Add up the receptions in Shannon Sharpe’s 14-year NFL career – 815 in regular season games, 62 more in the postseason – and none might be as significant as the football he bobbled first, then cradled into his hands in the 1997 AFC Championship Game.
The Denver Broncos held a precious three-point lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the game’s final 100 seconds. Needing six yards on third down to retain possession and all but assure a victory, quarterback John Elway needed someone to make a play.
“John told us in the huddle to just run straight down the middle of the field and get open,” Sharpe told reporters afterward. “That’s all he said. We broke the huddle and I said, ‘John, we don’t have a play.’ He said, ‘We do now.’ It was totally improvised.”
The “improvised” pass to Sharpe was good for 18 yards, helping the Broncos run out the clock in a 24-21 victory en route to their Super Bowl XXXII win. The play symbolized what Sharpe always had been to Denver’s offense throughout his career. Clutch.
The Broncos drafted Sharpe in 1990. He was a seventh-round pick, a brash, talkative 220-pound wide receiver from tiny Savannah (GA) State who made a name for himself by earning All-America honors at the Division II level. The Broncos and Coach Dan Reeves were hoping they made a good catch from the Sharpe family genes, as his older brother Sterling, already was a star receiver in the league with the Green Bay Packers.
Sharpe’s first touchdown catch as a rookie came in an exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers. What followed was a flamboyant celebration – the “M.C. Hammer” dance, which Sharpe had promised friends he would do when he caught his first touchdown. Dancing aside, the Broncos realized they had found a special player.
The Broncos eventually switched Sharpe to tight end. His muscular build, deceptive speed and large, soft hands made him a great target for quarterbacks, and a great headache for opposing defensives. In 1993 Sharpe had a breakout season with Denver, catching 81 passes for 995 yards and nine touchdowns, while earning the second of his eight Pro Bowl selections. The following season, Sharpe posted his career-high in catches with 87.
When Mike Shanahan took over as Broncos head coach in 1995, he knew that Sharpe was a vital weapon to Denver’s offensive attack. In a three-year span (1996-98), Sharpe caught 216 passes for 2,937 yards and 23 touchdowns, helping the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowl Championships.
Sharpe left Denver in 2000 as a free agent. He won a third Super Bowl ring with the Baltimore Ravens, then returned to the Broncos in 2002 and retired after the 2003 season to pursue a career in broadcasting.
The thing Broncos fans will remember about Sharpe is that he loved to talk the talk. But when it came time to put on the pads and cleats, he could walk the walk – and catch the football – with the best of them.
People say, ‘Since you got rich and famous, you’ve become insufferable.’ I say, ‘That’s not true. I’ve always been insufferable.’