Sterling Sharpe’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday night comes as no surprise to anyone who watched the wide receiver during his All-American career at South Carolina.
Former USC safety Brad Edwards, another All-American who played 10 seasons in the NFL, stood on the other side of the ball from Sharpe many times during practice in the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
“I would line up there in practice in one-on-one drills and try to go against him. And I’d get beat every single day,” Edwards said. “You talk about needing thick skin. I’d just keep jumping in there and getting hammered by the guy. He absolutely made me so much of a better football player. I’d get into a regular game, and nobody’s as good as the guy I’d been going against every day in practice.”
The two of them entered the NFL in the 1988 draft, when Sharpe was a first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers and Edwards was a second-round choice of the Minnesota Vikings. In 1989 before the second meeting between the teams, Minnesota defensive backs coach Pete Carroll approached Edwards in practice to ask for coverage suggestions on how to cover Sharpe.
Edwards, now the athletics director at George Mason, remembers exactly what he said to Carroll.
“All I can tell you is that he’s unbelievably good and if it were up to me, every zone I would roll his way and I would double-cover him in every man coverage,” Edwards said. “Pete kind of shrugged and walked off, and we didn’t do those things.”
Sharpe caught 10 passes for 157 yards and touchdowns of 34 and nine yards in Green Bay’s 20-19 victory.
“Sterling caught a lot of passes that day, and that was against the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the NFL,” Edwards said.
Edwards is thrilled that Sharpe, who could not be reached for comment for this story, will be part of the 14-man class in the College Football Hall of Fame, which honors its 2014 inductees in a ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.
Regarded as the greatest receiver in South Carolina history, Sharpe is the second USC player to be inducted, joining Heisman Trophy-winning tailback George Rogers, who gained entry in 1997. Sharpe caught 74 passes for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns as a junior in 1986 and 62 passes for 915 yards and five touchdowns as a senior in 1987. He hauled in 169 passes for 2,497 yards and 17 touchdowns in his career, catching at least one pass in 34 straight games, with 10 games of at least 100 receiving yards.
Longtime USC radio analyst Tommy Suggs, a former standout quarterback for the Gamecocks, recognized the variety of special talents held by 6-foot, 207-pound Sharpe, who still holds the school record for the longest play of any kind – a 104-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Duke in 1985.
“He seemed to be full-speed at one step. He had a burst that you just don’t see from a lot of players,” Suggs said. “Plus, he had physical size. And he had a tremendous awareness of where he was on the field and where everybody else was at all times. That’s what made him so good on kickoff returns and running after the catch.”
The Glennville, Ga., native came to USC in 1983 under first-year coach Joe Morrison, but he didn’t begin to make an impact until the 1985 season, when he led the team in receiving with 32 catches for 471 yards. But it became readily apparent to those around the program that he was headed for big things as he grew into his role as the team’s best player in his final two seasons.
The catches, and especially the electrifying runs after those catches, became commonplace.
“You always knew he was a great athlete, but you could see the evolution in his productivity and his performance as it began to happen,” Edwards said. “That senior year in 1987, he was absolutely one of the top five, if not higher, best football players in the country. He did things that we’d look back at on video and say, ‘Who can do that?’ He would make moves downfield and make catches and you just would go, ‘How many people in this country can do that at the level he’s doing it?’ ”
Sharpe proved in the NFL ranks that he could play with anybody. In seven seasons before his career ended abruptly because of a neck injury, Sharpe led the NFL in receptions three times, touchdown receptions twice and receiving yardage once. He was selected to five Pro Bowls and earned All-Pro first-team honors three times.
In 112 career games with the Packers, he caught 595 passes for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns. He was fast-tracking his way to the NFL Hall of Fame before the injury derailed him. When brother Shannon Sharpe, one of the game’s greatest tight ends, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011, he delivered a memorable speech highlighted by this quote: “I’m the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, and I’m the second-best player in my own family.”
A member of the Packers Hall of Fame as well as the USC Athletics Hall of Fame, Sharpe had his No. 2 retired while he was active with the Gamecocks. His exuberant style is remembered as much as his standout ability by those who knew him at USC.
“He was a great guy to have around the program,” Edwards said. “He was affable and wise-cracking and very outgoing.”
Suggs shared those same experiences when he encountered Sharpe.
“I like Sterling. We had a very congenial, nice relationship when he was a player,” Suggs said. “He was funny and he always had a smile. I thought he was pretty cool.”
After his playing days ended, his communication skills earned him positions as an NFL analyst at ESPN, NBC and currently the NFL Network. He has reconnected with USC through his pairings with USC coach Steve Spurrier at the annual charity golf tournament each spring called the Chick-fil-A Bowl Challenge in Greensboro, Ga.
Spurrier said he has enjoyed getting to know Sharpe through their experiences in the tournament, which they teamed up to win in 2008 and 2009.
“We’ve won it a couple of times and finished runner-up a couple of times so we’ve been in the hunt,” Spurrier said. “He’s a really good golfer, so he does most of the playing and, hopefully, every now and then, I’ll make a few putts. He’s been a fun guy to play with the last six or seven years.”
Spurrier, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986 for his Heisman Trophy-winning playing days at Florida, will make the trip to New York for Sharpe’s induction along with athletics director Ray Tanner and deputy athletics director Charles Waddell.
“Sterling’s well-deserving (of the honor), and he wears his Gamecock colors all the time,” Spurrier said. “He’s got his Gamecock golf bag that he takes all around the country, so he’s proud to be a Gamecock.”
Suggs, who would love to see Sharpe become more involved with the USC football program, appreciates how the former star’s College Football Hall of Fame induction brings positive recognition to the university.
“He’s made his home here, and he has represented us well,” Suggs said. “We’re glad to call him a Gamecock.”