Sharper's instincts still fine-tuned

Free safety Darren Sharper stood inside the visitors' locker room inside Redskins Park in early December, swarmed by reporters.

He paused mid-sentence, reached into his stall and pulled out his new NFC South Champions hat, fitting gear after his New Orleans Saints' victory over the Washington Redskins.

A key player in the Saints' eventual 13-0 start, Sharper explained how apt the team's popular "Who Dat?" chant is.

"We say 'Who dat dem gonna beat dem Saints?' and right now it's nobody," he said, flashing his GQ smile.

There's no wondering who Sharper is, especially this season. He's gone from being someone some suspected as a faded free-agent signee to contender for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The stealthy star is a prime reason New Orleans (13-3) is playing host to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC divisional playoffs on Saturday.

You can bet Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner will know who, if not where, Sharper is. The NFL's active leader with 63 career interceptions (tied for sixth all-time), Sharper has 13 career fumble and interception returns for scores (tied for first all-time). He has three interception returns for touchdowns this season.

Still, few expected that Sharper's 13th league campaign would be so impactful. He agreed to a one-year deal with the Saints in March 2009 as an unrestricted free agent after the Minnesota Vikings reportedly expressed no interest in re-signing him.

He's rewarded New Orleans' faith with an NFL single-season record 376 interception return yards, amassed on a league-leading nine interceptions (tied with three others). He also led all safeties with 24 pass deflections. Sharper accomplished this despite missing two games to knee injuries.

In the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting announced Tuesday, Sharper was tied for third in the balloting behind winner Charles Woodson and runner-up Darrelle Revis.

The laurels this season might just be beginning for Sharper, a standout even as a Green Bay Packers rookie who played in Super Bowl XXXII. The five-time Pro Bowl selection has Hall of Fame credentials, but he's primed to get that championship that eluded him years ago.

"My goals now aren't personal accolades," said Sharper, 34. "Yeah, they're good, because they show you have longevity and can play at a high level for a long time. But now the main goal is to get that ring."

Defying time, beating the odds

The average NFL career lasts less than four seasons, though former Packers GM Ron Wolf -- who scouted and drafted Sharper in 1997 -- said that's a misleading statistic.

"I don't think you can use that -- if you're good, you're going to play a long time," Wolf said.

"Still, I think it's a great credit to [Sharper] that he's been able to play as long as he has. It certainly shows his dedication and determination, and the pride that he possesses not only as a player but as an individual."

Sharper ranks tied for sixth all-time in career interceptions: His 63 picks are 18 behind all-time leader Paul Krause, another former Vikings safety and a Hall of Fame inductee.

Why is Sharper so adept at finding the football? He's not sharing any secrets, though if you like to throw long as Warner does, Sharper welcomes you.

"I just think that a lot of times we play teams that have QBs that maybe throw the ball a lot more or like to throw the ball in certain areas of the football field, and I take advantage of things they try to do,'' said Sharper, a star quarterback at Hermitage High in Richmond, Va.

"[Former Vikings quarterback] Daunte Culpepper, when I played against him and he had Randy Moss, you knew he'd always throw to Randy down the field. So that's where I'd patrol and have lots of opportunities. [NFL veteran quarterback] Jon Kitna is another guy who likes to throw the ball down the field, so I'd take advantage."

But the ball-hawking Sharper had just one interception in 2008 with the Vikings. His signing with the Saints sparked debate about his viability on fan message boards and elsewhere.

"I'm not accusing anybody here, but there are a lot of people in the media and a lot of personnel people in the NFL that thought he was washed up," Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said.

"[Some critics] didn't think we made a very good decision bringing him here," he said. "But I think [even] as you look and see the game-changing plays he's made, I'm more proud of his tackling. I'm more proud of his contact. I'm more proud of his leadership behind the scenes."

Said Sharper of reviving his career in the Big Easy: "I had a good gut feeling about New Orleans. They had a defense that could play better; they just needed to add a couple of pieces, and I thought I could be one of those pieces."

