Georgia Bulldogs have a special player in Mekhail ‘MJ’ Sherman

ATHENS – There’s MJ Sherman the football player, and there is Mekhail Sherman, the stately young man and son of an African politician. They are two personas within one person, and both are impressive, the latter maybe even more than the former.

On the surface, football fanatics might view Sherman as a disappointment. A 5-star prospect coming out of high school in Baltimore, Sherman has yet to start a game for the No. 1-ranked Georgia Bulldogs. Relegated almost entirely to special-teams play in his career, Sherman has totaled only 13 tackles heading into Saturday’s game against Missouri (7:30 p.m., SEC Network).

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But only a few minutes into his first scheduled, post-practice interview as a Bulldog on Tuesday, it became evident there is so much more to Sherman, a junior outside linebacker, than his collection of career stats and appearances.

Whether it’s football or something else, this young man is going to be great.

“He’s a great kid who does a tremendous job for us,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Wednesday. “He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around. He has grown up a lot since he’s been here. Really enjoyed his recruitment. He grew up living with his sister and his mom, and (I) got to know them through recruiting. Just a great family and a joy to coach.”

He’s a joy to interview as well. Sherman answered questions matter-of-factly with transparent authenticity and honest enthusiasm Tuesday. In the course of a 15-minute question-and-answer exchange with reporters in the Bulldogs’ team meeting room at the Butts-Mehre football complex, Sherman offered several personal and team revelations.

Among them:

He grew up in a one-parent home in Baltimore. His father, Varney Sherman, is a senator for the county of Grand Cape Mount in the Republic of Liberia, a country in Western Africa. His mother, Sussie Sharpe, usually was working to provide for the family, which included three other siblings, so Sherman credits some of his rearing to his older sister, Raisa. But Sherman reconnected with his father in a deep and meaningful way as a 16-year-old. Sherman almost always wears a gold necklace featuring a pendant shaped like the African continent in prominent display.

“The necklace represents my roots, for real. Yeah, I’ll claim Baltimore until the day I die, but anybody who truly knows me knows my family is from West Africa, Liberia. Some people ask me why I get so big, well, it’s because I’ve been eating rice and chicken since I was young. Carbs and protein forever, basically. So, I can’t forget about my roots. But this is one of my first, true gifts my daddy gave to me. And, you know, not a lot of people can reestablish their relationship with their dad, but me and my dad hold strong to this day. And so, I wear this to remind me of him.”

Sherman’s father is a Harvard graduate who practiced law in the United States for decades before returning home to Liberia to enter public service.

“The main lesson that I’ve taken from him goes back to one our core traits that we have right now (at Georgia) – resiliency. Imagine, there was a civil war that broke out in Liberia. It forced a lot of immigrants to America. Through all that, my father kept his political status and did whatever he had to do to make sure that it stayed there as well as take care of his four children here.”

The biggest disconnect there has been between Sherman and his father has been over football. It’s a sport his Liberian father never has fully understood. Particularly confusing for him was all the time, effort and money his son poured into pursuing this “game.” Sherman commuted many miles from home each week to attend the St. John’s College High School, a private school an hour’s drive away in Washington, D.C.

“High school is a little bit more complicated (to understand) than college because high school you’re dealing with recruiting and stuff like that. Just telling him what am I sacrificing for, what I am doing all day, not being an average high school kid. What am I doing this for? I broke it down to him like that. And as he watched the games, as he paid more attention, as he saw my success on the field, it started to become a little easier for him to see what happens.”

Sherman has yet to earn a prominent role on Georgia’s defense. He’s currently listed as the backup to senior Nolan Smith at Georgia’s “Sam” outside linebacker position. But Sherman is a mainstay on all of the Bulldogs’ kick-coverage units. To date, he has dressed for every game UGA has played the past three seasons, getting on the field in 27 of the 28 contests. He had two tackles and a pair of quarterback pressures against Charleston Southern last season. He had two tackles against Kent State on Saturday. Sherman takes a lot of pride in his special-teams roles.

“I take it very seriously. Every day we try to fight for opportunities to show that we’re capable of doing what we’ve got to do on the field. So, just as seriously as you take your 9-5 job, that is how seriously I take my special-teams jobs. Basically, I take a lot of pride in fulfilling my job helping the team win. I feel like I try to do that every week.”

Almost everybody refers to Sherman by his nickname of “MJ,” which he’s fine with. But not having been asked about it until Tuesday, he’s been frustrated by the common mispronunciation of his given name of Mekhail. Though it is spelled differently, he actually was named after the former leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhael Gorbachev, who died in late August at the age of 91.

“I’ve been going through this trouble since I was a child. My name is pronounced muh-KYLE. But ‘MJ’ is fine. MJ is usually used by folks who can’t really pronounce my first name, and that’s cool. I’ve been answering to that since I was a child. My mother gave me that nickname.”

Sherman probably already would be playing more than he is if it weren’t for the presence of Nolan Smith and Robert Beal ahead of them on the depth chart. Like Sherman, they’re both former 5-star recruiting processes. Smith is a senior and Beal is a sixth-year senior, so his role probably will increase with their graduations. But Sherman said he works hard to remain patient and just listen to his coaches.

“What I play football for is to try to create generational value and wealth for me and my family. … I’d be lying to you if I said I never felt (frustrated), you know what I mean. But, at the end of the day, life is about staying down. You feel me? One thing about prayer that always works, if you call on God, he will (answer) one side of the prayer for you, but you’ve got to do the other side. He’s going to work his magic, but you’ve got to work yours. So, I pray to him -- my mother does most of the praying because she’s a very prayerful woman – I ask him for what I want in life, and then I’ve just got to go out there and do it. So, basically, my simple analogy is that God will place a door in front of you, but it’s your job to twist the knob and open it. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

That last statement probably best epitomizes what the Bulldogs have been seeing and hearing from Sherman since he arrived on campus in 2020. In the age of the transfer portal, patience and determination are his exceedingly rare attributes. That’s why Georgia so appreciates what they have in Sherman.

Said Smart: “He wants to please his coaches. He wants to practice hard. He understands discipline and toughness. He’s a great culture guy for our program because he sells out on special teams and just does a great job.”