change the way you played, and were you ever invited to his place to play poker?
Sherk: Back then Joe Namath was everything. Before the game, Cosell interviewed him and Namath said they were going to run at the rookie – meaning me. Cosell was always negative, and had to have someone to pick on. So, Namath gave me up before the game even started. I didn’t know he had hammered me all game until I read it in the paper the next day with the headline, “Nightmare ends for Jerry Sherk.” We won the game, yet the story was about Cosell saying how badly I played. When we watched the game film like we do, I didn’t think I had played that badly. That was the only time I had ever seen the game until NFL Network ran a 50-year anniversary tribute of the first telecast. I watched the entire game and gained a new prospective. We had many great veteran players on defense who were all near the end of their careers. And here was this new guy. I didn’t play that badly. I was Howard Cosell’s first sacrificial goat. In later games with Cosell on the broadcast, he was generous when he described me.
DBN: When you signed with the Browns, where did you live at the time, and what places did your frequent to eat and go out?
Sherk: Westlake on Detroit Road. I rented a house with two other players. In 1976 I bought a house in Medina. I loved eating at the New York Spaghetti House. Would go to the Luv Pub downtown quite a bit. After a game we would end up at Victoria Station which I understand is no longer there.
DBN: In 1972, the Browns had the Dolphins beat yet lost it in the end. After they went undefeated-and-untied in that season, was it the attitude that y’all let them slip away in that game?
Sherk: Yeh, you feel the immediacy of that game. We had a punt blocked lat in the game. The Dolphins basely came out on top and we were winning by double-digits at one point. But what a game like that does for you as a football team is give you confidence. They didn’t lose a game and we should have beat them. We can play with those type of teams.
DBN: After the 1973 season, you were named to your first Pro Bowl. How did you find out about this prestigious accomplishment, and who was the first person you told?
Sherk: I made a phone call to my wife. I was actually named the alternate and when Mike Reid of Cincinnati retired he didn’t want to play another game. So, they called me. I was elated. I felt I had worked hard for it.
DBN: You had 100 tackles that year and again in 1975. What was your secret?
Sherk: There was good coaching in a great system. I had very good physical attributes at the time with thought to a slanting defense. I always had a lot of introspection after the season was over to see what worked and what could be worked on. I decided I didn’t want play like a battering ram every play so I lost 10 pounds to see if I can hit a guy in the noggin and use my quickness instead. I watched a lot of tape of other defensive linemen like Merlin Olsen, Alan Page and Bob Lily. I picked up techniques like slicing through the line, or take out the lead blocker so one of my teammates would be set up to make the play. I had a good head slap and shoulder slap moves to help me out also.
DBN: What memories do you have about the old Municipal Stadium?
Sherk: When I went to sign my rookie contract, we were in the upper deck. I got chills being in such an historic place. On game days, the walk through the tunnel, from the home locker room which dropped down to a stairwell with steep wooden steps. It was not very well lit. And then you walk on wooden planks with the clack-clack of cleats as everyone stepped forward towards the dugout. Then the first guy pops out that old Indians dugout and the crowd just erupts and just keeps getting louder as everyone piles out.
DBN: You went to four straight Pro Bowls, won two and lost two. Back then, how much was the winner’s take and loser’s?
Sherk: You can Google it, but I think the winner’s got $3,000 with the loser’s share half that.
(Editor’s note: We did Google this. The 1973-1976 Pro Bowls paid $2,000 to the winner while the loser made $1,500. In contrast, the 2019 Pro Bowl shares were $70,000 to the winner while the loser got half that)
DBN: 1975 you were voted Defensive Player-of-the-Year. Did this validate who you were as a player?
Sherk: It did. I was surprised to get that kind of recognition. I was a shy kid and was not a good interview because I didn’t have much to say. And I turned down a lot of interviews. So, I had limited press all year. I was happy that the opposing players thought so much of me. It was nice. The next year I won the Mack Truck Award which was an award back then that was voted on by the offensive linemen in the league of which defensive player they thought was the toughest to block.
DBN: In 1977, you suffered a knee injury in a preseason game. How did this happen?
Sherk: Mike McCoy was a huge guy to move around. I had made contact and then there was a pile up. My leg got caught up under someone. It was the first time I had ever had any major type of injury before. I only was able to play half the season.
