In the National Football League, tight ends are sometimes unsung heroes. Some offensive schemes use them sparingly as receiving threats, yet they do some of the little things that can add up to a team’s biggest victories.
Shannon Sharpe was the exception to that rule. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, he became one of the league’s greatest tight ends ever, and in doing so, he made himself a vital part of multiple winning teams.
He would eventually become a household name not just because of his talents and skills, but also because of his colorful personality.
Childhood In The Deep South
Shannon Goad Sharpe was born on June 26, 1968 in Chicago, Ill., and he grew up in Glennville, Ga., a small town located in Tattnall County.
As a child, he came up in a rough environment. Not only was his family poor, but his parents Pete and Mary Alice Sharpe separated when he was just three months old, immediately presenting a sizable hurdle he would have to overcome.
To make matters worse, his father died when he was in his early teens due to lung cancer, which meant that he didn’t have a true father figure for part of his most important years.
Luckily, Sharpe’s grandmother Mary Porter stepped in to help raise him and his two siblings, and she would play a big role in his upbringing and the man he would eventually become.
In addition to helping raise the three Sharpe children, Porter also helped take care of several others in the extended family, including nieces and nephews.
The entire Sharpe clan, no matter how many people it included at any given time, all lived packed like sardines in a tiny, somewhat desolate home that could barely fit a family of four.
Multiple people had to not only share a room but sometimes a bed. Young Sharpe would share a bed with grandma.
The family ate well on Sunday nights, courtesy of a chicken dinner provided by Porter, but many other days of the week, the Sharpes had to make do with meager meals.
Young Sharpe had other obstacles to overcome. In school, he was a poor student, and perhaps it wasn’t because of a lack of effort or because he didn’t care.
He was born with a lisp, which made it hard for him to demonstrate his reading abilities. As a result, he was sent to a speech therapist while in the third grade.
Later, when he was in high school, he would be forced to take a remedial reading class.
However, if there was one thing Sharpe was good and gifted at, it was sports. In fact, it was likely in his genes.
His older brother Sterling went on to the NFL himself and had a very strong career, playing several seasons as a wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers.
Shannon played football and basketball and ran track while attending Glennville High School. As a track and field athlete, he set the Class A state record for the triple jump at 48-feet, 3-inches as a junior, then broke his own mark with a jump of 49-feet, 5-inches when he was a senior.
But it was on the gridiron where he found his ticket out of poverty. His football coach, William Hall, was even something of a surrogate father for Sharpe, driving him home from practice and even serving as his driver’s education teacher.
Off the field, Sharpe was also starting to find himself, despite his speech and learning difficulties. Once when he was at a session with his speech therapist, he made fun of a fellow child who had trouble reading, and although he was reprimanded, Sharpe had a revelation that would help him feel very comfortable and proud in his own skin.
“That was the beginning of where I thought I might be good at making people laugh,” he said. “From that moment on, I figured out if I could poke fun at other kids, they wouldn’t make fun of me and the way I talked.”
Standing Out At A Small School
Sharpe decided to stay close to home and play his college ball for Savannah State, which was the only school that offered him a scholarship. As a Division II school, Savannah State was not exactly a prime-time football powerhouse.
In addition to playing football for the Tigers, he continued to also play basketball while running track.
His freshman year was quiet, but he started to blossom as a sophomore before turning heads as a junior and leading the Tigers to a 7-3 record.
In his final year of eligibility, Sharpe got the Tigers to an 8-1 finish. His junior and senior seasons were the two best years in Tigers football history, record-wise.
For the 1989 season, his senior year, Sharpe put together 1,312 yards and 18 touchdowns on 61 receptions. That same season, he also had three games where he gained at least 200 yards, and in one contest he would score four touchdowns.
His last two games with Savannah State helped raise his national profile, as he became the school’s first player to take part in the Blue-Gray Classic, an annual all-star game in Alabama, and the East-West Shrine Game, another all-star game played in Nevada.
In each of his last three years with the Tigers, Sharpe was an All-American, made it on to the All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and was named the conference’s offensive player of the year.