Brotherly shove

Sharper grew up the youngest of three children to Harry and Pauline Sharper. His brother, Jamie, 11 months older, was always the bigger and stronger of the two. They challenged each other constantly, whether it was basketball, soccer or wrestling at home.

"I always pushed him harder," said Jamie, a former star of the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl XXXV title team.

"He tried to outdo what I was doing, to get the limelight and that recognition. Some of that is what made him how he is now. He's not out there just to be on the field but he's out there trying to make the big plays."

Harry and Pauline enforced one major rule: academics before athletics. If the children (Jamie and Darren have an older sister, Monica) disobeyed, they'd pay the consequences.

Harry recalled one of Darren's middle school championship basketball games. Darren had failed to turn in a paper before tipoff, so Harry said his son wouldn't be playing.

"The coach got on me and said he needed Darren, but I'd told Darren if he didn't get that report in, he wouldn't play," Harry said.

Darren didn't finish the report and sat the bench the entire game.

Still, "my grades were always pretty good," he said. "My problem was more behavioral; I was acting up in class, being a little rambunctious."

Jamie chose to play football at the University of Virginia; Darren headed to the smaller, liberal arts College of William & Mary. He arrived at there as a quarterback, the position he'd played throughout high school.

He thought he'd continue at the helm, but W&M head coach Jimmye Laycock had other ideas.

A natural ball hawk

"We tried to get across to him that we envisioned him as a DB but when he was younger, Darren only heard what he wanted to sometimes," Laycock said.

"One of our first practices, he said, 'Coach, aren't you going to look at me at QB?' and I said, 'Darren, throw me the ball.' He threw it; I said, 'You've had your shot.'

"'Now do you want to play QB, or do you want to play in the NFL? Because DB is the right spot and you'll be great if you work at it.'"

Tomlin He's a ball hawk who believes in his abilities and instincts, but also isn't arrogant.

-- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Saints safety Darren Sharper. They were teammates at William & Mary in the 1990s

Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was two years ahead of Sharper at William & Mary.

Tomlin was Sharper's host on his recruiting visit, and the two were teammates for two years.

"His first start freshman year, we were playing University of Richmond," Tomlin remembered. "He jumped on a hitch and grabbed an interception. He dropped the ball, but for a young guy to take that calculated risk and jump on that ball at a critical moment, that's a snapshot of what he's about.

"He's a ball hawk who believes in his abilities and instincts, but also isn't arrogant."

As a senior in 1997, Sharper led the Tribe to a 10-3 record and was named the Southern Conference's defensive player of the year. He was voted a Division I-AA All-American twice and still holds the W&M record as the all-time leader in interceptions and return yards.

Recently, he was voted into the W&M Athletic Hall of Fame.

A Lambeau Leap to stardom

Green Bay chose Sharper in the second round of the 1997 draft, the 60th pick overall. Jamie had been selected 26 spots earlier by the Ravens, who also had their eyes on Darren.

"To this day [the Ravens] still tell me it was between me and Kim Herring," the free safety the Ravens selected two picks earlier. Sharper then pointed out: "And if Jamie and I had been together in Baltimore, we would both have a Super Bowl ring."

Instead, Darren headed to Green Bay. Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell, a teammate of Sharper's in Green Bay and Minnesota, joined the team at the same time and said circumstances weren't easy for the rookies.

"The Packers had just won the Super Bowl. The roster was loaded with talent and there wasn't a lot of room for us," Longwell said.

"Darren was always listening, picking the brains of LeRoy Butler and Eugene Robinson. No one would ever outwork him; he was always staying after practice, catching extra balls, studying film. And he took really good care of himself, which is another reason why he's been able to play so long."

Sharper played in 14 games his first season, often with special teams. His breakout came in 2000, when he totaled nine interceptions. He became the first Packer to lead the NFL in that stat since 1962, and he was voted to his first Pro Bowl.

