DENVER -- The commanding voice, radiant grin and larger-than-life sense of humor that filled the Broncos’ locker room at Sports Authority Field at Mile High was unmistakable – Shannon Sharpe was indeed back in the building.
The Hall-of-Fame tight end and longtime Broncos great returned to Denver on Wednesday for the Broncos’ “Lunch with a Legend” event, during which Sharpe took part in a nearly hour-long Q&A session, took pictures and interacted with fans.
Dave Logan, 850 KOA’s voice of the Broncos, hosted the event – which was presented by Verizon, IMA, FedEx and Integrated Resources.
And as Logan led Sharpe down memory lane with an assortment of questions about his career, Sharpe reflected on his time with the Broncos – beginning with Sharpe’s serendipitous position switch from wide receiver to tight end that happened during his rookie season in 1990.
“It didn’t happen in training camp. It actually happened seven or eight weeks into the season,” Sharpe said, noting that starting tight ends Clarence Kay, Orson Mobley and Chris Verhuist were all hobbled with injuries. “So I’m the biggest wide receiver we’ve got. Obviously, the Three Amigos couldn’t move to tight end. So (former Broncos Head Coach) Dan Reeves called me in and asked me, ‘Would you be willing to play tight end?’ I was like, ‘If I get an opportunity to play, I’ll play anything.’”
Fourteen seasons and 10,060 receiving yards later, and Sharpe retired as one of the NFL’s greatest tight ends.
Sharpe attributed his relationship with then-quarterback and Broncos legend John Elway with helping him develop the confidence to blossom into a great player.
“For whatever reason, John and I really bonded, even as a rookie,” Sharpe said. “He gave me the opportunity to make plays, and the more that I got it, the more that I was like, ‘I belong.’”
But before Sharpe became a three-time Super Bowl champion or Hall-of-Famer, he suffered a stunning 30-27 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1996 AFC Divisional playoffs – a loss that Sharpe said still haunts him today.
“To this day, I’ve never watched the tape of that game. It still hurts me to talk about it,” Sharpe said.
One play in particular from that game stuck with Sharpe – a dropped two-point conversion attempt in the first half that swung the momentum irreversibly in Jacksonville’s favor.
“I ran a slant and John threw it a little behind me,” he said. “Instead of opening my hips to catch the ball, I just threw my hands back. It would have put us up 14-0.”
Sharpe said that he understands the comparisons between the 1996 Broncos and last year’s team that lost to the Ravens in the AFC Divisional playoffs, but he added that the two opponents and the two losses came under very different circumstances.
“The Ravens were a good football team. People forget, the Ravens were a dropped touchdown away from being in the Super Bowl the year before,” he said. “The Jags were upstart. They were just two years old. They didn’t exist three years before.”
But after revisiting the Jacksonville loss, Sharpe quickly moved onto happier times – specifically the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl championships in the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Sharpe fondly recalled his pivotal catch for a first down late in the fourth quarter of the Broncos’ 24-21 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship game – noting that the team hadn’t practiced the play that former Head Coach Mike Shanahan called in weeks.
“I said, ‘John, we don’t have that play in,’” Sharpe recalled. “John said, ‘Well, we do now.’ I said,’ Well, what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Go get open.’”
And he did. Barely.
“(The defender) chopped at the ball and by the time that he did that, John had stuck the ball in my shoulder pad,” Sharpe said, and then chuckled, “I’m running and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m going for a touchdown.’ Then I said to myself, ‘What if they tackle me and I fumble? I’d better get down.’”
Sharpe’s catch sent the Broncos to the unforgettable Super Bowl XXXII, where they played the heavily favored Green Bay Packers – and Sharpe noted that from the moment the Broncos answered the Packers’ opening touchdown with a score of their own, he knew Denver would win the game.
“We go right back down the field and score,” Sharpe said. “I think when they realized we had come to play, it was too late.”
Sharpe also recalled Elway’s immortal helicopter-spin late in the game’s third quarter, when Elway absorbed the hits of two Packers defenders and dove for a crucial first down.
“To see a 37-year-old guy do that. Once he gave that kind of effort, nothing less from you would be acceptable,” Sharpe said before jokingly adding, “I was kind of hoping for the ball because that play was really for me. And then (the Packers) doubled me. I was like, ‘Geez, I just want to score one touchdown in one Super Bowl to say that I scored in a Super Bowl.’ But hey, I’ll take it.”
Sharpe added that he thought the Broncos’ first Super Bowl champion squad was its best.
“I still say the 1997 team was better than the 1998 team, even though we won more ballgames and seemingly looked more convincing in winning.”
Sharpe also made it clear who he would want at quarterback if he had one game to win.
“I want Elway. You can take any quarterback,” Sharpe said. “I told Joe Montana this. I said, ‘Joe, I love you. I played in the Pro Bowl with you and I’m disappointed I didn’t get an autograph. But if I had one game to win, I’ve got to ride with 7.’”
The response that Sharpe said Montana gave him drew one of the biggest laughs of the afternoon.
“(Montana) told me, ‘I understand, I’d probably take Brent Jones as my tight end,’” Sharpe chuckled.
Sharpe added that he’s enjoying his post-football experiences as a studio analyst for the NFL on CBS, noting that he’s comfortable with moving on from his own career and appreciating the careers of today’s NFL stars.
“We were all great once upon a time, but it’s not about us now,” Sharpe said. “We’re up there talking about what we see from guys today.”