In all, he totaled 192 receptions, 3,744 yards and 40 touchdowns while at Savannah State.
Looking Sharp In The Mile High City
Heading into the 1990 NFL Draft, Sharpe was not a hot prospect. He was considered a “tweener,” which is a term used in football, as well as in basketball, to describe a player who doesn’t quite fit into a specific position.
He was 6-foot-1 and 221 pounds, which gave him solid size to play wide receiver in the NFL, but he was too slow to actually play the position well. At the same time, many felt he wasn’t big or strong enough to block behemoth linebackers as a tight end.
Perhaps the fact that Sharpe played at a small Division II school also factored into his lack of attractiveness to scouts.
Meanwhile, his brother Sterling was killing it as a wideout for the Packers, which gave him the added pressure of escaping the shadow of his older sibling.
With the 192nd overall pick, the Denver Broncos decided to take a chance on Sharpe. Even though they were coming off a trip to the Super Bowl, they needed some help to get over the hump.
Still, his NFL career almost didn’t happen. He was about to be released during the squad’s final cut in 1990, but assistant coach Chan Gailey noticed how Sharpe willingly gave max effort during practice drills, and he vouched for the rookie, leading to Sharpe being included on the final roster.
Head coach Dan Reeves would first try Sharpe at wide receiver, although he wouldn’t play much as a rookie. He started just two games and had a grand total of just 99 receiving yards and one touchdown.
It also wasn’t a given that he’d stick around past his first season. Reeves told Sharpe that in order to make the roster in his second season, he’d have to gain 35 pounds, but Sharpe did just that.
Still, his second season wasn’t much better: 322 yards and one touchdown. The Broncos went 11-5, and after missing the playoffs the year before, they advanced to the AFC Championship Game where they narrowly lost to the Buffalo Bills.
In 1992, Reeves decided to move Sharpe to tight end, and it was a move that would start to unlock his potential.
That year, he had 640 yards and two touchdowns while earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl. The following season under new head coach Wade Phillips, he fully blossomed with 995 yards and nine touchdowns on 91 catches for his second Pro Bowl nod and first selection to the All-Pro First-Team.
In the playoffs, Sharpe was finally a major factor with 156 yards and a touchdown in the wild card contest against the Los Angeles Raiders. Unfortunately, Denver lost, 42-24.
The key to his emergence was his work ethic, something he developed as a young child. Back then, he would work in the tobacco fields near his home and even hunt wild hogs.
As a pro player, he was maniacal about sticking to a regular workout and training routine, something he would continue even many years after his playing days were over.
Even though the Broncos missed the playoffs in 1994 and 1995, Sharpe continued to shine. He put up 1,010 yards and four touchdowns in ’94, and 756 yards and four touchdowns in ’95 despite missing three games, while making the Pro Bowl both years.
Mike Shanahan, who had been the Broncos’ offensive coordinator years ago, became their new head coach in ’95, and in 1996 he guided the team back to the postseason. One factor was his emphasis on the running game, which, along with Sharpe’s blocking abilities, would open things up for young running back Terrell Davis.
Sharpe would post his best season yet with 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns that year, which was good enough for Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team recognition.
With the team’s defense improving greatly, Denver went 13-3 in ’96. Although it took a sizeable early lead against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round thanks to a touchdown by Sharpe, it played poorly in the second half and lost, 30-27.
Broncos Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway was growing restless. He had been to the Super Bowl three times, only to lose each time, and at age 37 his time was running out.
Luckily, Sharpe and much of the rest of the team were relatively young and in their prime. In addition, players such as Neil Smith, Bill Romanowski and John Mobley provided plenty of support on the defensive side of the football.
Sharpe had another stellar season with 1,107 yards, and the Broncos had another strong regular season with a 12-4 record. However, it was only good enough for a wild card playoff spot, meaning that, as had always been the case in the Elway era, they would be postseason underdogs.
Denver blew out Jacksonville and squeaked by the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs to reach the AFC Championship game for the first time in six years.
