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Sharpe Shooter: An Inside Look

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Posted: Thursday January 28, 1999 10:04 AM

  John W. McDonough

In this week's cover story, Sports Illustrated senior writer Rick Reilly profiles Shannon Sharpe, Denver's outspoken tight end. CNN/SI tossed Reilly a few questions about the story, and Super Bowl XXXIII.

CNN/SI: Where does Sharpe rank among the best talkers you've dealt with?

Rick Reilly: For sheer volume, he's number one. For sheer words per minute, one. For enunciation, one -- because of a lisp that he had as a child, Everything is said like this and he never uses contractions or anything. He's beautiful. And for quotability, two, behind Charles Barkley. Charles is the best ever.

CNN/SI: Was it tough to limit the story to four pages?

Reilly: I could've started right at the table of contents and finished at my column. It was brutal getting it down to 2,800 words. I had a splitting headache, because we got in the car and he talks so loud; he seriously gave me a terrible headache. So I went to his house and I had to lay down for a while. I laid down for an hour and just covered my head and said, "Shannon, just give me one break 'til I get rid of this headache." And then I came out of it and we played Jeopardy!

CNN/SI: How much of what's in the story was prompted by questions?

Reilly: Not much. You don't need to do much to get him started. Sometimes he even tells you, "Ask me about this. Ask me about that." And he's just ready. A lot of writers think he thinks of his answers beforehand, because they're all so good. I actually thought about just leaving my laptop with him and coming back three days later.

One Sharpe Tongue
"You asked me about my lisp before. It never embarrassed me. That's just who I am. I'd love to speak like Bryant Gumbel. You can't have everything. Nobody made fun of me about it. Well, me brother and my cousins did, and my sister called me Tie Tongue. I took some speech classes in school. It's not like we could afford specialists. But it's better. My lisp didn't make me loud. I was always loud. I was little and skinny as a kid. They called me Pee Wee. I had to be loud. People say, 'Since you got rich and famous, you've become insufferable.' I say, 'That's not true. I've always been insufferable.'"
CNN/SI: Why do you think he's so outgoing?

Reilly: I looked for all the psychological reasons that he likes to talk -- I mean, Ali talked, just babbled, to cover up his own fear; this guy doesn't seem to have that fear. And I thought maybe he did it because he had that lisp, and so he was really loud and talked a lot to overcome it. But he said, no, he was always like that. I thought he talked because he was from a very poor family and he felt uncomfortable and he thought as long as he kept talking, no one could ask him about those days or make him feel uncomfortable in their world; he's always in his world. But that's not true either -- he's just a talker!

He's got a huge mouth. He must have twice the amount of teeth most people have. He would be a dentist's dream; hygienists beg for a guy like that. Because if he opens his mouth, you could fit a small baby's head in there. He's great.

CNN/SI: Did you pretty much just keep a tape recorder running the whole time?

Reilly: Yeah, but I ran out of tape! I ran out of tape so then I had to write madly. And then I tried to type as fast as he talked -- and I can type fast; I've gotta be the world's fastest typer -- and I couldn't type as fast as he talked.

He's a very odd guy -- so anal-retentive. Everything has to be exactly perfect. I didn't even get into all his superstitions. He does everything exactly the same -- his towels and the toothbrushes and the albums and the CDs -- they've all got to be exactly the same. And I think he's the most single-minded athlete I've been around -- he really doesn't want to have people over, because he wants to do nothing but think about the game and ride his bike and do sit-ups. He doesn't really want to go out with other people because they'd take him out of his routine, which is a 14-minute dinner, [at the restaurant] Black-Eyed Pea, tip the exact same amount and leave.

CNN/SI: What do you think he'll do after football, when he loses this routine?

Reilly: Auctioneer? Publicist for Clinton? I don't know. He says he wants to be a commentator. He loves football; I can't see him actually getting out of football. I would think he maybe would coach or something. He would be great -- wouldn't you love to do a press conference with him as the coach?

