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Rare bird

RENTON, Wash. — Richard Sherman has not changed. On this, he is adamant.

All the empirical evidence suggests Sherman has transformed from a 23-year-old rookie to a 27-year-old father expecting his second child. He rarely beefs, can be downright reserved in interviews and has eliminated most of his on-field theatrics, including one of the very things he built his reputation with: trash talking.

But every time he heard this theory, he pushed back.

“People say I’ve quieted and changed,” he said, “but you must not be watching anymore.”

He pointed specifically to the game in San Francisco last season when, among other things, he called 49ers fans mediocre, waved goodbye to those fans as they left and laughed at the 49ers sideline after his second interception. Just a few weeks ago, he savored his performance in limiting Cardinals receiver John Brown after Brown had said this summer he didn’t think Sherman could cover him.

That part of Sherman has appeared only occasionally, like a submarine surfacing before swiftly submerging. But he argues that although his delivery and expressions have changed, his core has not.

“It hasn’t tapered down,” he insisted. “There’s not as much controversy, because people aren’t disrespecting me. They respect the game, and respect gets respect. Disrespect gets disrespect. As long as people respect me, there’s not much to say. Nobody has slighted me in a long time.”

If Sherman hasn’t changed, he certainly has evolved. More than a few times this season, he has mentioned “the man in the mirror,” meaning his biggest critic and source of inspiration is himself.

If he made T-shirts commemorating the theme of each season, that would be on the 2015 edition.

“You pick your battles a little better,” he said. “You don’t take on everybody. You don’t have to war with every single idiot on Twitter. You can’t make your words or your actions idiot proof. You can’t cater to that crowd. That’s something that you learn through the journey.

“You also learn that people are going to be people. They’re going to make mistakes, they’re going to judge, they’re going to criticize. And you can’t always take it personally. They’re not perfect, and they will never be, but they will judge you as if you are.”

Sherman has gone from the Earth to the moon faster than anyone could have expected. In 2011, he had a few thousand Twitter followers. By 2015, he had been jokingly mocked by the president, named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people, and his Twitter followers numbered more than one million.

As with most things involving Sherman, how he got there is the fascinating part.

In the middle of his rookie season in 2011, Sherman told Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, his longtime friend, that he would be a household name by the end of the next season. Sherman always had talked in grand visions and extravagant expectations, even during his childhood, but in 2012 he triggered his plan into action.

He set the NFL on fire and did so while holding the match and smiling.

He beefed with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (“You mad, bro?”), Falcons receiver Roddy White (“In my book he’s just not a top 100 player”) and Washington offensive lineman Trent Williams (who pushed Sherman in the face after a playoff game). Sherman went after ESPN pot-stirrer Skip Bayless in a live interview, changed his Twitter handle to Optimus Prime before playing Lions receiver Calvin “Megatron” Johnson and argued with cornerback Darrelle Revis.

He also had eight interceptions and could have been a Pro Bowler. But his marketing strategy, as unafraid and direct as it was, made him famous. He turned his personality into an asset.

Sherman finished this season with two interceptions, the fewest of his career, and was named second team All-Pro. The Seahawks asked him to do more than ever. He shadowed star receivers, a test he had wanted for years, and even played inside cornerback when necessary.

Sherman is a challenging interview subject because he’s so savvy and skilled. He gives only what he wants and pulls back when he’s done. But when he’s engaged, it’s best to sit back and listen. Dion Bailey, his former teammate, once said Sherman was unique in his ability to talk easily with people from all backgrounds. He moves between those distinctions freely.

— Question: What was the plan in 2012?

— Answer: “It was to cater to the sheep. You have to realize that people are sheep — most people. There are wolves out there. There are sheepherders. But there are mostly sheep. Sheep will believe whatever is told to them. A lot of people don’t want to think for themselves. So if you give them controversy, they’ll indulge in the controversy. If you give them success, they’ll revel in the success.”

— Q: You tried to give them both.

— A: “And I gave them both. I gave them controversy so they’d pay attention. Otherwise in this league, just like other leagues, great play isn’t the only thing that determines anything.”

— Q: It’s entertainment.

— A: “One-hundred percent. And if you’re not entertaining, then they really could (not) care less. You can be a great player, you can have eight or nine picks, but who are you if you aren’t entertaining? They’ll say, ‘One-hit wonder. Oh, I didn’t see him play.’ So when you create controversy, when you go after America’s sweetheart and America’s favorite guy, then you create controversy. Then they want to see you fail, but they have to watch to see you fail.”

Sherman always has played with a hard edge. His high-school coaches told him to tone down the talk and theatrics before a game his junior season. But the first-half results were a disaster. Stripped of his bravado and personality, he went through the motions.

At halftime, his coaches decided to turn him loose, trash talk and all, to get the most out of him.

