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Brothers Sharpe Know How to Talk a Good Game

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“Not right now,” Sterling Sharpe says. “Can’t.”

He darts off.

Good quickness, for a football player who hasn’t played since 1994. Sharpe slips up behind a Green Bay Packer, who is doing a TV interview. He nuzzles the Packer’s shoulder blade with his cheek. The player cranes his neck to see who it is. “You,” he says.

Oh, that Sterling. What a scamp.

He slips away again.

A Milwaukeean with a mike makes a move in his direction. “Sterling . . . ?”

“Can’t,” he says. “Sorry. Can’t.”

No time. Instead, he has to hurry over to a spot where a different Packer is occupied, so he can interrupt that interview. Sharpe calls out something personal over the pack. The Packer says, “OK, baby! Take care!”

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Six or seven TV sound bites now have:

“I think to win this game, we have to make--OK, baby! Take care!--John Elway do what we want him to do.”

Well, what the hell.

It’s only TV, right, Sterl?

Dream sequence:

Sunday, Super Bowl XXXII: “And the most-valuable-player award goes to the star of Denver’s shocking upset of Green Bay . . . with three touchdown receptions . . . Shannon Sharpe!”

Sterling Sharpe, ESPN: “Shannon . . . ?”

Shannon Sharpe, MVP: “Can’t. Sorry. Not right now, brother. Can’t.”

It’ll never happen. Not the part about Shannon stiffing Sterling. Oh, it certainly could happen that Shannon is the game’s MVP. After all, he is the greatest tight end in the NFL. Just ask him. But, as for not giving Sterling the time of day, forget about it.

For two reasons:

1. The day Shannon Sharpe stops giving interviews is the day Sharon Stone stops being an actress and becomes a Green Bay waitress. I mean it. Shannon is a natural-born talker. Shannon is a sound meal.

2. Shannon loves Sterling. No, more accurately, Shannon worships Sterling.

“I don’t want to be out of his shadow,” he says. “I want people when they mention my name to mention his name.”

One was a Packer. The other is a Bronco.

One was a wide receiver. The other is a tight end.

One didn’t talk, until he got paid for it. The other can talk, talk, talk around the clock.

Yet they are inseparable.

Shannon says, “I was his brother before he was a Packer. I’m going to be his brother long after he was a Packer.”

From the day of Dec. 18, 1994--when a guy who caught more passes than any Green Bay player in history dislodged two cervical vertebrae in his neck and never caught another--Shannon Sharpe gets to walk the walk, while Sterling Sharpe must talk the talk.

“I play for my brother,” says Shannon, 29, who is three years Sterling’s junior. “He basically plays the game through me.

“The first year he left the game was hard. Most of the great players leave the game under their terms. [Joe] Montana did. Elway will. My brother never got the chance. He didn’t have no choice. Being in a wheelchair was something he couldn’t have handled, believe me. So, he made the best of the situation that he could. Yes, he was depressed. I’d be lying if I said he enjoyed walking away from the game.

“But at least he could walk.”

Sterling played from 1988-94.

In that short time, he led the NFL in receptions three times. He scored 66 touchdowns. He caught 595 passes, more than Max McGee, more than Boyd Dowler, more than Don Hutson, more than James Lofton.

What he didn’t do was get to play in a Super Bowl.

So, his brother plays for him.

Cap backward, shades on, Shannon shakes his head, thinking about how fate treated two kids who grew up dirt-poor on a Georgia farm. He says, “We’re very competitive. We’re brothers. If people said we didn’t bicker as brothers, they’d be lying. But he took care of his little brother. Yes, he fought me. But nobody else could fight his brother.

“So when he got himself hurt, I felt it. I’d trade places with him in a minute.”

It was Shannon who in college at Savannah State stood in front of a mirror, asking and answering his own questions, practicing how to do an interview. It was Shannon who would come up with a clever line, like the time he said of the Super Bowl, “You’re only great if you win. I mean, Alexander wasn’t Alexander the Mediocre or Alexander the Average. He was Alexander the Great, and there’s a reason for it.”

Instead, it is his brother who now talks for a living, demonstrating a snappy gift of gab.

Now, only one thing remains to be said. For which team will Sterling play Sunday’s game vicariously, the Packers, for whom he did play, or the Broncos, for whom his alter ego plays?

“That’s easy,” Sterling says.

Finally pulling up, taking a few minutes to chat, which he seldom did as a player, which ESPN ignored in employing him. Sterling Sharpe, commentator, can’t help but choose sides.

“Green Bay did a great job of allowing me to fulfill a lifelong dream,” he says, having been the Packers’ top draft pick of 1988, from South Carolina. “I still have a lot of good friends on that team.

“But my brother is my brother. Before I had Green Bay in the NFL, or any catches, or any touchdowns, I had Shannon Sharpe as a brother.”

And blood is thicker than football.


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