"When I first signed with Green Bay, my goal was just to play out my four-year contract," Sharper said. "Little did I know that contracts aren't really etched in stone. Going into becoming a free agent in my fourth year, I rededicated myself and trusted my instincts."

In 2000, the Packers re-signed Sharper to another four years, during which he averaged 5.5 interceptions and 121.5 interception return yards per season. But in 2004, his final season with Green Bay, Sharper struggled with a knee injury and started a career-low 13 games.

"I was 29 and they thought I was slowing down," Sharper said. "I thought I was worth more than they wanted to pay me, and that it might be a good divorce at that time. … I wanted to go somewhere I could help build the team up."

Sharper left Green Bay for Minnesota, where in 2005, despite a lingering knee problem that kept him out of two games, he once again led the NFC and ranked third in the NFL with nine interceptions and 276 interception return yards, then a career-high. That season the Vikings went 9-7 while Green Bay finished 4-12. He played three more seasons in Minnesota, starting 48 consecutive regular-season games.

A quarterback's instincts

The Vikings utilized a Tampa 2-style defense, a scheme that, some argued, inhibited Sharper's playmaking abilities. First-year Saints defensive coordinator Williams has a scheme that gives his secondary more freedom, which Sharper cites as a key factor in his statistical dominance this season.

"He is a QB back there anticipating, knowing what to do," Bengals free safety Roy L. Williams said of Sharper.

"His instincts, awareness of the field, and recuperation are all standout. Any position you need Darren to play he could do, and a guy like that is a defensive coordinator's dream player."

Sharper will be called upon to rally the Saints in the playoffs after New Orleans closed the regular season with three consecutive losses.

Still, he provided a highlight in an otherwise dismal Dec. 27 upset loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Sharper snared a Josh Freeman pass intended for Antonio Bryant and ran it back 21 yards. With that play, Sharper set the record for most interception return yards in a season (376), surpassing the previous mark held by the Ravens' Ed Reed.

Only two active NFL safeties are older than Sharper: the Denver Broncos' Brian Dawkins (36) and the Houston Texans' Nick Ferguson (35). Sharper is one of just 14 members of his draft class still playing in the NFL.

Sharper's edge includes a hyperbaric chamber

For the past decade, Sharper has worked out each offseason at the Tom Shaw Performance Center in Orlando, Fla. He credits the program's intense conditioning for his continued agility and quickness.

"That's the biggest reason I've been able to play so long at a high level," Sharper said. "It's how [Shaw] conditions us, works on our form. It really prepares your body for training camp, and that core base has allowed me to stay healthy, which pays dividends toward the latter part of the year."

"Darren is a different breed," Shaw said. "He's a hard-worker, he's dedicated and he wants to be the best. His vertical jump was right at 36 inches when he arrived nine years ago. This past summer, it was still 36 inches. He has just maintained his explosiveness."

Sharper is known for his careful diet, weight regimen and taking time each week to rest in a hyperbaric chamber.

"He always takes the right vitamins and supplements to be able to perform at his best," Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe said.

"The cold tub, weight room, hyperbaric chamber, you name it. He's a guy that is neck-deep in his profession. He knows how to handle it from every angle."

When Sharper signed with New Orleans, he realized he'd be called upon to lead a young, somewhat inexperienced group of defensive backs. The Saints ranked 26th in average passing yards allowed in the regular season.

Still, Sharper sees improvements in a defense that has proven New Orleans isn't totally dependent upon offensive stars Drew Brees, Marques Colston, Reggie Bush and others.

Perhaps more valuable than his numbers has been Sharper's veteran leadership.

"I get to watch him and learn the kinds of moves he makes, what he does, how he studies and prepares," Saints rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said.

"He's teaching me how to pick and choose when to jump and how to see things before they come, so that you can be aggressive but in a smart way."

Sharper often paces the sidelines, instructing teammates on what he's seeing.

"I've been known throughout my career as a guy who will make big plays in big games, and being a winner is part of that, too," Sharper said. "That's what I want to be remembered as, being a winner and being a playmaker."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.