After falling behind 14-7 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Broncos rallied for a 24-21 win, with Sharpe catching an Elway pass to get a first down in a third-down situation late in the fourth quarter to allow Denver to run out the clock.
Jan. 11, 1998 (1997 AFC Championship Game)—The Denver Broncos successfully completed their Revenge Tour, & won their 5th AFC title, by beating the Steelers 24–21 in Pittsburgh!
TDs: @Terrell_Davis @HowardGriffith & @87ed
INTs: @SlickPickSix39 & Aldridge @ShannonSharpe: CLUTCH pic.twitter.com/CEp1WwSrsB
— Mile High Moments (@MileHighMoments) January 11, 2022
In Super Bowl XXXII, Denver would face Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers, who were the defending world champs and favored to win by double digits.
But Denver would finally exorcise its demons by pulling away for a 31-24 win and giving Elway his championship ring. The lasting image from this contest was Elway diving over the pile late in the third quarter for a first down, showing how badly he needed a world title.
As far as Sharpe was concerned, he had made it from the lower rung of society to its pinnacle.
Emboldened by finally getting over the hump, the Broncos looked even stronger to start the 1998 season, winning each of their first 13 games. Sharpe scored 10 touchdowns, and for the seventh straight year, he was named to the Pro Bowl, while he was also named to the All-Pro First-Team for the third consecutive season.
With a 14-2 record, Denver blasted into the playoffs looking to repeat as champs. It was presumed to be Elway’s final season, which gave Sharpe and other teammates extra incentive to go all the way again.
After relatively easy wins over the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, the Broncos went to Super Bowl XXXIII against the Atlanta Falcons, a surprise team that was led by star running back Jamal Anderson, nicknamed the “Dirty Bird.”
Ironically, the Falcons were coached by Dan Reeves, the Broncos’ old coach from earlier in the decade.
But Reeves didn’t have the horses to truly challenge Sharpe and his boys, and Denver ran away with a 34-19 victory to claim its second straight world championship.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) April 19, 2020
Clearly, life without one of the game’s greatest QBs ever would be tough. In 1999, Brian Griese, the son of Miami Dolphins great Bob Griese, took over for Elway under center.
But the drop-off in talent and skill was noticeable, and it was complicated by injuries that caused Sharpe and Davis to miss much of the season. Denver won just six games, missing the playoffs, and Sharpe decided it was time to move on, as he joined the Baltimore Ravens that offseason.
The Ravens were coming off an 8-8 season and were starting to build a winner. They needed help offensively, and they felt Sharpe could make plays and take pressure off his teammates.
Although Baltimore wasn’t much improved offensively in 2000, Sharpe did return to form with 810 yards and five touchdowns. The Ravens’ bread and butter was their defense, which was first in points allowed and was one of the best anyone had ever seen.
With a 12-4 record, Baltimore started off the postseason in the wild card round against Sharpe’s old team, the Broncos, and defeated them rather easily thanks to his 73 yards and one touchdown.
Baltimore then outlasted the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round, and against the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Championship game, Sharpe had a 96-yard touchdown catch that helped propel his team to a 16-3 win and a spot in Super Bowl XXXV.
21 years ago today, Shannon Sharpe took a Trent Dilfer pass to the end zone for a 96-yard touchdown to put the Ravens up early over the Raiders in the AFC Championship
Baltimore would win the game 16-3 and advance to their first Super Bowl pic.twitter.com/j4hLn7lLdE
— Kevin Oestreicher (@koestreicher34) January 14, 2022
In the big game, the Ravens played the New York Giants, who were no match for them. Baltimore rolled the Giants 34-7, giving Sharpe his third championship ring in a span of just four years.
The Ravens went into the 2001 season with a new QB, Elvis Grbac. Unfortunately, their hopes for another world title were doomed from the start when Lewis suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp.
Sharpe looked to pick up the slack with 811 yards and two touchdowns on the season. For the first time in three years, he was selected to appear in the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens’ defense from the previous season largely stayed intact, and with a 10-6 record, they again went to the playoffs with championship hopes. But the Pittsburgh Steelers ended those hopes by handing them a 27-10 defeat in the divisional round.
