DENVER — Shannon Sharpe grew up under a leaky tin roof in a tiny house in rural Georgia overflowing with relatives and love. He overcame his hardscrabble childhood to become one of the greatest tight ends in NFL history.
When he's inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, he'll thank his brother Sterling, who motivated him; Dan Reeves, who drafted him; Albert Lewis, who challenged him; John Elway, who believed in him; and Mike Shanahan, who pushed him.
He said he owed his biggest debt of gratitude to his grandmother, Mary Porter, who raised him, and who died July 6 at age 89, one month shy of his induction ceremony.
Sharpe so badly wanted to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer before diabetes finished ravaging his grandmother's body, but he said he now saw it as a blessing that he didn't get to Canton, Ohio, until his third year of eligibility.
"She's going to be able to hear my speech now," Sharpe said. "She's going to be able to hear me talk about her."
As usual, he'll have plenty to say.
"My grandmother didn't teach me how to throw a ball. She didn't teach me how to catch a ball. She didn't teach me technique, how to run fast," Sharpe said. "She didn't teach me anything about sports. She taught me how to be a man."
Raising him on her own after her husband died of a heart attack in 1977, Porter instilled in Sharpe a relentless work ethic that he would combine with an uncanny mix of size and speed to revolutionize the tight end position in the NFL.
Sharpe caught 815 passes for 10,060 yards and 62 touchdowns during his 14-year career that included eight Pro Bowl berths, four first-team All-Pro honors and three Super Bowl titles over a four-year span, two in Denver and one in Baltimore.
Sharpe "set the standard" at his position, Hall of Fame tight end Ozzie Newsome said.
"The best," agreed Shanahan. "Shannon was the best at what he did, no question. He dominated. His work ethic was at the top. He played his best in big games, and he did it all over a long period of time."
Broncos safety Brian Dawkins said Sharpe's most notable attribute was "his desire to block. He was a tight end that would stick his face in there."
And then run his mouth.
"Let's just say he was one of the best trash-talkers to ever play the game," Dawkins said.
Sharpe will be presented by his older brother Sterling, the former Green Bay star receiver whose own path to Canton was cut short by a neck injury. Sharpe gave his first Super Bowl ring to Sterling, who averaged 85 catches in his seven seasons — 10 more than Jerry Rice averaged in his first seven years.
"Sterling was supposed to be in the Hall first," Sharpe said. "I was supposed to introduce him for his speech, for his introduction and then take his bronze bust into the Hall.
"But now we're going in together. I'm taking him in with me."
Sharpe reached the NFL in 1990 out of Savannah State, two years after his older brother joined the Packers following a standout career at South Carolina.
"I've always wanted to be like him," said Shannon, who picked Sterling's brain just about every day.
And yet, Sharpe also wanted to forge his own identity, something he began to do as a raw rookie when he took advantage of injuries to move from a special teamer and wide receiver to H-back and then to tight end.
"We always got great matchups with him because he was faster than most linebackers and stronger than most defensive backs," said Elway, who is now the Broncos' chief of football operations.
"He was a hard worker. You look at him, he's still built like brick share house," Elway said. "He was a hard worker in the offseason. He was dedicated, and he's a competitor and he wanted to win. He always put the team first. He's like any receiver — they all want the ball — but he's a guy who understood his responsibilities whether he got the ball or not."
Sharpe just as eagerly delivered a bone-rattling block as he hauled in a sweet spiral over the middle.
For that, Sharpe again credits his grandmother, who raised nine of her own children in that small cinder block house in Tison, Ga., and took her daughter's three children in 1968, when Shannon was just 3 months old.
From her, Sharpe learned the value of an honest day's work and how it could help him overcome whatever obstacles he encountered.
She taught him that humor could blunt the sharp words of others, and he saw that if he could crack a joke, maybe his schoolmates wouldn't tease him about the way he spoke with a lisp or where he lived.
Elway said Sharpe set the tone for Denver's two Super Bowl-winning teams in the late 1990s through both that work ethic and his ability to lighten the mood.Comment on this story
"I think you need those guys on every football team, and he was our guy," Elway said. "He kept things light. Things never got too heavy, and that was great because it's a long season and then the pressure in the playoffs is so great. He had the ability to keep things loose and make the game fun, make practice fun."
While Elway's trust and Shanahan's tough love helped his career blossom, it was an opponent who drove Sharpe to prepare with such dogged determination.
"Probably the guy that had one of the biggest impacts on me being the player that I am was an opponent of mine, Albert Lewis," Sharpe said of the dominating defensive back who played for the Broncos' AFC West rival Chiefs and Raiders during a 16-year career.
"He forced me to be good," Sharpe said. "When he was in Kansas City, my whole thing was if I could beat Albert Lewis, I could beat anybody. I said if I win against him, I can play in this league; I belong in this league."