The coaches in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 1990 knew the young man entering the draft from Savannah State would be worth picking, no matter the round.
Morris Brown coach Greg Thompson said there was "no question" that Shannon Sharpe would be a pro receiver. Georgia Southern's Erk Russell said, "It’s very unusual to see a receiver like Sharpe." Sharpe's coach, Bill Davis, called him a "franchise-type player" and "one of the best receivers in the country, bar none."
His numbers evinced why he was showered with those kinds compliments. He was the Tigers' leading receiver in each of his four seasons, setting school yardage records as a sophomore and then breaking them as a senior. In his final season, he caught 61 passes for 1,312 yards, producing an average reception of more than 20 yards. Nearly a third of his receptions went for touchdowns, as well, as he found the end zone 18 times.
While it can be easy for NFL decision-makers to overlook small college football programs like those at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, some of the league's best players have emerged from those schools. Sharpe hoped to follow in the footsteps of Walter Payton or Jerry Rice in proving himself once he reached the NFL.
"You're not going to get the national recognition playing at small black schools," Sharpe told journalist Roscoe Nance in 1988. "But I feel I'm just as good as the receivers at the large schools. I always think of Jerry Rice and what he's been able to do. My stats are similar to his."
Despite the small-school status, Sharpe was fairly well regarded coming out of Savannah State. It didn't hurt that his brother, Sterling, was an All-Pro receiver who had led the league in receptions in 1989.
"When scouts come down here to work me out, I try to emphasize me, my personality, my skills and talents," Sharpe said a month before the draft. "I want them to know I can play this game, too."
National Football Scouting Inc., one of the scouting services some NFL teams used, reportedly had Sharpe ranked highly; Len Pasquarelli wrote that the group ranked him as the 24th-best player in the country, excluding underclassmen. That placed him as a potential first- or second-round pick.
But Sharpe's size and speed also potentially put him between positions.
"The biggest negative with Shannon is that he's the classic tweener," said the Chargers’ general manager, Bobby Beathard, a future Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinee. "He's a little big for a wide receiver, not quite as quick as you want. But he's not a tight end, either. The plus is, he can catch the ball and he knows what to do after he catches it."
Still, Sharpe wasn't prepared for the fall that would happen during the draft. In 2020, he recalled that he figured he'd be a second- or third-round pick. But the first day of the draft, which included Rounds 1 through 6 in 1990, came and went with him still waiting.
That evening, at his brother's house in South Carolina, he got a pep talk from his brother, whose draft day was much different as the seventh-overall pick in 1988.
"Look, man, I know you're disappointed," Sterling recalled telling his brother. "… But hey, it doesn't matter where you get drafted. All you want is a chance."
Regardless, Shannon was stunned at the day's turn of events.
"I couldn't believe it," Sharpe told ESPN’s Bill Williamson in 2008. "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."
He wouldn't have to wait long the next day, as the Broncos drafted him in the seventh round. When he returned from a morning workout, he received a call from Broncos scout Ron Hill, Williamson reported.
"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 truth is the Broncos didn't know exactly what they had in Shannon Sharpe when they drafted him — they didn't even know what position he'd play — but they knew he was extraordinary.
"After the draft, I heard Ring of Fame head coach] Dan [Reeves] on a radio show talk about me,” [Sharpe said in 1997. "He said I was a project and he didn't know if I was a wide receiver or tight end. But he saw something special in me."
Hill saw it for himself when he went to a workout at Savannah State before the draft, he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2002. On an "excruciatingly hot" day, Sharpe worked to prove his mettle, even in spite of stiff, new shoes.
"They kept him out there three hours, he's bleeding from a blister," Hill said. "I knew the guy had intangibles then."
The other concerns — stemming from perhaps "film [that] looked like it was shot on the top of a car hood" or a Scouting Combine performance that Hill described as "probably … the worst workout in the history of the combine," not to mention that tweener label — were less important to Hill. Hill told ESPN that he gave Sharpe a second-round grade.
They picked him five rounds after that, but still, Sharpe was just glad to find a new home.
"It got a little frustrating waiting, but I'm glad to be going to Denver," Sharpe said after the draft. "I hope my size will help, and I spend a lot of time in the weight room. Hopefully, I'll be able to catch a lot of balls from John Elway."
It took a little time for the Broncos to figure out where Sharpe would play. They tried him at receiver and H-back, but eventually he settled into the position where he became a star: tight end.
By the end of his career, he had established himself as perhaps the most prolific tight end in the history of the game. He won three Super Bowls (two with the Broncos), made eight Pro Bowls and was a four-time first-team All-Pro. When he retired, he was the NFL's all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns by a tight end.
Not bad for a seventh-round pick.
"You can measure how fast I am, how high I can jump," Sharpe said in 2021. You can't measure my passion. My desire to beat the man across from me.
"I got three Super Bowl wins, I got eight Pro Bowls under my belt and a gold jacket. I won."