Sharpe returned to the Broncos for the 2002 season. By now, they were a changed team, as Terrell Davis had retired after being dogged with injuries, and key defensive stars from their back-to-back championship teams were gone.
Sharpe was now 34 years of age, but thanks to his great work ethic, he was still in top shape, and it showed as he put up 686 yards and three touchdowns in 13 games that year. In fact, in one game he had 214 receiving yards, which is an all-time record for a tight end.
George Kittle came close, but he couldn't quite match this @ShannonSharpe performance.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) December 10, 2018
But it wasn’t enough to prevent the Broncos from missing the playoffs.
With Jake Plummer under center for the 2003 season, Denver had a bit of new hope. Sharpe continued to seemingly defy age with 770 yards and eight touchdowns, and with a 10-6 record, the Broncos returned to the playoffs.
But they did nothing there, as they got routed by the Indianapolis Colts in the wild card round in what was Sharpe’s final game in the NFL.
Legacy and Post-Football Career
After 14 seasons in the NFL, Sharpe retired with a reputation and legacy as perhaps the greatest tight end in the history of the sport. At the time of his retirement, no tight end had ever amassed more receptions (815), yards (10,060) or touchdowns (62).
.@ShannonSharpe changed the game. 🐐
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 21, 2020
In his second year of eligibility, Sharpe was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, giving him the final bookend to his career. He was also a no-brainer choice for the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s.
Shortly after calling it quits, Sharpe became a commentator on “The NFL Today,” CBS Sports’ popular pre-game show for its pro football coverage. Teamed up with James Brown and fellow ex-players Dan Marino and Boomer Esiason, Sharpe seemed like a natural choice because of his loquacious personality and megawatt smile.
However, his lisp was still noticeable, as was his Southern drawl, causing some critics to attack his commentating skills and ability in front of an audience of many millions.
Still, Sharpe’s role on “The NFL Today” lasted quite a while, until 2014 when he was relieved of his duties. He also spent time as the co-host of Sirius NFL Radio’s “Opening Drive” morning program along with Bob Papa.
He then moved on to a new role: the co-host of a new show, named “Skip and Shannon: Undisputed,” a daily sports debate program that airs on the Fox Sports 1 network. It pairs Sharpe with veteran journalist and on-air personality Skip Bayless, and it has introduced Sharpe to a new generation of sports fans.
Each morning, the two debate news and issues from around the sports world, mostly the NFL and NBA. They are known for taking strikingly contrarian views on a number of recurring issues and topics.
For example, Sharpe is well-known as an unapologetic fan and booster of Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, while Bayless is fond of pointing out the shortcomings of James and his teams, to the point where many have accused him of being a “hater” of the four-time NBA champion.
As great as his NFL career was, being a successful and popular TV commentator for many years is an amazing accomplishment for him, given how much trouble his speech impediment gave him over the years.
In addition, Sharpe has his own podcast, “Club Shay Shay,” on which he interviews not just big-name sports stars, but also big names from other fields, including celebrities. The podcast is immensely popular, as it reached 100,000 YouTube channel subscribers in late 2020.
In 2013, the former tight end also became a spokesman and a contributor for FitnessRx for Men, a magazine that is dedicated to men’s health and fitness. To this day, he has maintained an impressive work ethic, always making sure he always finds time for several different types of rigorous workouts every day.
According to Sharpe, his dedication to health and fitness has allowed him to crush “guys in their 20s and 30s at the gym,” even though he is now in his 50s.
He hasn’t had much success when it comes to finding lasting love, as there have been rumors about him being in a few relationships, but none of them led to marriage, although they did lead to him fathering three kids: daughters Kayla and Kaley, and son Kiari.
But Sharpe is far from an absent father. Although his kids have spent most of their time with their mothers, Sharpe would make sure to visit them often and be a major presence in their lives.
When he got inducted into the Hall of Fame, all three of them were present at his ceremony. His talent, work ethic, determination and personality have allowed him to give them a life far beyond the one he could’ve ever dreamed of while growing up poor without his own father in the picture for part of his childhood.