Jerry Sherk has always wanted to test himself against the best. This drive landed him in the NFL, but not first without a challenge in the old Big 8 Conference.
A self-described late bloomer, Sherk first went to Grace Harbor Junior College to play football and wrestle. He was spending his days working in construction for his father, mixing plaster when football coach Jack Elway arrived to recruit him to the school.
Elway was the only coach to recruit Sherk, but he wouldn't be Sherk's last. It took him just one junior college game to realize he might have a future in the game. Before long, his success in football and wrestling inspired him to reach for greater heights. He decided he'd call Oklahoma State to see if they had use for another wrestler.
The answer: Yes.
Sherk enjoyed successful football and wrestling careers at Oklahoma State but wasn't aware of where it might lead him. It wasn't until late in his senior football season that his coach advised him professional scouts were eyeing him as a high draft pick. He found out where he'd be headed during his wrestling season while preparing a match with Southern Illinois.
The Cleveland Browns Present: Club 46 - player stories through generations of football
His destination: The Cleveland Browns.
Browns owner Art Modell called to inform Sherk of their selection of him, wishing him well.
"He was usually very short and terse," Sherk recalled, "something like 'Well, Jerry, we're really happy to have you here. We're looking forward for you to have a great career with the Cleveland Browns."
His career was indeed great, aided in part by enjoying extended playing time due to his arrival during a strike season. He started in his first preseason game, a contest against the Los Angeles Rams at the famed Los Angeles Coliseum. His target and first NFL test: quarterback Roman Gabriel, a player he'd watched on television since the eighth grade.
"I hit him and I just like slid down his leg, because you don't have 6-foot-4 quarterbacks in the Big 8," Sherk recalled with laughter. "So in films a couple days later Coach (Dick) Modzelewski said 'uh, Jerry, in the NFL you have to wrap them up.'"
Sherk learned before long, making his first Pro Bowl in his fourth season (1973) and reeling off a streak of four straight appearances in the all-star showcase. His greatest individual achievement: NFL Defensive Player of the Year, an honor earned in 1976, a season in which he also earned All-Pro and All-AFC honors.
Sherk became a mainstay and key player on the Browns' defenses, despite the up-and-down nature of the franchise during the 1970s. He was there, though, for the team's best season in 10-plus years in 1980, a group of players known affectionately as the Kardiac Kids.
Sherk knew around then, though, that his career was nearing an end.
"So I had three or four years of the helmets hitting me, and then they became the targets," Sherk said of his development in the NFL. "Nothing could hit me. I could only hit them. If I could see the ball carrier, it was like I could take him down. I don't know sometimes how I got there.
"And then the injuries started coming along and I started feeling the helmets again. Boom, boom. So we had the 1980 year, I came back to play in 1981, I was a pass-rush specialist and I only got in on third down and my knee was hurting. I didn't ever get warmed up and we had a very mediocre year, just won a few games and I went home and I thought 'they're going to look at the film and they're probably gonna cut me. So I better retire before they cut me.'"
Sherk walked away from the game after the 1981 season, but not away from sports entirely. He took up an interest in photography while injured in 1977, talking to some of the photographers surrounding the team. He struck up a friendship with United Press International photographer Ron Kuntz, whom he asked about equipment and who showed him the ins and outs of professional photography. This mentorship eventually led Sherk to a second career as a freelance photographer, shooting from sidelines of sporting events where he could photograph the game he once played so well.
Among his favorite photos are a shot of a Browns preseason game at Kent State during Sherk's career, when he was injured and left only to watch and take photos as a budding photographer. A mirrored panel captured half of his face, which he felt accurately illustrated where he was in his life, wanting to be on the field with his teammates and also preparing for life after football. He titled the photo "Split Personality."
Another was a photo of Browns lineman Paul Farren, who went on to play for the Browns from 1983-1991, but not before gaining 40 more pounds than what he weighed in the photo.
A third favorite was a shot of Browns coach Marty Schottenheimer huddled with linebackers Clay Matthews, Dick Ambrose, Charlie Hall and Bill Cowher during a Monday night game.
"All those guys went on to do great things," Sherk recalled, "with Marty and the head coaching, Dick Ambrose being a judge, and Clay Matthews should be in the (Pro Football) Hall of Fame, and Charlie Hall was like an all-time linebacker and of course, Bill Cowher going on to be the head coach of the Super Bowl championship Steelers."
His favorite part about his shift to photography was his ability to stay close to the game and also use it as a transition tool into the next phase of his life, which led to him serving as a counselor to those who left pro football and weren't sure what to do next.
"No. 1, in a transition, you have to let go because you're never going to be a football player again," he said. "Another thing that I realized is you have to give back, because if you continue to focus on yourself, it'll eat you up. Sports is a very narcissistic endeavor. It's all about me. Am I going to make the tackle? Who's the story about on Monday. So that's something that if you're focused on others, you're not eating yourself up with narcissism. And the third thing is you have to master something else."
He mastered something else, earning a master's degree in psychology and serving as a counselor for children and NFL athletes, "which is not too much different than being a child counselor," Sherk said. He then moved into the world of mentoring, consulting with the state of California with mentoring programs and running his own programs in San Diego, facilitating small groups of children in the city's schools.
He said his soft side helps kids tune into the multiple parts of a human personality. The students can look at him, former All-Pro, and realize it's OK to have a sensitive side, too.
Sherk also played an instrumental role in supporting Browns fans during the team's controversial move to Baltimore in 1995, teaming with former teammate and quarterback Brian Sipe by going on a cross-country tour in an RV, stopping with Browns Backers around the United States. The excursion produced a television feature in which he and Sipe reflected on the good times and captured the passion of Browns fans, something of which he and his teammates were aware long before the team faced extinction in Cleveland.
"We knew how big football was in Cleveland," Sherk said of his playing days. "We knew the tradition that football was kind of invented down the road in Canton/Massillon. It wasn't the best of times for Cleveland as a city, but we had the Browns and we knew that if we could win, it would lift the spirits of these people. … That's what we really wanted to do."
Sherk said he still believes the people of Cleveland and beyond saved the Browns, essentially forcing the NFL's hand in bringing the franchise back in 1999 as an expansion team.
Perhaps it was a fitting conclusion for a player who began at a small college and didn't imagine he'd ever make it to the biggest stage in football, only to discover he was capable of success on and off the field in Cleveland and beyond. It seems, in retrospect, as if Cleveland and Sherk were made for one another.
Sherk said it best when remembering how he felt when he was drafted.
"I felt like I hit the lottery when I came here."