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Sherrard Finally Caught Good Break : 49ers: Tough-luck receiver goes from last-place Cowboys to Super Bowl champions--and he's playing again.

January 27, 1990|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW ORLEANS — Sixty-six passes were thrown in this year's NFC championship game, three intercepted by San Francisco defenders, two caught for San Francisco touchdowns and one batted away by Ronnie Lott, the nothing-is-free safety, preempting Flipper before the Rams' very eyes.

But the pass Mike Sherrard will never forget was a short out to the sideline, a fly-speck of a pattern that gained the 49ers all of six yards a minute before halftime.

"My eyes dilated five times their normal size," Sherrard says. "I was shocked."

The last time Sherrard had seen such a pass--i.e., one thrown to him--the year was 1986 and his allegiance was to the Dallas Cowboys. One year out of UCLA, he looked one year away from the Pro Bowl, catching 41 passes for 744 yards and five touchdowns.

No Cowboy rookie since Bob Hayes had caught as many balls--or stopped as many clocks. Sherrard was a 4.3-second man in the 40-yard sprint, 4.2 on his good days. He was a 23-year-old on the go, with places to see, people to beat and land to scorch.

"I was going to be a starter for 10 years," Sherrard says. "I was going to the Pro Bowl. I was going to the playoffs . . .

"Obviously, it didn't happen that way."

At least as obvious as the scars on Sherrard's right leg, reminders of the metal plates and screws that had once been inside.

Sherrard had broken the first commandment of self-preservation as an NFL wide receiver. He broke a leg. It is the torn rotator cuff of his particular skill group, the one injury to avoid when you make your living trying to outrun professional defensive backs.

Do it once and people start talking about you in the past tense, in hushes and whispers, grieving over the loss of that beloved first step.

Sherrard did it twice. Within a span of eight months.

The first break came during the Cowboys' training camp of 1987. The second came on the beaches of Southern California, in March 1988, while Sherrard was trying to rehabilitate the leg. Soon, he was rehabilitating the rehabilitation.

As a result, Sherrard owns a personal statistical printout unequaled by any active player:

1987--Did Not Play.

1988--Did Not Play.

1989--Did Not Play.

Yes, Sherrard is active again. That's Part I of the big news. Part II is the gold-and-red hat on his head--helmet of the San Francisco 49ers, crown of the reigning world champions, in New Orleans to defend the title.

From Dallas to the Super Bowl. You can't get there from here, they say.

But Sherrard found a way, though he'd never endorse the method.

After two breaks and too many team doctors telling him he'd never play again, Sherrard opted for Plan B free agency when the Cowboys left him unprotected last winter.

To his pleasant surprise, Sherrard found suitors.

"The 49ers, Phoenix and Green Bay," Sherrard says, ticking them off. "I had legitimate offers from all three. Green Bay told me, 'Mike, you can be a starter right away.' Phoenix offered good money."

But San Francisco offered something more.

"Location was important, and money was important," Sherrard says, "but I didn't want to go somewhere where I'd be rushed. The 49ers are a team with a reputation for taking a certain talent and getting the most out of it. I knew I could take my time. With (Jerry) Rice and (John) Taylor, I knew I wouldn't be rushed back on the field."

That mattered greatly to Sherrard, who believes he was rushed into his second fracture by doctors in Dallas.

"The first break was freakish," he says. "It happened, basically, because my muscles were fatigued. The second time, I got bad medical advice.

"I had an operation to remove metal plates and screws from my leg, and two months later the doctor had me running on the beach. I paid for his mistake.

"I was left with screw holes in the bone; the bone was still too weak. But I didn't go to medical school. I didn't know. Live and learn."

Sherrard and the Cowboy medical staff were at odds until the end. Sherrard decided to try the open market when he became convinced that doctors would never clear him to play again in Dallas, and now he believes they tried to sandbag him to the clubs that showed interest.

"They kept saying I'd never play again," Sherrard says. "I don't think they would have ever passed me on a physical. They'd say I could break it again by jumping or cutting or whatever.

"Staying in Dallas, I felt, would be cutting my own throat. I kind of felt I was in a position where I had to leave."

The 49ers gave Sherrard the two things he wanted: a chance and some time. He opened the 1989 season on the physically-unable-to-play list and stayed there throughout the regular season, carefully running routes and taking hits in practice.

San Francisco activated him for the playoffs, using him in four-receiver passing situations against the Minnesota Vikings. No passes were thrown his way. Then came the Rams and that six-yard completion, followed two plays later by another catch, this good for 15 yards.

The 49ers were on their way to their third touchdown of the game, and Sherrard, in his mind, was on his way to comeback player of the year.

"Personally, just being on the field is it," he says. "That makes me real happy. Catching a ball, getting a first down--all that is gravy."

And now, the Super Bowl. For an ex-Cowboy, it's tough to fathom. From a 3-13 situation to one win from it all.

Pretty good career move.

"If you look at my career," Sherrard says, "it's been nothing but peaks and valleys. Being the Cowboys' No. 1 pick--then holding out. My rookie year--and the (players') strike. Breaking my leg and switching teams--and now this.

"So many things have happened in a short career. I just hope I can level out . . . on top."

For the past three years, Sherrard always figured he was due for a different kind of break.

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