How Jaylyn Sherrod helped put Colorado hoops on the map with wolverine-like tenacity

The first tattoo Jaylyn Sherrod ever got says, “Without struggle, there is no progress.”

The second is a Shakespeare quote from the play “All’s well that ends well.”

Sherrod never liked school, but when her 10th grade teacher taught a lesson on satire using Shakespeare, she perked up. Now this is interesting, she thought. She didn’t say it though. Not out loud. Back then Sherrod didn’t speak up much, but she did listen, and she thought. Deeply.

“Love all, trust a few and do wrong to none,” the tattoo reads. Like her first piece of ink, the quote serves as a motto for her life.

That’s what Sherrod does. She collects ideas and finds ways to apply them to her own journey.

And what a journey it’s been. From Birmingham, Alabama, to Boulder, Colorado, where she's a senior guard for the Colorado Buffaloes. From a single Power Five offer to the NCAA tournament, where her team begins its journey Friday with a first-round matchup against Drake. She's gone from unknown to highly talked about.

That last part is what Sherrod struggles with the most.

She’s an introvert, according to anyone she knows. Her mom, her grandmother that she affectionately calls granny, the former NFL player that trains her, even her little dog, Jiggy, would say so if she could talk.

But when Colorado beat LSU to start the season, the spotlight turned on Sherrod, the fiery point guard who had 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals. After that there were interviews to be done, podcasts to record and conversations to be had.

And even though Sherrod doesn’t like the attention — she turned off her social media notifications as soon as the LSU game ended — her being in the spotlight is a good thing.

“She’s introverted, but she has this huge, marketable, charismatic, amazing personality,” Otis Leverette, Sherrods’ trainer said. “The world is just starting to see it.”

Now, as Sherrod leads Colorado into the NCAA tournament, the world is about to see it on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Basketball came to her

Sherrod has always kept to herself. Growing up as an only child in Birmingham, she spent her time playing video games and reading books. She didn’t watch much TV, but loved movies, especially the ones her mom picked. They watched "300," the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the "Percy Jackson" series — “My mom has the best taste,” Sherrod said.

Sherrod was naturally curious. When her mom watched the TV show “Monk,” Sherrod would marvel at the way the title character asked questions and used observation to untangle mysteries. Now, she’s rewatching the show on her own, and likes trying to solve the crime before he does.

Her curiosity led Sherrod to try things in abundance. Soccer, piano and karate were a few of her childhood extracurriculars. She earned a green belt before a nunchucks accident led her mom, Tamika Williams, to look for other sports for Sherrod.

“They didn’t use plastic ones,” Williams said with a laugh. “I asked the sensei and he said they had to use the real ones. So we looked for something else for her to do.”

Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod has made a name for herself while starring for the Buffaloes. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod has made a name for herself while starring for the Buffaloes. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Something else ended up being basketball. But Sherrod didn’t seek it out. It came to her.

There were three boys around Sherrod’s age living next door, and they loved basketball. Over the years of being neighbors, they developed a bond with Sherrod. And if she wanted to hang out with them, she had to play, too. One day, Williams’ brother, who had been a high school point guard, came over.

Have you watched Jaylyn play, he asked his sister.

There was a window in her room that faced the neighbors’ backyard court, and every now and then Williams would peek her head out, just to check on things.

“I watch her enough to make sure they’re not messing with her,” Williams said.

No, her brother said. You need to really watch her. And you need to get her on a team.

After that conversation, Williams signed Sherrod up for rec ball. She played in a few games before an official pulled Williams aside. She didn’t know anything about basketball, but everyone around her marveled at Sherrod’s skills. The official confirmed it when he told Williams that rec ball was beneath her daughter’s talent levels. So they moved onto AAU.

“I knew she had a passion for it,” Williams said. “She didn’t have fear about playing against anyone. I knew she loved it, but other parents told me she needed to keep going.”

In life, Sherrod was quiet, but in basketball she expressed herself loudly and without restraint.

“It gave me an outlet,” she said. “Something that I could just be passionate about and really love.”

Williams made her daughter a deal. She could keep pouring herself into basketball as long as her grades were treated with the same level of importance. School was always a priority for Williams. She grew up with a mother who earned a master's degree in social work and a father who was a steel worker. Her childhood was marked with equal parts hard work and academics.

