There was a moment in the NFL version of the Hatfields and McCoys that could have ended the blood feud. It came at the end of the game Sunday, after Seattle's Richard Sherman batted a pass intended for San Francisco 49er Michael Crabtree into the arms of a teammate, causing an interception that would seal the victory for the Seahawks, sending them to the Super Bowl.
Sherman walked over to Crabtree with his arm extended as a show of come-togetherness but Crabtree pushed the defender's helmet hard. So goes the way of the most heated and hated rivalry in sports today.
It was this emotion, that shunning of sportsmanship, that was still ringing in the 24-year-old's helmet when he walked off the field and onto national television to call Crabtree "sorry" and he would later add "mediocre."
It was the face of Sherman and his dark skin and flailing dreads that had some people take to Twitter to call Sherman a "thug" and a "n—ger."
From behind a computer keyboard and a 140-character-limit wielded by the hands of the ignorant, a 24-year-old Stanford graduate was assaulted with arguably some of the most troubling words in the American lexicon.
This is the battle and the passion and the ugliness of American history played out in violent sport, rolled into a sound bite and then released into the Internet-mosphere. It is a Twitter-sized snapshot of the trouble that white America has with an outspoken black athlete. It was a moment that captured both the hate that the Seahawks and 49ers have for one another on the field and, more importantly, the deep-rooted hate some feel when a black man speaks freely about his legacy.
During the interview Sherman told Erin Andrews: "I'm the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that's the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me … Don't you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick."
Sherman's behavior and verbiage was succinct and efficient but it wasn't even remotely "thuggish." He didn't speak in slang, he wasn't punctuating the air with gang signs, he didn't use vulgarity. In fact, he didn't do anything even remotely aggressive. If anything, his loud and egotistical rant was much more WWE than NWA.
It was typical-football-Sherman, which has never been, nor will ever be, what is expected. The Twitter response was more telling about how far we haven't come as a nation, on the heels of the birthday of a man who dreamed more for us.
Richard Sherman is brash, bold and brutal, all traits that make him one of the best cover corners in the NFL and make people in white America uncomfortable. So while Muhammad Ali is celebrated now as one of the nation's greatest icons, he was hated then for the same trash-talking that helped make him legend.
America has always been comfortable with the humble, wide-eyed, "awe-shucks" athlete from a small town who is in a permanent state of bewilderment about his own abilities and who always defers to his team or his coach.
But an athlete who is fully aware of his abilities, who doesn't shy away from criticism, who adores not only the spotlight but relishes it is a newer breed in the sport, and it is time for historically buttoned-up institutions like the National Football League and its hordes of fans to make room for them.
Look, Richard Sherman grew up in the gangsta capital of Compton, Calif., and I am sure he can point out a thug with ease. I am also positive that thugs don't star in both football and track and field while having the second highest GPA of their graduating class. But that was Sherman, who broke records in both sports while attending Dominguez High School and also made sure to stay firmly grounded in the classroom.
He still considers the day he signed a national letter of intent to play football at the Stanford University as one of the proudest moments of his life.
"It was unbelievable," Sherman told the Federal Way Mirror about the signing. "It was a great accomplishment for me and my family. It was a great symbol for people from where I'm from."
What fans forgot Sunday is that hate is a part of the history of sports, which is rooted in rivalries and trash-talk. The hate that happened on Twitter is a deep hate that continues to divide the country.
Think about this: A 24-year-old fifth-round draft pick had just made the biggest play of his career to send his team to the Super Bowl, and right before he walked on-camera his bitter rival (who allegedly tried to fight Sherman at a charity event last year) punched him in the helmet. What happened next was real and raw, but it never veered into the land of vile, menacing or thuggish.
"To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don't judge a person's character by what they do between the lines," Sherman wrote in a column posted on mmqb.com. "Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family."
Sherman frequently talks with high school students about making good decisions in life, and recently launched Blanket Coverage, The Richard Sherman Family Foundation, which helps kids get school supplies and clothes.
"But people find it easy to take shots on Twitter, and to use racial slurs and bullying language far worse than what you'll see from me. It's sad and somewhat unbelievable to me that the world is still this way, but it is."
If being a thug means being salutatorian of your high school with a 4.2 GPA and 1,400 SAT scores, graduating from Stanford, delivering on your promise of greatness and showing no ability to humble-brag—then the black community could use more thugs like Richard Sherman.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.