ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the past two years, Shannon Sharpe has been named a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame twice, only to come up short.
But in his third year of eligibility, the former seventh-round pick out of Savannah State University heard his name when it counted most.
On Saturday, Sharpe was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2011, joining Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Ed Sabol and Deion Sanders in the next group to be enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
"I am thrilled for Shannon Sharpe on his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said. "It's great to see another Bronco in the Hall of Fame and part of the club. It's a well-deserved honor, and I'm proud of him. This caps off a tremendous football career by a guy who truly was self-made and worked his tail off to become one of the best players in the history of the NFL."
Sharpe was named a finalist for the Classes of 2009 and 2010, but didn't make it in with groups that included Floyd Little, Jerry Rice, Bruce Smith, Emmitt Smith and Rod Woodson. He now becomes the eighth tight end in the Hall, and is the fourth inductee to have spent a primary portion of his playing career with the Broncos.
"This is a great day for Shannon Sharpe individually as well as for the Denver Broncos' entire organization and our fans," Owner and CEO Pat Bowlen said. "Shannon has made immeasurable contributions to this franchise and the NFL, and he deservedly will take his place among the greatest to play this game in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."
Sharpe played 14 seasons in the NFL -- 12 as a Bronco -- and retired as the league's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a tight end, putting together a resume that makes him, in Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez's opinion, "absolutely the greatest of all time when it comes to a career."
But the three-time Super Bowl champion brought more to the league than just his numbers.
"He's almost like 'The Godfather' of the new era tight ends that a lot of teams are looking for now,"
Players like Graham, Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley and Dan and Rob Gronkowski -- the list goes on -- are all essentially in the mold of a player like Sharpe.
"When I first got into the league, everybody wanted a 270-pound, 280-pound tight end that could dominate the line of scrimmage," Sharpe said after he was named the 22nd member of the Broncos Ring of Fame. "Everybody wanted to run the football, and if you caught 15, 20 passes in a season that was icing on the cake. Then all of a sudden when Dan Reeves used me at H-back, motioned me out, lined me up in the slot, put me out wide -- all of a sudden teams said, 'We have to get us one of those Shannon Sharpes.'"
Only three times in Sharpe's career did he catch less than 50 passes in a season -- his first two years in the league and the 1999 campaign, which was cut short by an injury. He had more than 1,000 receiving yards in a season three times, and caught 10 touchdowns twice.
"When you least expected it, as he called himself -- 'Big Game James' -- was going to get you," Rod Smith recalled. "He'd find a way to make a big catch, get a first down and keep the sticks moving. He used to always say, 'If we move the sticks, we'll get six.' He was the master at that."
To that point, for his career, 60 percent of Sharpe's catches resulted in a first down. Sharpe credits that productivity to his work ethic.
"My life for 14 years in the National Football League was football," Sharpe said. "I ate, I drank, I slept and thought football. That's all I wanted to do. I didn't take vacations, I didn't own a yacht, I didn't have a whole bunch of hobbies other than working out and getting ready for the upcoming season."
That preparation held strong throughout his entire career -- he caught 62 passes for 770 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season in 2003. But toward the end of his playing days, Sharpe thrived on the notion that people were beginning to think he was washed up.
After his 1999 campaign ended prematurely when he broke his collar bone, he said it felt like some people thought he might be finished.
So what did he do? He headed to Baltimore to play two years with the Ravens. He averaged 70 catches for 810.5 yards per season, won a Super Bowl and earned his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Then, when he came back to Denver in 2002, many people thought it was simply his farewell tour.
When the Broncos headed to Arrowhead Stadium to take on the Chiefs in Week 7 that year, no one expected much out of Sharpe. By then, the face of the tight end position was Gonzalez, who had a 1,200-yard receiving season under his belt and had already racked up six touchdowns on 314 yards in 2002.
"I had established myself by then, and supposedly I had taken the torch or whatever," Gonzalez said. "Then (Sharpe) came in there and torched us for 214 yards and I think two touchdowns, and they beat us."
Sharpe snagged 12 catches in the contest, including an 82-yard touchdown.
"I remember thinking to myself," Gonzalez said, "'Man, there's no torch yet.'"
Now the Hall of Fame torch has been passed down from the likes of Mike Ditka, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow to Sharpe.
"Shannon is a winner in every sense of the word and was a big part of some of the best years in Broncos history," Bowlen said. "He belongs with football's elite in the Hall of Fame."