At 7, Sherrod sat in a crowd and watched her mother walk across a stage, earning her own master's degree. At Colorado, Sherrod followed suit.

In May, she will finish with not two, but three degrees — in sociology, criminology and organizational leadership.

That’s a lot of classes for someone who doesn’t like school.

“I love learning new things,” Sherrod said. “It’s the process of school that I’m not a big fan of. But it does make it easier when you’re studying things you’re passionate about.”

During the COVID pandemic, when classes went online, things changed for Sherrod. She liked being able to control that process and to learn on her own time and own terms.

In a classroom setting, Sherrod would often find herself in the back of the room, headphones in and trying to go unseen. But online she was able to, once again, show her passion out loud without drawing attention.

Quiet, but calculated. That’s how she operates.

Training like a football player

No one knows Sherrod’s personality better than Leverette.

The former NFL player first met Sherrod when she was 14, getting ready to attend Ramsay High School in Birmingham, Alabama.

“I had to force her to talk to me for the first two years,” he said with a laugh.

But Leverette didn’t mind. Sherrod didn’t need to talk for him to understand how much she cared. He could see it. When other kids in the training program shied from a challenge, Sherrod, who was often the smallest in the group, met it head on.

Some saw her reticence as standoffish, but Leverette understood. And because of that, they bonded.

“Some coaches saw it as an attitude,” he said. “But what I saw was someone with a passion and a drive that didn’t quite know how to explain it.”

With Leverette, she didn’t have to explain, she was able to let her actions speak. That’s probably why Sherrod, who says she has “mad trust issues,” quickly embraced Leverette and his unorthodox methods.

Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod learned her unorthodox warmup methods from her trainer and former NFL player, Otis Leverette. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Colorado guard Jaylyn Sherrod learned her unorthodox warmup methods from her trainer and former NFL player, Otis Leverette. (AP Photo/David Becker) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Leverette was a defensive end, and trained mostly football players before he met Sherrod. So Sherrod did football drills. They’d often get funny looks from people who couldn’t understand why Sherrod was practicing like an NFL player. But the cross training paid off. You can see the football background in the way Sherrod plays, Leverette said. She’s like a defensive end in the way she pursues and uses angles on defense. And like a quarterback in the way she leads and understands the game.

Any time Sherrod is home, she trains with Leverette. He has her jump fences, carry people on her back, and push trucks around a track.

How does someone push a truck for training? According to Sherrod, there’s not much to it.

“You just put it in neutral,” she said, matter of factly, as though it’s a typical, mundane task.

Playing in the NFL taught Leverette not to judge on appearance. Some of the best players come in unusual packages, he said. So while others are shocked at the toughness of 5-foot-7 Sherrod, he isn’t.

“There are true stories of wolverines killing grizzly bears,” he said.

Sherrod is a wolverine. Small, solitary, but with the fierceness of something more than double her size.

Sherrod thrives as Colorado ascends

Once she committed to basketball, Sherrod knew she wanted to play in college. Her dream school was Tennessee, but it didn’t take long for her to realize that wasn’t happening.

Sherrod isn’t an optimist nor a pessimist, per se.

“I’m a glass half-empty person. I’m not a glass half-full person at all,” she said. “But I would say, it’s more that I see the reality of situations.”

Her reality was Colorado, the only Power Five school to offer Sherrod a scholarship.

Being overlooked didn’t hurt Sherrod. She had what she had, and that was enough.

“The mission was the same,” she said. “Whether it was Colorado or UConn, I was going to approach it the same way.”

When coaches from Boulder showed up in Williams’ living room, she wondered how they even knew about Sherrod. It was so far away, so different from Birmingham.

But once they went on an official visit, Williams didn’t worry about sending her only child to the mountains of Colorado.

“They’ve got her,” she told Sherrod’s grandmother.

And Sherrod had them. In Colorado she saw a program she could leave better than she found it.

It wouldn't be easy. The Buffs had a losing record and were last in the Pac-12 during Sherrod’s senior year of high school. But she’s never liked easy. The ability to do hard things is what separates Sherrod from those around her.

“You could drop Jaylyn in the middle of Iraq with a compass and a pocket knife and she would find her way,” Leverette said.