Ever since then the thinking has been that Sherman needs to play that way, because otherwise he’s like Superman without his cape.

“It’s a tough question to answer, because that’s just his personality,” Baldwin said two years ago. “If he toned it down and took it back, that just wouldn’t be who Sherm is.”

That’s what makes the past few seasons interesting. It seems obvious to anyone who has watched that Sherman has toned it down. He no longer spins his finger around his ear after quarterbacks throw at him. He rarely gets in the face of receivers or interacts with crowds.

But when told of that premise, he disagreed with the specifics.

“I think they’re not just talking about the motions, they’re talking about the emotions,” he said. “The emotion you play with, the passion, the fire. And I think that’s the difference. You channel it better. It’s not always outward motion or outward emotion or outward gestures. Sometimes it’s inner. Sometimes it’s just a battle within yourself.”

Some of that is maturity, but not all of it. For years he demanded respect, and now he has it.

“Some of it is just understanding who you’re battling with,” he said. “Who’s your biggest critic? And if you’re looking at him in the mirror, then who am I doing the gestures to?”

As intensely as Sherman chased fame and recognition, he couldn’t have prepared for what hit him.

By the middle of the 2013 season, he was a famous football player, but by the end of that season, he was a full-blown celebrity. He got so tired of flying to events and sponsors that he told his brother he had to stop.

He and his family used to eat together after games at P.F. Chang’s or Joey’s. They couldn’t do that anymore. He still gets swarmed for autographs or pictures at dinner or the airport, and fans have rung the doorbell at his house.

“That’s when it gets a bit odd and bit out of the ordinary for my family and myself, because it’s a lack of respect and a lack of boundaries,” Sherman said. “People think because you’re a public figure and you play a game at a high level that it gives them some type of entitlement. A regular person wouldn’t want strangers coming up to them, so you have to understand and respect that.”

It all happened so quickly, and Branton Sherman isn’t sure his brother knew the totality of what he had signed up for.

“Not with the kind of fame he has right now,” Branton said last season. “He enjoys it, but sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he doesn’t.”

It’s usually hard to pinpoint the moment a person became famous, but with Sherman it’s easy.

It was right after the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers at the end of the 2013 season, right after he made one of his classic, awkward plays to bat away a pass in the end zone.

Fox’s Erin Andrews found Sherman on the field, and from the moment Andrews put the microphone in his face, he came out firing. His eyes spewed intensity. He called out 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree (we later learned the two had a personal beef from the summer) and became the story.

CNN carried his afternoon news conference the next week live. When Sherman went to an autograph signing two days after the game, a police officer said the building had snipers on the roof, and it seemed like he was serious.

— Q: You know everything you say can become a big story and go all over the place. How much have you been able to control your narrative?

—A: “I would say I’ve been in control about 90 percent of the time. There have been a couple times where I didn’t intend for it to go a certain way, but I was able to get it back.”

— Q: Would the Erin Andrews interview be one of them?

— A: “Part of it. Part of it was exactly what I wanted to say. Now the tone and the delivery weren’t exact.”

— Q: What we got was the proximity, but had that happened 20 minutes later, you would have said the same thing?

— A: “I would have said the same thing, but it wouldn’t have been delivered the same.”

— Q:(Lakers guard) Kobe Bryant once said one of the things he had given up was having good friends. That was part of the price for what he was chasing. What have you given up to get here?

— A: “You give up a lot of the fun during the season. You don’t get to go out and drink and have a good time. There’s no way I can go somewhere without somebody knowing I’m there. You give up some of your public freedom and your leisure time. And you lose some family bonds, some family connections. You miss out on family events because you’re chasing something that you believe you deserve.”

In the past few years, Sherman has used his fame to discuss the NFL’s hypocrisy, concussions and the Black Lives Matter movement. He has praised Johnson and defended Brady. He’s had dinner a couple of times with Williams, the Washington offensive lineman who shoved him in the face.

“We’re real cool,” Williams said. “I just texted him the other day. People just see his fiery competitiveness on the field and in the moment, and they pass judgment on his character. Really, off the field, he’s nothing like that.”

A couple summers ago Bryant, who was Sherman’s childhood idol, gave Sherman a high honor: He called him a fellow psycho. Sherman hears this and smiles. He takes it as a great compliment. Internally, he feels the same as ever. He just doesn’t have to show everyone.

“In some ways, I am a psycho,” he said. “You have to be a psycho if you want to be great, because it’s out of the ordinary. I would have to look up the definition of psychotic, but I would think it’s thinking outside the box, it’s being odd, it’s being absurd in some way.

“And that we are. We’re absurd in our dedication to the game. We’re absurd in our commitment, our sacrifice. We’re absurd in the way we understand it. It’s unique.”

Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman and the Seahawks travel to play Carolina at 10 a.m. today (FOX). AP PHOTO