And that guy is a rock. Have you seen him? And I think he feels almost like, how can I put this ... you know how women with great bodies sometimes hide them because they get tired of people looking at their body? That's how he is. He wouldn't take his shirt off for our photo. He never goes out in short sleeves in public. And I said, Why? And he said people always want to prove how tough they are, feel his muscles, want to fight, shake his hand really hard to see how tough he is. And he just gets sick of it. I think because he had that SAT problem where he was a Prop 48 kid, he doesn't want to be thought of as only a body; he likes to be thought of as a mind. That might be one reason he talks a lot, to prove how really quite smart he is. And he really is.

CNN/SI: Can you compare the football atmosphere in Denver this year with last year?

Reilly: It was much worse last season, in terms of people dying their hair orange and painting their cars orange and painting their houses orange and diving into vats of orange Jell-O for tickets. It's not nearly as crazy as that. In a way, it's a lot like Green Bay was last year -- the team is expected to win, they're expected to be there, they're favorites. And I could see the same thing happening to Denver that happened to Green Bay. I don't think it will, but it wouldn't shock me.

CNN/SI: So you think there's a chance of overconfidence?

Reilly: I would think there's a little bit of that, except that they got this little guy Shanahan, who doesn't let a single detail go unturned. And you can see already he's outdetailed Reeves. He put in his game plan right away; Reeves waited and put it in this week -- which is the same mistake he made for three Super Bowls in Denver and that pissed Elway off, who came out publicly and said, "I don't know why we did that. There's too much going on to try to learn a game plan when you'd come back to your hotel room and there'd be a hundred messages, and friends in town, and 3,000 media." Elway said he liked it much better the way Shanahan did it.

Also, Shanahan had this huge team meeting last Monday, the day after they won the title from the Jets, and he detailed every possible thing that would happen so nobody was taken by surprise -- up to and including having an obstetrician at the hotel for the four women that are pregnant in the Broncos family. So he's covered every detail, whereas you can see, the Falcons are already starting to lose it. They're griping, there was some bad blood about who got to get off the airplane first, there were guys staying out too late, there were guys who showed up to practice late and were fined -- all the kind of stuff the Broncos did in their first years in the Super Bowl and got creamed. So I think Shanahan's already got the edge.

CNN/SI: What's your take on Reeves publicly commenting about what happened when he left the Broncos?

Reilly: I feel for Dan Reeves. I think Dan Reeves is one of the greatest guys I've ever known, one of the most decent, caring, true people I've ever known, and he was really hurt by what happened -- I mean, they threw him away like a dog bone. I know his family loved it in Denver, he loved the golf courses there, he loved all his friends there, his girls loved the high school they went to. And then suddenly, Bang, you're out. You took us to three Super Bowls, but don't let the door hit you. And it really hurt him, and I think this was the first time he could really talk publicly and not look like a loser. If he'd said that stuff while he was in New York, people would say, You're just bitter, sour grapes because you never got back to that level. Or if he'd said that his first year in Atlanta, people would say, You suck. You weren't really the coach; you were always carried by Elway. And now, by taking this team that isn't all that talented to the Super Bowl, he earned the right to talk, and he talked. I think he's a great man, and I think he had a right to say that his feelings were hurt. I don't care if other people don't like it, he had that right.

CNN/SI: You don't think it was a psychological ploy?

Reilly: No, I think he wanted to get it off his chest. I think it really hurt him and his family, and he thought it was wrong. What better time? He's playing the exact team that dissed him. Nobody believed that he would ever be back in the Super Bowl, nobody. And here he is.

CNN/SI: Lastly, could we get a prediction for the game?

Reilly: I don't think it'll be a blowout because Jamal Anderson and the Falcons are too good in terms of ball control; they always hold the ball for 35-40 minutes -- amazing. Against a team like that, it's not going to be a blowout, it's not going to be a high-scoring game. So I think it'll be a 10-point game, I say Denver wins 24-14. I just don't think Atlanta has the talent Denver has. I don't see anybody to stop Terrell Davis, I don't see anybody to stop Sharpe, and Denver's defense has allowed just 14 yards rushing in each of the last two games. I've never heard of a stat like that. So I think it'll be kind of a ground-control game. I'd bet the under -- not that I gamble!

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