MIAMI -- About an hour into the San Francisco 49ers' flight to Miami for Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, general manager John Lynch approached sleeping cornerback Richard Sherman, tapped him on the shoulder and broke the devastating news.
In what was supposed to be a happy time for Sherman and his teammates, Lynch leaned in and informed Sherman that Kobe Bryant, legendary basketball player and close friend, had died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, along with eight others.
"It is really sad," Sherman said Monday at Super Bowl Opening Night. "He was a friend of mine. He was a mentor. He meant a lot to this world. He made a positive impact, and there is nothing that I can say to really quantify his impact on myself and on others."
Sherman and Bryant's bond dates to a Nike photo shoot that took place just after Sherman's former team, the Seattle Seahawks, won Super Bowl XLVIII. But Sherman admired Bryant long before that.
Growing up in Compton, California, Sherman, who was 8 years old when Bryant entered the NBA, became a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan from watching games with his grandmother.
While Sherman and Bryant remained in contact after the shoot, the Achilles injury that Sherman suffered in 2017 brought them closer together. Bryant had the same injury in 2013, and he served as a sounding board for Sherman while he went through the grueling rehabilitation.
Sherman even made sure to walk off the field on a torn Achilles, much like Bryant shot free throws and walked off with his injury. When Bryant called Sherman after the injury, the first thing Bryant told him was he wanted to be sure Sherman "wasn't being a baby."
As Sherman attempted to process the loss of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, on Sunday and Monday, he thought back to that moment.
"I was really sad yesterday and sad this morning. I was really down," Sherman said. "I was in the dumps, and then I thought about what he would tell me. He would tell me to stop being a baby and to man up and play and do it in his honor and win this game for him. And that is what we are trying to do. We're gonna go out there and try to play some dominating ball, just like he wanted. The Mamba Mentality still lives on."
Asked about the last thing Bryant left him with, Sherman said Bryant told him to go win a championship and that there would be hard times in his comeback that he would have to navigate.
Bryant offered a similar message when asked, in a 2018 interview with ESPN for a story on how Bryant helped Sherman during his Achilles injury and recovery, what he thought Sherman's comeback might look like. Long before Sherman's return to form this season -- with a Pro Bowl berth and a second-team All-Pro nod -- Bryant predicted it would happen.
"His mentality is what separates him," Bryant said then. "From being overlooked, from being kind of thought of as someone who won't be able to maximize his potential, I think he uses that as fuel to drive him and propel him. I'm excited for him to come back and show the world what he's got, man. It's going to be awesome."
Bryant's death cast a pall over Monday night's proceedings, as many members of the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs spoke glowingly of the Lakers star. Many of them idolized Bryant and said they had his posters on their walls and/or his shoes on their feet while growing up.
Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said Bryant represented hope for him when he was a young man growing up without a father in South Central Los Angeles.
"There, you don't got a lot to lean on. You don't got a lot to look forward to," Clark said. "There's gangs and drugs, and that's really it. And the one person, if anything, I looked to for inspiration and all my strength growing up when I was going through the things I was going through was Kobe Bryant. He was a successful guy, and that's the one thing you look to. You look at the gangs, and you look at the drug dealers, and then you look at the guys who are successful."
Across the country, 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey had hoop dreams of his own while growing up in Philadelphia. He was two years from being born when Bryant graduated from a high school not far from where McGlinchey's family lived.
"All you ever heard about was this guy Kobe Bryant, who came from Lower Merion High School," McGlinchey said. "Everybody in Philly always had an eye on him. The competitor that he was, the leader that he was, and the coolest thing about this week has been the reports and the pictures and the memories of him being a dad. That's what's really the message there was: That no matter what it was with Kobe, he always did it as hard as he could and put everything he had into it."
On Monday morning, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo did what he always does and started the defensive meeting with an inspirational quote. About a month ago, he dug through old Bryant quotes and used some of those. This time, it was something from Michael Jordan. When Spagnuolo put it on the screen, he stopped for a moment, and the Chiefs spent a little time reminiscing about Bryant.
"When I popped it up there, I just had to stop and say, 'Guys, isn't it unbelievable that we lost Kobe?'" Spagnuolo said. "So, for a second, we talked about Kobe in our meeting, just recognizing that we lost him. Athletes are athletes, and there's a common bond there, especially with elite athletes. And I think a lot of our guys felt that."
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is among the many who fall into that category. Throughout Monday's hourlong media session, he received many questions about Bryant, and each time he took a few moments to point out that Bryant had been a key part of his journey to the NFL.
"I wasn't lucky enough to get to meet Kobe, but the impact that he made on my life was huge," Mahomes said. "I still watch videos on YouTube on days before games and just listen to him talk and how he puts everything into perspective about being great, on and off the field, with his kids and his business ventures and obviously his play. It's a tragic thing."