DBN: What offensive linemen gave you the most grief?
Sherk: It wasn’t so much one or two guys, it was a set of guys. The Steelers were all so solid and had no weak link. Their system worked like clock work. And all of had good footwork and just didn’t stop even after the whistle had blown. I would pick all of them.
DBN: When you watch the league on TV today, there is a lot of hand grabbing for tackles. Do you want to jump through the television and show these guys how to hit?
Sherk: Actually, no. The game needed to take the turn that it did with CTE. The line play is not as interesting as before now. Today, you can hold the other player’s breastplate of his shoulder pads and as long as your arm doesn’t go straight or turned, it is legal to hold onto your guy. What this rule change did was take away the finesse of defensive linemen. Now, you didn’t need guys who had moves or speed, you just need guys who are big and hard to move. Our guys were athletes, but today you just need bigger guys. This creates more offense which is what the league wants. In our day we were agile and had to be shifty.
DBN: Tell me about the staph infection that almost killed you.
Sherk: We were playing on the road against the Eagles and I scraped my elbow. Monday I went in to watch the game film and my leg start aching. I just shook it off. On the way home, I felt like my knee was on fire and when I got to my house I had to crawl to the front door. We called the trainer who lived nearby and he cultured the area and told me I had a staph infection. I went to the hospital and later they told me my knee basically exploded. They had to put a pump in my knee with a saline drip. I was in the hospital 25 days. I still had a slight fever, and they discovered that my liver was having a reaction to the antibiotic needed to heal my knee. I lost 40 pounds and was down to 210. When I came back the next year we were playing New England and I couldn’t push off my knee. Then my knee was on fire, so I took off all year to heal up.
DBN: After you hung up your cleats, you were a sports photographer. How did you get into this business?
Sherk: Well, here I was out of the game injured and I was bored. My dad had been a hobbyist photographer. I had a camera and would talk to a lot of jocks and take some pictures. It kept me in the game and around the action. Then a guy named Ron Konz with UPI took me under his wing and showed me a lot of things that were helpful like the darkroom. I was wanting something to do. It took me a couple of years to be decent. Ron hired me and I was a stringer for UPI and then later AP. It was a good transition to help me stay in the game.
DBN: Your photography work was in all sorts of publications including Sports Illustrated. In 2010, the Cleveland Touchdown Club Charities held a show of your work in Berea. How did this idea come about, and how many of your photos were included in the show?
Sherk: There were two shows actually. The one in Berea was set up by the Browns’ alumni coordinator. They wanted to incorporate a charity event and liked my work. That show had 35 photographs.
DBN: Tell us about your work with at-risk children.
Sherk: After I formally retired from the game, I did photography for about 10 years. I just sorta got bored with it. I wanted to go back to school and transition from sports to private life. I was relatively healthy. But I wondered, “Where’s the crowd? Where’s the noise?” It was different than playing. I went back and got my master’s degree in counseling psychology and at first thought I would be a marriage counselor. Then I thought I didn’t want to be stuck in a room all day and listen to grown up problems. So, I got into a mentoring program with the State of California and then for 25 years for a company I founded called Mentor Management Systems. I feel that a lot of young people today are not getting the nurturing in their home life. This was a way to expand the coalition development and communication process for these kids. We also helped various organizations improve their training process and conduct training for staff with group facilitation. We also do group workshops.
DBN: It seems your best buddy is QB Brian Sipe. Why would a defensive player hang out with one of those sissy offensive guys?
Sherk: He needs me. He was a 13th round draft pick and early on was on the taxi squad. He was interesting to talk to. We hit it off. Back then, in the early 1970’s, anyone who spoke up against Vietnam was considered young adult rebels.
DBN: Besides money, how has the NFL changed since you played?
Sherk: Today’s game is faster and high-performance. You have to be a really good football player. And there are things different like diet and some many coaches. When I played you did whatever you could for your teammates. I am not sure it’s like that anymore. Players come and go. The press is a lot more today. Money created more intense pressure. And with social media everyone has a camera on their thumb. More money – more problems.
DBN: What was your fondest memories of being a Cleveland Brown?
Sherk: I have competing thoughts. The game experience in the old stadium against the Steelers or the Bengals in our division. The roar of the crowd did not die down in a home game. The sound was coming from all directions including coming out of the ground. It was a constant pumping of adrenaline.