Commentary

Engaging fans through Facebook

Can athletes and fans truly connect? Sure, but it might take a while

Updated: February 15, 2011, 2:33 PM ET
By Scott Huler | Special to ESPN The Magazine

This "Voices" column appears in the Feb. 21, 2011, issue of ESPN The Magazine.

In the age of Twitter and Facebook, we know the social media routine: The athlete broadcasts, and you listen. Chad Ochocinco counts the celebs at his birthday party; Braylon Edwards tells you when he'll appear on TV; LeBron pontificates about karma. Maybe an athlete asks his followers what movie he should see or promises better results next season. But it's mostly one-way stuff.

Now consider the Facebook page of former Browns defensive tackle Jerry Sherk (facebook.com/jerrysherk). In the 1970s, Sherk ripped through O-lines like they were tissue paper. He was a four-time Pro Bowl player and the only good reason to watch the Browns for much of the decade. On injured reserve in 1977, Sherk spent much of the season on the sideline learning about photography from a wire service shooter. After retiring in 1981, the lineman recast himself as a photographer, his pictures appearing in major magazines. Now 62 and living in Encinitas, Calif., Sherk has posted more than 200 candid shots on his wall.

Courtesy of Jerry SherkThis photo of Sherk and teammate Dick Ambrose got the Facebook dialogue going between Sherk and his fans.

But it's not just the behind-the-scenes pictures from his playing days that create a sense of intimacy and community; it's the comments. In one locker room shot, Sherk and Browns linebacker Dick Ambrose are wearing identical gray plaid sportscoats -- and little else. The comments are expected (looks like 2 wilddddddd n crazy guyssssssssss) and surprising (Did you wipe the crumbs off those when you took them off the tables?). Yet Sherk himself gets off the best quip about the bare-chested duo: We are both wearing the same shirts, too.

Imagine that: Fans chat, and an athlete responds. It feels like a bunch of guys hanging out. "If I message him, I know I'll get a message back," says Karl Wortman, who was a teenage fan in Cleveland when Sherk was at the peak of his playing career. Today Wortman is 53, married with four kids, and works for a dental manufacturing company. When he first saw Sherk's pictures, he sent a message thanking him for posting them. A few months later Wortman is friends on Sherk's personal Facebook page.

Sherk knows this kind of access, this kind of friendship, is unusual, but he has thought it all through. He has a master's in psychology and views his life in mythological terms. "It's a circular journey," he says, "where you move from the ordinary world to a mythical world, fighting battles, and you have to return to an ordinary world." His halcyon days with the Browns were his mythical world, and the rest of his journey is about letting go. Sherk says he's learned from the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell that there are two great tasks in life: "One is becoming; the other is unbecoming."

The latter is harder, and the personable Sherk avoids the easy comparison with the self-centered modern ballplayer stereotype. He believes that only after an athlete retires can he unclench his fist and let the fans in fully. "I enjoyed the applause and the recognition as a player," he says. "But I enjoyed it differently after I retired. I can savor it more."

Sherk referred me to his friend, champion triathlete Scott Tinley, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton and studies the athlete's transition from that higher plane. Tinley recognizes Sherk as an anomaly, a deep thinker. "He needed to create a new identity," Tinley says. "The photos were a way for him to prove that he wasn't just the big brute athlete." It's not always so easy, and not because all athletes are selfish or childish. Tinley says we "create, consume and dispose of" our athletes and that they suffer the consequences of that cycle.

That viewpoint resonates even more deeply in this age of TMZ. "Why are we so happy to get rid of Brett Favre?" Tinley asks. "He reminds us of our own mortality; we want these people to make us think that immortality exists." When they don't, we toss them.

All of which makes Sherk's approachability as remarkable as his photos. He calls Campbell "my great teacher," though he never met the man, and so he completes another circle by playing a similarly outsize role in the lives of fans he's never met. He's glad to do it. After all, he's learned the great secret of letting go.

Scott Huler is an author and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C.