When Missouri redshirt freshman safety Anthony Sherrils was a toddler, he and his father — Anthony Montel Sherrils, simply known as Montel by his family — were inseparable.
“If you saw Montel, you saw Anthony right there with him,” Sherrils’ great-grandmother, Juanita Smith, said. “Anthony was always with his dad.”
That changed March 19, 2003, when Montel Sherrils was strangled to death in a Kansas City, Kan., parking lot. Anthony was 8 years old.
Anthony and Montel shared a love for football.
Even at a young age, football was a safe haven for Anthony — an outlet from the toxic mix of gangs, drugs and violence that swirled around the Charlie Parker Square housing projects where he grew up.
After his father died, football also became important to Sherrils as a way to stay connected with his dad.
“All of it is for his father,” said Debora Smith, who had been dating Montel Sherrils for eight years when he was killed and has helped look after Anthony since he was 3. “Whenever Anthony goes out on that field, he says a prayer to his daddy. That’s the first thing he does and he tells his daddy, this one’s for him. Everything that Anthony does he has dedicated to his father. It has pushed him.”
A car wreck in June 2013 nearly took football — and that connection with his father — away.
Anthony Sherrils was in the passenger seat when Danielle Williams, an MU track and field athlete, failed to yield and was broadsided turning left from Stadium Boulevard onto Monk Drive.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury when his head smacked the window and had to be extracted from the wreckage.
“My brain actually bled on both sides,” said Sherrils, a Hogan Prep graduate. “I could barely walk. My left side was messed up. I had to do rehab for mobility and just my strength. I was really weak.”
It was jarring for those closest to Sherrils, seeing a young man who has been clocked at 4.31 seconds in the 40-yard dash suddenly struggle to stand.
“He was very disoriented and really didn’t remember anything,” said Debora, recalling the first time she saw him in the hospital after the accident. “He couldn’t stand and could barely form his thinking. He was messed up. It was very scary, because we didn’t know if he’d recover.”
It took two weeks of rehab before Sherrils started walking and talking again like his old self and football, at least initially, was the farthest thing from his mind.
“When I woke up, I didn’t know I had been in an accident,” Sherrils said. “Football wasn’t even a question. I wasn’t thinking about football, but as I started to go through rehab, I wanted to get back on the field.”
That prospect of returning to the football field, especially at a time when there’s heightened awareness of brain injuries connected with the sport, was terrifying for Sherrils’ loved ones.
Debora and Sherrils’ girlfriend, Ciara May, weren’t sure if it was wise to play again.
May never asked him to give up football, but “I wanted him to weigh his options,” she said. “I told him it was something to think about, especially with the severity of the injury. If it wasn’t worth continuing, I encouraged him not to, but he pulled through.”
Sherrils lost 20 pounds during his recovery and, despite returning to practice in August after he was medically cleared, wasn’t in shape to play last season.
He took a redshirt, which was a blessing in disguise as far as Debora is concerned.
“I’m a nurse, so I know how bad a concussion or a brain bleed can be,” Debora said. “It could have been pretty severe. … When they said he was able to practice again, I told the coaches that I didn’t even want him to have any contact with the rest of the team for at least one year. I was worried about his brain.”
She still is nearly 18 months later with Sherrils, who has emerged as a key contributor on special teams with 11 tackles, back on the field.
Those who know Anthony also know that giving up football wasn’t an option.
“It may be a way of him his coping with his father not being here,” Sherrils’ mother, Tasha Allen, said.
It’s become an juxtaposition.
Seeing Sherrils play again brings his family a lot of joy.
“My baby runs like he’s got wings on his feet,” said Juanita, who never misses a game and counts her “Mizzou grandma” shirt among her most-prized possessions.
There’s also trepidation.
“It’s not that I wanted him to give (football) up, because I know that’s not something Anthony was going to do,” Debora said. “He was not going to give up football. … (but) it scares me every time he’s on the field. I still get nervous, especially when he makes a tackle. I sure do. Every time. But I have to let him live his dream — and this is his dream.
Sherrils certainly believes his father would have encouraged him to keep playing, and he’s grateful for the chance to help Missouri return to the SEC Championship Game if the Tigers can beat Arkansas at 1:30 p.m. Friday at Memorial Stadium.
“I’m very thankful,” Sherrils said. “Just coming from Kansas City, a lot of people don’t make it out, so I’m thankful in that sense. After getting into the wreck two summers ago, being able to come back from that and run fast again and help the team as best I can, I’m blessed.”