Sherritt ‘bred’ to be CFL’s top linebacker
Second-year Eskimo taught the position by his father, has fought ‘too-small’ label his entire career
EDMONTON - At Pullman High School, they called it the Sherritt Sound.
J.C. Sherritt was such a prolific tackler — at his present five-foot-nine as a teen, minus 35 or 40 pounds — that his teammates and coaches learned to recognize the sound that accompanied their pit bull of a linebacker taking an opponent to the ground.
“There’d be a big pile in there and you’d hear that noise and you didn’t have to ask who hit him. You knew just by the sound of it — it was different,” said then-Pullman head coach Bob Wollan, who now coaches at W.F. West High School in Chehalis, Wash.
He laughed, thinking back to the three years he spent as Sherritt’s coach.
“I was a heck of a coach when we had that kid around.”
The Sherritt Sound graduated from Pullman, Wash., where his team was 14-0 and won a 2A State Championship in 2005 and went on to reverberate at Eastern Washington University. In four years there, he set a school tackling record (432) and was named the Big Sky Conference defensive player of the year as a senior in 2010.
In just his second year in the Canadian Football League, Sherritt has a shot at setting the league’s single-season record for tackles. His 119 tackles this year have him 10 behind Calvin Tiggle, who set the mark with the Toronto Argonauts in 1994.
Sherritt has one shot at setting the record on Friday night at Commonwealth Stadium in the Eskimos’ regular-season finale against the Calgary Stampeders.
Despite not getting to see many CFL games in Chehalis, Sherritt’s old coach was very much aware of the record.
“He’s just got a gift. It’s unreal,” Wollan said of Sherritt’s tackling ability.
Listed as the shortest player on the Eskimos’ active roster (injured tailback Hugh Charles is five-foot-eight), Sherritt hates the too-small tag. He’s also not fond of the next assumption that as a short player, he’s led the league in tackles all season solely on heart.
“I’ve never really understood the heart comment,” he said. “I know it’s supposed to be a compliment, but it’s like little guys have heart and big guys have talent.
“I just go out and play football. I think, at the end of the day, I’m just a football player. That really helps with the guys I’ve got around me and that’s been huge for me this year.”
Sherritt doesn’t just want it more than anyone else; that sells short a lifetime of work that he has put into his game. The middle linebacker position is in his blood. His father played the position for three seasons at the University of Nevada in Reno and was the first to teach his son how to tackle.
“I remember him drawing up the x’s and o’s when I was so little and I didn’t understand anything except he was the guy who played behind somebody and tried to tackle the football,” Sherritt said. “I felt like it was bred into me early, that was the position I wanted to play.”
Wollan said it took about two days for him to look past Sherritt’s size and to put him into the lineup.
“Even then he was fighting the ‘too-small’ thing,” Wollan said.
Sherritt went to work on defence and also played running back. In his senior year, he took charge of the team. In Tacoma for the state championship game, Sherritt was unhappy with the walk-through practice the team had upon its arrival after a day of travel from Pullman.
“He knew when we came out of practice that it wasn’t right. We knew as coaches it wasn’t right,” Wollan recalled. “We got back to the hotel and he just pulled everyone out of their rooms and went down and found a room … and he brought everyone down and they did the whole defensive walk-through and adjustment period on their own, led by him.
“He had the initiative as a 17-year-old senior to take the whole team and say, ‘We’re going to do this again and make sure it’s right.’ And I think those are the qualities that have really put him over the top as far as being a guy that plays that middle linebacker position.”
The extra prep paid off. Pullman won the game 27-24.
At the next level — where Wollan pointed out that EWU “barely gave him a scholarship,” — Sherritt had to prove himself all over again. Eastern’s starting quarterback, Matt Nichols, now the Eskimos backup QB, said he learned quickly what Sherritt could do.
“Any time we needed a turnover, he was there to force a fumble, recover a fumble or get an interception,” he said, recalling a game against Colorado in which Sherritt had a 60-yard interception touchdown return and was hurt on the scoring drive.
“We gave him a little bit of grief for having a quarterback injure him, but it was on a great play and a play that helped us almost beat a great D1-A team.”
His pro career has rocketed. The CFL’s West Division rookie of the year in 2011, Sherritt has forced his way into the conversation among the elite of the CFL. Local media and Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed named Sherritt the team’s most valuable player and top defensive player this season.
“He embodies everything an MVP is supposed to be,” Reed said. “Not just for the performance on the field or the statistics, but it’s about the character he displays, the way he approaches the game, the respect he has for his teammates. That’s the way I look at (a MVP) and J.C. has that.”
While Wollan worked with Sherritt seven years ago, his and Reed’s comments are interchangeable.
“What really sets him apart from most of the kids I’ve ever coached was his ability to see the big picture,” Wollan said. “He’s a great player, but he’s so conscious of what it is about being on a team and having team success. He spent a lot of time making sure it was always about our team and not about him.
“Let’s say we had a 60-man roster. Sixty was as important to him as one on the talent scale and he would go out of his way to take care of that kid that never got into the game. It was awesome.
“I don’t know how many times I heard … in film or whatever, our own team would say, ‘I’m really glad he’s on our team.’ I haven’t heard that about a lot of kids.”
Sherritt will be the first to say that whether he gets the 11 tackles on Friday or not doesn’t matter. His team needs a win and is eyeing a playoff spot — whether it falls in the East or West Division – and that takes priority. He’s played far beyond his 24 years this season and has a full career in front of him to try to break the record again.
With his own team going into its playoffs, Wollan hasn’t had the chance to talk with Sherritt as much as he’d like to. One of their more recent conversations sticks with the coach.
“I asked him if he’s a spokesman for anything yet, if he was doing any commercials,” he said. “And (Sherritt) said, ‘No, I walk into the place with my teammates and everyone thinks I’m the manager.’ I was laughing about that.”
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