The year before Sherrod got to campus, Colorado won two games in the Pac-12. As a freshman, they won five. At that point Sherrod tempered her expectations. Then, a nagging hip injury from high school flared up again, and Sherrod had to sit out most of her sophomore season. That’s when she saw her team’s potential.

Sitting alongside head coach JR Payne opened her eyes. She learned why Payne made the calls she did, and more importantly, from the bench, Sherrod saw a desire in her teammates that she missed when she was on the court.

Colorado's Jaylyn Sherrod celebrates following her team's upset of Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker)
Colorado's Jaylyn Sherrod celebrates following her team's upset of Duke in the second round of the NCAA tournament on March 20, 2023, in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Karl B. DeBlaker) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

“I saw the disappointment on their faces when we lost in the NIT [quarterfinals to Ole Miss],” Sherrod said. “And I was like, ‘You know what? We can really, really do this.'”

The next year, the Buffaloes made it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in Payne’s tenure, losing in the opening round to Creighton. Then, in 2022-23, the Buffs topped Duke to advance to the Sweet 16 — their first in 20 years — before narrowly losing to Iowa.

In a lot of ways, that was their breakout season. But it wasn’t until Nov. 6, 2023, that the country took notice.

Before Colorado and LSU tipped off their season opener in Las Vegas, it was like the Buffs weren’t even there. All the attention was on the defending champs. Not only had they just won an NCAA title and returned Angel Reese and Flau’jae Johnson, but the Tigers also signed two of the country’s top transfers in Aneesah Morrow and Hailey Van Lith.

None of that mattered.

It was barely a game. After falling behind 16-14 in the first quarter, Colorado outscored the Tigers 78-62 for a double-digit win. Williams and Leverette were both there, unsurprised by what they witnessed.

“Jaylyn shows out when she’s supposed to show out,” Williams said.

After the win, Candace Parker told Payne that Colorado could make it to the Final Four, Shaquille O'Neal came into the locker room and chatted with Aaronette Vonleh, and the Buffs rocketed from 20th in the AP poll to fifth.

A blowout loss to NC State a few weeks later brought them down to earth a bit. But after that, the Buffs kept rolling, rattling off nine wins in a row. Then, no longer the underdogs, they struggled at the end of conference play.

Colorado lost six of its last eight games, including a double-overtime quarterfinal matchup with Oregon State in the Pac-12 tournament.

After the loss, Sherrod sat at the podium with tears streaming down her face. She addressed media members in a quiet voice, simply stating that she “needed to be better.” The season wasn’t over, but she took the loss to heart. It was the last Pac-12 game Sherrod would ever play, and that mattered to her.

“She was down for a while after that,” Williams said. “But after a couple days I said, ‘OK, it’s time to get back up.’”

She didn’t need to say it twice. Sherrod always gets back up.

A tough road lies ahead

Toughness has been one of Sherrod’s defining features since she started playing basketball. It was there when she played with the neighborhood boys who were bigger than her. It was there when she trained with football players. It was there when she battled her hip injury. It was there when she led Colorado to an upset win over LSU.

And it was there during her last home game as a Buff.

Years from now, when Sherrod reminisces about her senior night at Colorado, she won’t have a pretty picture to look back on. Instead, she will see herself taking in the festivities and smiling into the camera with two black eyes and a broken nose, injuries sustained just days earlier in a win over Washington.

But there’s no more accurate depiction of Sherrod.

During her early days training with Leverette, Sherrod learned the phrase, “Will over Skill.” She tucked it away with all the other quotes and mantras collected in her mind. She also took it to heart.

The injuries Sherrod sported during senior night are a physical embodiment of that phrase.

“Pain is a feeling,” she said. “When you’re running sprints and feel like you’re going to pass out, then you get that perspective. Three days later you’re still here. You didn’t pass out.”

Growing up, when other players relied on their skills to get ahead, it was Sherrod’s tenacity, her toughness, her will power that kept her on their level.

That’s still true today.

Sherrod and Colorado will need an extra dose of will to advance out of the Albany 2 region and into the program’s first Final Four. It’s the hardest section of the bracket, with Iowa, LSU, Kansas State and UCLA all competing for the same spot in Cleveland.

But hard has never bothered Jaylyn Sherrod.

Hard is nothing to a wolverine from Birmingham.