Commentary

For Sharpe, the waiting was the hardest part

Eighteen years after the fact, Shannon Sharpe still embraces his draft sleeper status and remains proud that he overcame long odds to become an elite tight end, writes Bill Williamson.

Originally Published: April 18, 2008
By Bill Williamson | ESPN.com

Should it be a surprise Shannon Sharpe awoke on draft day in 1990 thinking he would be a first-round pick?

When the first round -- which featured forgettable names such as Blair Thomas (No. 2), Andre Ware (No. 7) and Chris Singleton (No. 8) -- had elapsed, Sharpe, wearing bravado like $100 cologne even back then, was convinced he wouldn't slip past the third round. Then, the next five rounds came and went and the draft, which was 12 rounds in those days, took a break for the night at the halfway mark.

"I couldn't believe it," the prolific wide receiver from Savannah State recalls. "I was sitting on my bed all night, just shocked that I wasn't picked yet. I didn't know what was going on. I know I was from a little school, but I had big numbers. To this day, I'm still surprised I went so late."

Sharpe's journey ended on Monday morning, when the Denver Broncos took him in the seventh round (192nd overall pick). After an early workout in his Georgia hometown of Glennville with his older brother Sterling, a wide receiver with the Green Bay Packers, Sharpe returned home to a phone call from Broncos scout Ron Hill.

[+] EnlargeShannon Sharpe
Brian Bahr/Getty Images After an inauspicious start, Shannon Sharpe emerged as a premier offensive weapon.

"He told me I was a Bronco," Sharpe said. "I told him, he wouldn't regret it and that I'd be a steal. I knew Denver was getting a good deal in the seventh round."

The Broncos couldn't have asked for more from Sharpe, who likely will be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame next Super Bowl weekend in his first year of eligibility. Converted to tight end as a rookie, Sharpe helped make the position a premier offensive option in the 1990s. Sharpe, who won two Super Bowls with Denver and one with Baltimore, was an eight-time Pro Bowl player in his 14-year career. The 1990s' all-decade tight end finished with 815 catches, 10,060 yards and 62 touchdown receptions.

Not bad for a seventh-round afterthought who ranks No. 4 on ESPN.com's list of all-time draft steals and is an inspiration to every little-known prospect hoping not to be overlooked in this month's draft.

"I never thought I'd be a sleeper," Sharpe said. "But now, all these years later, I guess I was a sleeper."

Sharpe, who'll turn 40 in June, is as well-built as any tight end currently drawing an NFL paycheck, but he spends his time as a loquacious and oft-quotable analyst on CBS' "The NFL Today" and is featured on a Sirius NFL Radio show. Eighteen years after he was drafted, Sharpe sees that his is an unlikely story.

After he was drafted, Sharpe soon realized that seventh-round picks aren't afforded too many favors or extra developmental time. After a so-so training camp, Sharpe was earmarked to be released. In Denver's final preseason game, Sharpe was put on every special-teams unit.

"I was told that I was on the list to be cut and they had me out there playing so the guys who were going to make the team didn't get hurt," he said with a laugh. "I went out there fighting for my life. I blocked, tackled, did everything I could to save my career before it even started. After that game, the coaches had their final meeting and I was taken off the cut list. But it could have been over right then. The Shannon Sharpe story was close to not happening."

Sharpe wasn't an instant star in Denver. He was slow to develop and eventually was moved to tight end because his 6-foot-2, 228-pound frame fit the mold of the H-back role Denver liked to use athletic tight ends in. Still, Sharpe admits he wasn't always prepared when he made the position switch. It took a talk with the team's most famous player to get Sharpe focused on becoming an NFL success.

"It was all John Elway," said Sharpe of the quarterback who was in his eighth NFL season when Sharpe came to Denver. "He was really the first one to tell me I could make it. He said, 'Sharpie, you could really be good. You are big, you are fast. You could be something if you just put it together and studied and get serious.'

"I remember one game; I was out there at H-back and John was pointing to me, telling me where I had to be on every play. That wasn't right. John didn't have to be worrying about some rookie not being in the right place. I drove home from the stadium that day and promised myself I would be prepared for John. And from that point, it was all good but it wasn't easy."

Yet the Broncos knew Sharpe was worth it. Hill had watched Sharpe's career fairly closely as he was scouting the Southeast. Hill couldn't spend an inordinate amount of time on the kid from the tiny school, but Sharpe always intrigued him.

"I went there for an August practice his senior year, and it was hot and dusty and Shannon just works so hard," Hill said. "He was very tough and had a great work ethic, and in the games, he totally dominated."

Why did Sharpe fall to the seventh round?

"Sometimes, those small-school guys drop," Hill said. "The film of him wasn't like it was done at Oklahoma. His film looked like it was shot on the top of a car hood."

Then there was Sharpe's performance at the scouting combine.

"Shannon probably had the worst workout in the history of the combine," Hill said. "He had a lot of dropped balls. It just wasn't very good. But I still had a second-round grade on him. He was a talent. I'm just glad he was there for us when we took him."

Eighteen years after he was upset not to have gone in the first round, Sharpe is proud of his sleeper status.

"I really carried that seventh-round tag with me my whole career, even at the end," Sharpe said. "I felt like I always had to fight to prove my worth. Even through all those Pro Bowls, at the end of the day, I was always just a seventh-round pick."

Bill Williamson covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter