Now Eagles' Sherman has a home

RUNNING OUT OF SHADOWS

January 08, 1993|By Jack McCaffery | Jack McCaffery,Contributing Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- The deep-Texas town of Wharton is home to cattle, horses and at least one football player.

And the player isn't quite sure what else would make it famous.

"Um, uh, well," Heath Sherman was saying yesterday. "I don't know. I can't say. It's not really big."

So it was as Sherman and the Philadelphia Eagles prepared to move within a game of the Super Bowl, fame found Wharton, and Wharton found fame.

Yes, Wharton is now famous for Heath Sherman. And with the Eagles needing to pass through Texas on the way to wherever, Sherman gained distinction in part by being from Wharton.

Because as the Eagles prepare to play the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Dallas must now prepare for one particular cowboy.

Sherman, who rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown in the Eagles' 36-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, spends his off-season on a Wharton ranch. He even wears a hat.

"I ride horses, work cattle, all that kind of stuff," Sherman said. "Go hunting. All the basic stuff. No big deal."

Until midway through this season, nothing Heath Sherman did ** seemed much of a big deal, save for an occasional touchdown, or the more-than-occasional fumble. Though he rushed for 685 yards in 1990, he slipped to 279 last season, then seemingly out of long-term plans. With the Eagles drafting runners Siran Stacy and Tony Brooks in the upper rounds, then spending $1.3 million for Herschel Walker, Sherman could have retreated to his Texas ranch and few Eagles' supporters would have noticed he was missing.

But here the Eagles are, two victories from the Super Bowl, and if Heath Sherman is not their most potent running back, he and Walker are coupled in the same three-legged race. While Walker became the Eagles' first 1,000-yard rusher since 1985, gaining 1,070 with 267 regular-season carries, Sherman rushed just 112 times and gained 583 yards. Remarkably, though carrying just 15 times in the first eight games, Sherman finished as the 12th-leading rusher in the NFC and 25th best in the NFL.

"He's among the best in the league," coach Rich Kotite said. "With Keith Byars and Walker in there, we only spot played Heath early on. But every time he went in there, he made things happen. Sherman and Byars have been the catalysts for this offense."

As is the case with the best of the Eagles, the trail usually leads to one of two places -- the understated vision of Marion Campbell (under whose watch arrived Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Andre Waters and Wes Hopkins), or the accurately stated ability of Buddy Ryan to sniff out a player.

In this case it was Ryan who encouraged assistant Dave Atkins, who was coaching his running backs in 1989, to hustle down to Texas A & I University in Kingsville, Texas, to follow up on a grainy film of a lead.

"We had one film on Heath, a playoff game," said Atkins, now in charge of the tight ends.

"I believe it was Portland State. He played extremely well in that game, but I had to see more. So I am from the area and Buddy sent me down there to watch the films of all of his games. The guy was probably the best pure runner I'd seen all year that year, running between the tackles. He never ran outside of the tackles. Everything was up inside.

"His senior year he had over 1,500 yards and 27 touchdowns. So that alone was enough to make you wonder about the guy. We drafted him in the sixth round, and it worked out perfect.

"I was excited about it. He is a money player. He just keeps playing. He's not a guy that says too much. He's not a hot dog guy. But he gets it done, and that's the bottom line."

Yet it took extraordinary circumstances for the Eagles to allow Sherman to reach that bottom line. It was only after Keith Jackson defected to the Miami Dolphins, then Byars -- with a $100,000 pot-sweetener from the front office -- agreed to move from the backfield to tight end without pouting, did a position become available alongside Walker. And while Stacy, Brooks and last season's leading rusher James Joseph all seemed ahead in the batting order, Sherman had done enough in the preseason, leading the team in rushing, to earn the first look.

Not long after, the coaches stopped looking.

"I just got a little more playing time," Sherman said.

"I was just playing special teams. When they put me in, I was ready because I knew all the plays, and it wasn't that hard for me to adjust. I just got in there and did the job."

When Sherman, who had fumble problems earlier in his career, )) demonstrated an ability to hang onto the ball, he was able to hang onto his job.

Suddenly, stunningly, the Eagles had another offensive weapon; not coincidentally, they went from 7-5 midseason doldrums to the semifinals of the NFC tournament.

"He's giving headaches to other teams when they are watching films," Byars said.

"They don't know who is coming at them, who to tackle. No question Herschel is playing well and helping the team. But Heath is hot right now and you have to give them the ball."

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