COLUMBIA, Mo. — Anthony Sherrils dreamt what it might be like.
Three or four weeks ago, he said. In his dream, he intercepted a pass for the first time in his career and brought the return up the right sideline.
It became a reality Saturday for the sophomore safety, who picked off a pass on a fake field goal by Connecticut and ran it back 50 yards along the right sideline. And — even better than in his dream — this interception, his second takeaway of the game, clinched a 9-6 win for Missouri.
Two years ago, playing football at all might have seemed little more than a dream to Sherrils. The safety suffered a traumatic brain injury in a June 2013 car accident and considered the possibility he might never return to the sport.
“Football, it’s a car accident every play,” he said.
Sherrils’ game-clinching pick Saturday came less than 24 hours after four Tigers were involved in a car accident on College and University avenues, a wreck that sidelined two of the passengers Saturday. Just three months earlier, junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley sustained season-ending injuries in a car accident of his own on U.S. 63.
Sherrils’ big day was a reminder of what can come of recovery.
Long road back
The accident caused Sherrils’ brain to bleed, and he needed rehabilitation just to walk properly again. At first, returning to football was not a concern, but when it reentered the picture, the possibility of walking away was discussed.
“I came close,” he said. “My family and my friends were saying that they wanted to see me after football. Football’s not everything, but I love it.”
One motivating factor for getting back on the field was Sherrils’ father, Montel Sherrils, who was killed in Kansas City in 2003.
“My dad wanted to see me playing football,” said Anthony Sherrils, who was 8 years old at the time. “So I’m playing football.”
Sherrils redshirted his first year at Missouri. He played in every game the next season but saw limited action on defense with team captain Braylon Webb ahead of him at safety.
With Webb graduated, Sherrils entered this season as the Tigers’ starting strong safety.
“A couple years ago, I didn’t think I’d be here right now,” he said in fall camp. “Football wasn’t even a question, but we’re here. Glory to God.”
As a sophomore without a start, Sherrils began the year with a tough learning curve, having to fit into an experienced secondary that returned two cornerbacks and a safety.
Sherrils and Missouri’s pass defense haven’t shown any signs of transition. The Tigers have allowed just 112 passing yards per game, third in the country.
“Really, I feel like I’m experienced just because I’ve been in the program for so long,” Sherrils said. “Three games is a lot, and that’s enough to gain some experience.”
Making the play
Sherrils didn’t show any signs of inexperience Saturday when he forced and recovered a fumble in the second quarter. Nor did he on Connecticut’s last drive of the game when the Huskies lined up to kick a field goal trailing by three. Connecticut had shown little hesitancy to run fake plays, and an ugly field-goal attempt earlier in the game had the Missouri defense ready for anything.
“In my mind, I was kind of thinking they wouldn’t fake it just because they only needed a field goal,” Sherrils said. “But the kicker was struggling, so they decided to go for it. We were on our toes about it.”
The holder threw a pass over the middle to tight end Alec Bloom, who likely would have scored the game-winning touchdown had he caught it.
Luckily for the Tigers, Sherrils was there to snatch it away.
“The tight-end release, that’s my key to know if it’s a fake or not,” Sherrils said. “He released, and I knew where it was going.”
He also thought he was going to the end zone. Sherrils, who is also in first season as Missouri’s kick returner, saw room downfield. Though Missouri had the game won, he thought he had an easy six points ahead of him — especially when Kentrell Brothers shouted to Sherrils that he was ready to make the lead block.
“I start looking inside, because Kentrell, he’s a great linebacker, a really physical guy,” Sherrils said. “He had him. So now I’m about to cut off Kentrell, and we both get (tackled). When I see it on film, (I’m) like, ‘Dang, Kentrell. Dang.’”
His decision not to take a knee after the interception notwithstanding, head coach Gary Pinkel has liked what he’s seen from Sherrils in his first year as starter.
“Anthony’s a very, very, very good athlete,” Pinkel said. “He’s very explosive. His ability to get to top speed is remarkably quick. You take that, he’s bright — he’s just got a lot going for him, and he’s utilizing his abilities.
“The difference between him now and a year ago is just maturity. He’s just a different guy now. He’s learned how to think right on the football field, and I think we’ve just seen glimpses of what he can be.”
Pinkel said he visited Sherrils several times times in the hospital after the accident.
“He was really struggling to begin with,” Pinkel said. “And he’d just got here, too, and he knew me, but he didn’t trust me. There was no bond between Anthony Sherrils and me yet. … He was real guarded when it happened, he was scared. This had never happened to him before, and I just remember — you recruit him and you talk to him and you know him, but you really don’t know him when he’s laying in a hospital bed. You have to earn that.”
Pinkel has, said Sherrils.
“I’m a starter now, so it’s a trust relationship,” Sherrils said. “He has to trust me to be on the field and make the plays, and I trust him to made the calls.”
Pinkel said that trust extends off the field.
“I think he found out (that) around here,” he said, “when you have problems, you’ve got a lot of people that love you, and they’re going to wrap their arms around you and help you.”
Living the dream
Though brain injuries in football have gotten an increasing amount of exposure, Sherrils hasn’t shied away from contact in his time on the field. Last season, he racked up a targeting penalty for a big hit on a Vanderbilt player. This year, he said he’d rank his game against Arkansas State above his two-takeaway performance Saturday because he had six tackles in the former.
“Turnovers are good,” he said, “but I just like tackling. I really like tackling.”
Off the field, Sherrils does play it a little more safe. He said he now wears a seat belt, something he wasn’t doing when he was sent through a windshield two years ago.
When four of his teammates — Terry Beckner Jr., DeSean Blair, Keyon Dilosa and Trevon Walters — were in the accident Friday, Sherrils said he got nervous.
“Just being that I got into an accident, it’s really, really emotional,” he said, “being on edge to whether you’re going to play or not. They were OK, so I was really, really happy.”
He attributed the string of accidents to “destiny and fate, something that’s going to happen, and something you’ve got to work through.”
That’s something Sherrils knows all too well. Working through it and making a game-saving play on his first interception — the day after his teammates were in an accident of their own, no less — was certainly rewarding, Sherrils said. But getting to play football is the biggest prize.
“Really, practice is the most rewarding,” Sherrils said. “Just being able to do it every day.”
You might even say it’s a dream come true.