(CBS 4) – Shannon Sharpe finished his career as the NFL’s best tight end ever. Over his 14 seasons, which spanned the 1990s and early 2000s, he collected 815 receptions for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns. All three totals were career records for a tight end at the time. With those numbers came an array of honors, including eight Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro selections. He earned a spot on the NFL’s 1990s All-Decade Team and entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
Sharpe played 12 of his 14 seasons with the Denver Broncos (and the other two with the Baltimore Ravens), where he was instrumental in the team’s wins in Super Bowl XXXII over the Green Bay Packers and Super Bowl XXXIII over the Atlanta Falcons. “When I played those 14 years, nothing else mattered,” Sharpe told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on Episode 21 of Showtime Basketball’s video podcast All The Smoke. “Football was the most important thing. Other than breathing, football was most important. Not family, not kids, not brother, not mom, not sister. And I make no apologies for what I was able to accomplish in my 14 years.”
Many of his years in Denver coincided with those of Broncos legendary quarterback John Elway. When the Broncos drafted Sharpe in the 1990 NFL Draft, Elway was already seven seasons into his own Hall of Fame career, with three Pro Bowls and a League MVP award on his resume. Sharpe arrived as a seventh-round pick out of Division II Savannah State, a school not known as a pro football pipeline.
“For some reason, he (Elway) took a liking to me, Sharpe recalls. “Maybe because I joked, I keep the locker room [light]… I’m a seventh-round draft pick. They gave me the number one, so basically I’m just a camp body.”
But that camp body received some good advice from older brother Sterling Sharpe, himself already two years in the NFL. “And I just remember my brother saying, ‘look, just know what you’re supposed to do when you get your opportunity.'”
And that opportunity eventually came, as other people’s misfortune turned into the younger Sharpe’s good fortune. “And it just so happened that every tight end on the roster got hurt, now I’m the biggest receiver,” Sharpe remembers. “By the time they move me to tight end halfway through the season, I’m 205 (pounds). I’m playing tight end at 205. They’re ragdolling me, throwing me all around in practice.”
The Broncos defenders had their way with Sharpe in practice during run-blocking drills. But in pass-catching drills, the shoe was on the other foot. “Scout team, I was at tight end,” said Sharpe. “Wade Phillips blows the whistle. He said, ‘Dan (Reeves), put his ass in the game, and let’s see if they can cover him, because we can’t.'”
Sharpe’s performance in practice helped him work his way onto the field come game day. And it helped him grow his relationship with Elway. “I just started building this relationship with John,” said Sharpe. “Every tough catch that needed to be made I was making in practice. Because you can’t get that trust in the game if he doesn’t trust you in practice. I started sitting next to him during the meetings. ‘Okay, how do you want me to run these routes?'”
That relationship blossomed, growing into one of trust and respect. Because, as Sharpe put it, “John was all about respect… He would never show you up… If you did something that he didn’t agree with, he’s going to talk to you on the sideline or he’s going to wait until the next day and talk to you… He gave me that respect, and he didn’t have to do that, because he was John Elway.”