Hard work, confidence key Sharper's NFL success

Darren Sharper, who played for Hermitage High School and William and Mary, has put together a NFL career which may land him in the Hall of Fame.

When Darren Sharper arrived at William and Mary in 1993, he was a young, confident quarterback who occasionally played defense.

After a few college practices, he could not help but notice he had spent all of his time as a defensive back.

He approached Tribe coach Jimmye Laycock.

"He asked me when he'd get to try quarterback," Laycock said. "I gave him a football and told him to throw me a pass. He did. I caught it and said, 'OK, Darren, you've tried quarterback. Now, do you want to play quarterback or go to the NFL?'

"He said, 'What?'"

Sharper, a graduate of Hermitage High School in Henrico County, did not play quarterback at William and Mary. He is in the 13th season of a special National Football League career that could end with a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sharper has played four times as long as the average NFL player. He is one of the best free safeties in the league and has been voted to four Pro Bowls.

"When you look at all he's accomplished, I think a good case can be made that he is a Hall of Fame player," said Ron Wolf.

Wolf is not a casual observer. He spent 38 years working in the NFL and was considered one of the league's top talent evaluators.

He is the man who made the trade with Atlanta that brought quarterback Brett Favre to Green Bay.

In 1997, when Wolf was executive vice president and general manager of the Packers, he selected Sharper in the second round of the draft.

"I thought we had drafted a Pro Bowl cornerback," Wolf said. "He was 6-1¾ , ran under 4.4 [in the 40-yard dash], had unbelievable movement and [fluid] hips.

"The thing was, because of injuries, we never played him at cornerback. I guess that worked out all right."

And Wolf laughed.

. . .

Sharper now plays for the New Orleans Saints, his third NFL team. The Packers let him go in 2004 after eight seasons. He then spent four years with the Minnesota Vikings.

When the Vikings opted not to re-sign him after the 2008 season, Sharper looked for what he thought would be the best fit for his talents.

"I knew with the young guys they had behind me, and the contract I wanted, I wasn't likely to go back to Minnesota," Sharper said.

The Saints (11-0) have the best record in the National Football Conference going into today's game against the Washington Redskins. The Vikings are 10-1.

"It was certainly an important move for us," Saints coach Sean Payton said of signing Sharper. "He provided the leadership and that level of experience in the back end. He's got good ball skills, and he's one of those players that the ball finds, and a lot of that is sometimes hard to coach."

Sharper harbors no hard feelings toward the Vikings. He does not crave a showdown with them in the NFC championship game.

"The only time I went into the offseason wanting to prove people wrong was after the Packers let me go," Sharper said. "There was a lot of talk about the Packers not being sure how much I had left.

"My first year in Minnesota, there was a lot of 'prove people wrong' in me. Now, I'm motivated each year to see if I can play better. I'm motivated to win a championship, a Super Bowl championship."

. . .

Much can happen between now and the Super Bowl. So far, though, Sharper and the Saints are playing Super Bowl-caliber football. The offense averages 37 points per game.

Sharper is the perfect safety for coordinator Gregg Williams' aggressive defense, which has allowed just 25 touchdowns this season. Williams, former assistant head coach/defense of the Redskins, needs a smart, fast playmaker at free safety. Sharper is all that and more.

"He has the instincts," Williams said. "That's the fun part of coaching, having someone so instinctive and so smart they can take big-picture concepts and run with it. He can do those types of things. The longer you play, the easier it is to do that."

Sharper has absorbed his share of blows and made his share of tackles. But he has been able to avoid serious injuries.

Part of that is luck. A larger part is a year-round dedication to conditioning.

"He keeps his body in shape," said Tom Shaw, owner and director of Tom Shaw Performance, a training program for professional athletes.

Sharper spends several months each off-season working five days a week with Shaw in Orlando, Fla.

"A lot of players say they need time to rest in the off-season, but that's not true," Shaw said. "Darren takes about two weeks off to recover, then he hits it again. He works hard, harder than a lot of guys in the league.

"Guys who play 10, 12, 14 years don't do that because they're lazy. They do it because they work hard."

. . .

Sharper's physical talents and off-season efforts would be worth little without confidence.

"He is not a guy who lacks for confidence, and he will be the first to tell you that," said Sean McDermott, defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles and Sharper's teammate at William and Mary. "At the same time, he's respectful of opponents and a great teammate.

"He is a little bit of a dice roller, but most of the time, he's taking calculated chances or educated guesses. In his case and career, his chances have paid off."

Gus Allen, Sharper's high school coach at Hermitage, chuckled at the suggestion that Sharper is a confident player.

"Oh, he's very confident," Allen said. "If I asked for his opinion, he never hesitated to give it. But, if I said we're not going that way, he was on board immediately."

Jamie Sharper, Darren's older brother who played nine seasons at linebacker in the NFL, was a confident player. He admits he pales in comparison to his brother.

"Darren was always trying to shine," Jamie said. "He wants to be the guy with the ball.

"Once, Bruce Bowen, the athletic director at Hermitage, talked to the football team at the beginning of the season. Coach Bowen said the odds of making it into the NFL were slim and that we should concentrate on our education.

"Then, he asked if anyone thought he was going to play in the NFL. Darren stood up and said, 'I plan to play in the NFL.'"

Jamie Sharper is a year older than Darren, 34. Both entered the NFL in 1997. Jamie redshirted -- was held out of competition -- as a freshman at the University of Virginia. Darren played at William and Mary as a true freshman.

Jamie was a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens.

The Sharper brothers did not make life easy for each other. Their competition was constant.

"I had to break up a lot of fights," said their older sister, Monica Sharper Brown.

"I was hard on him," Jamie said. "Brothers always compete. I was the older brother, pushing him, making him compete. We pushed each other more than anything.

"I'm definitely proud of him. I go to a lot of his games. My parents come to the games. Being retired and being a fan is pretty enjoyable, and it's even more enjoyable with someone out there you know."

. . .

The children of Harry and Pauline Shaper were an athletic brood. But the parents never let athletics take priority over academics.

"In this household, we deal with education. That's the top priority," Harry Sharper said. "In high school, they had to hit the books. They had to go to college. We wanted them to have degrees so they could move on to careers beyond sports."

Pauline said, "They knew if their grades were not up to par, they were not playing sports." That message got through to the children.

Darren has a degree in sociology. Jamie earned a degree in psychology. Monica has an accounting degree from James Madison University.

"We had to make sure we stayed balanced," Darren said. "They stressed the importance of school work and made it clear we would not be allowed to play if we didn't have our grades together.

"One thing we noticed when we were kids was that our parents were extremely involved in what we were doing. They showed us they wanted us to be active, not only in sports but also in the community. They were a big factor in why we did sports, why we were coachable, why we kept our grades up. They always gave us good guidance."

The Sharper children are not the only ones who appreciate their parents.

"They were some of the best parents I've ever worked with," Allen said.

Darren works at football, but he does not consider it a job. He plays with the same passion now as he did when he played in his first sandlot games.

"He's going to play until they cart him off the field," Monica said. "He's still excited about football. He's playing like a veteran but has the legs of a rookie."

"True," Darren said. "There's a lot of gas left in my tank. I enjoy what I do. When it becomes laborious and it becomes like a job and I feel like I'm not blessed to play football for a living, I'll shut it down.

"But as long as I like going to work and like playing, there's no better job to have.

"There is nothing like game day when they announce the starting lineup and running out in front of 70,000 or 80,000 people. That's a feeling that will be tough to replace."

Contact Paul Woody at (804) 649-6444 or pwoody@timesdispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/World_of_Woody

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