He was born a Chicago boy, but was raised on a farm in the town of Glennville, Georgia. His family had made a decision to flee the violence and grit of the city to raise their boys in a rural community where life was simpler. But working a farm means 12 hour days, day in and day out, from the first touch of light to its last rays. Sterling and Shannon Sharpe grew up knowing how to work hard and to never give up. It was a lesson that would serve both in good stead.
Sterling, by three years the older of the two, was in elementary school when the family moved. Shannon was still too young for school, but he never forgot the lessons that the farm would teach him: patience, perseverance and dedication. Keeping enough food on the table for two rapidly growing boys was often a challenge, back in those days. The farm taught him other things, too. Shannon once joked that the family was so poor that when a burglar once came to the house to rob them, the family caught him and robbed him. It wasn’t a joke by much.
By the time the two had grown enough for high school, they already knew what they wanted out of their lives. Their high school coach was Michael Hall, and he once told the Star-Tribune’s Patrick Reusse, "They kind of knew what they wanted to do—those two young men. When they would come back from college in the summer, I would get a call, and I would go down and open the weight room for them. Sterling and Shannon were dedicated athletes.” Hall would add, "Sterling put us on the map for the college recruiters." Shannon would gain from that interest.
Sterling went off to the University of South Carolina, a school that has contributed heavily to the NFL's ranks. The younger Sharpe took his college education at smaller Savannah State College in Georgia, which has seen only seven players ever move to the NFL. There, he earned the nickname ‘The Shapeshifter’ for his ability to twist and contort his body to make receptions. Shannon ran track and played basketball at Savannah State as well as playing football, but it was on the gridiron that he shone. He wasn’t much of a student, later commenting, “I didn’t graduate cum laude. I graduated, 'Thank you Lawdy!'" When he put on the pads, though, it was a different story. Shannon would be a three-time All-Southern Intercollegiate Conference player from 1987-1989 and was SIAC Player of the Year in 1987.
After college, Sterling would be taken in the 1st round of the 1988 NFL Draft, seventh overall. Six years later, Sterling would suffer an injury that left him with a hyper-mobile vertebra in his neck, a condition that necessitated a move to the broadcasting booth where he became a long-term fixture for ESPN before moving to the NFL Network in 2004 (he also worked with NBC in 2006). In his short career, he’d accumulated 19 major honors, including 1st-Team All-NFL from the Associated Press, Pro Football Writers and Sporting News.
Shannon, on the other hand, would later be chosen in the 7th round (pick 192) of the 1990 Draft. At only 228 pounds, he was small for a tight end, and he spent his first year mostly on the scout team, garnering only 7 receptions over the course of that season. However, then-Broncos assistant (and future Denver head coach) Mike Shanahan would later comment, “Our defense couldn’t stop him when he was on the scout team.” Shannon moved onto the regular weekly roster as a tight end and in 1992, he and Sterling became the only brothers in the history of the NFL to lead each of their respective teams in receiving at the same time.
Unlike many of his counterparts, moving into the rigors of NFL life held no problems for Shannon. After working from ‘dim to dim’ on the farm, three-hour practices seemed almost like a vacation for him. He always worked tirelessly to keep his body in maximum physical shape. What he may have lacked in bulk he made up for in conditioning and effort: current sportswriters often have either forgotten or just never knew his blocking abilities, but his coaches and teammates did. Sharpe was one of the best at what he did.
Proof of that is found in the streak of 7 consecutive Pro Bowls, starting in 1992. Sharpe would add one more to his career list, ending with eight Pro Bowls to go with four years of 1st-Team All-Pro selections. He was with the Broncos for their back-to-back Super Bowl victories, but was unable to reach an agreement with the team for the 2000 season, and took his game to the Baltimore Ravens, where he would achieve another Pro Bowl and another Super Bowl championship. He returned to Denver in 2002, taking back number 84 and returning to his old production. Sharpe retired after the 2003 season, a year in which he caught 62 passes for 770 yards and 8 TDs. For most tight ends, it would be a career year. For Shannon, it was just another year at the office. When he left football, he had career totals of 815 receptions, 10,060 yards, and 62 touchdowns. All three stood as NFL career records for a tight end, since surpassed by Tony Gonzalez (San Diego's Antonio Gates is now second in TDs, while Sharpe is third).
He then retired to work in broadcasting, joining the CBS broadcasting group and working both the pregame and post-game segments, even writing a column for NFL.com at one point. His lack of education has been suggested to have hurt him there, but Sharpe made up for a lack of vocabulary with a continuation of the legendary Sharpe wit that made him a celebrity while in the NFL. Long lists of his more famous and infamous quotes are available anywhere on the internet.
The most important of his quotes was certainly not the funniest, nor the most widely quoted, but it was probably the closest to who Sharpe really was. In an interview found here, he noted, “I think there were more talented tight ends than me. There were guys faster than me. But they couldn't out-work me. That was the one thing I could control.”
That, and the flight of the ball into his hands. Shannon Sharpe left behind him a wealth of highlight clips and a long string of awards. He never forgot the lessons he learned while working the dirt in the Georgia sun, day after day. His love of laughter rarely faltered, and his willingness to combine work and joy has served him in good stead. He was part of the changing idea of the tight end to a receiver as much as a blocker, a trend that is still in play. When asked in the above interview about immortal Denver wideout Rod Smith and how a player of Smith’s caliber and talent could slide by undrafted, Sharpe replied,
The thing you can't measure is someone's heart, someone's desire. You can measure a 40, his vertical, his bench press, and that might let you know things like, yeah, he can jump high. But desire, his dedication, his determination, that's something you can't measure. That's something you can't measure about Rod Smith. Sometimes all you need is a chance, he got his chance, and there's no question he's made the most of it.
Sharpe would know, because he’d done the same thing himself. It’s time that his many accomplishments were recognized by the Hall of Fame committee. Some say that the measure of whether or not a player achieves inclusion into the Hall should be whether the game would have been different without him. With the three Lombardi trophies that he helped his teams earn, eight Pro Bowls, four 1st-team All-Pro selections, ending his career leading all tight ends in history in receptions, yards and touchdowns and a vast array of lesser awards for his contributions, it’s hard to argue that the game wouldn’t have been different had he not played it. It’s time to give the man his due - Congratulations, Shannon!