Todd Ellis remembers the first time he saw Sterling Sharpe. While Ellis was a redshirting freshman on the scout team in 1985, he saw Sharpe abusing South Carolina’s defense. There was no ball the receiver couldn’t catch and no tackle he couldn’t break.
“I,” Ellis thought, “get to throw the ball to this guy?”
“He may be the most versatile athlete I’ve ever been around, and an exceptionally hard worker,” Ellis said. “I think Sterling, if I was going to pick a football team in the last 25 years of guys I played with or watched as Gamecocks, he would be the first or second player I would take.”
That praise is repeated by everyone who saw Sharpe play at USC from 1983-87. Now, it has gone national after Sharpe was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame on Thursday.
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“I could tell you that Sterling, like Robert Brooks, they built themselves into great wide receivers. It was hard work,” Ellis said. “Sterling was an incredible teammate. He was funny, engaging, he talked too much in the huddle, but everybody laughed about that, too. When we needed him, he was just a true football guy.”
Sharpe, who did not return messages from The State, will be enshrined on Dec. 9 at a ceremony in New York. The class also will be honored at the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, and when the new Hall of Fame building in Atlanta opens in August, Sharpe will be the second Gamecock within its confines – Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers made it in 1997.
A prospect who reported to USC along with new coach Joe Morrison for the 1983 season, Sharpe struggled to adapt to the new location and new style of offense. He caught one pass for 5 yards in 1983 and redshirted in 1984, never contributing to one of USC’s best teams.
“Coach used to say, ‘Dadgummit, Sterling, I’m gonna switch you to defense and make you a defensive back!,” late quarterback Allen Mitchell recalled in 2009. “And (that year), we were much more of a running team anyway.”
But in 1986, Morrison began to install a run-and-shoot offense that Sharpe could flourish in. The talent was evident after Sharpe returned a kickoff 104 yards for a touchdown against Duke in 1985, still the longest scoring play in school history. As Ellis stepped under center for what would become a four-year reign, he was overjoyed at the talent around him.
“Until ’86, when we opened things up, I don’t think we realized Sterling’s total potential,” Ellis said. “When we put him in that slot, and he was breaking tackles, going to the middle of the field, going over the top of them I think I said it to The Sporting News in 1986. I said, ‘He is a 10-speed bike who’s got a gear for every situation.’”
Sharpe departed USC as a first-team All-American, holding every major school receiving record. While Kenny McKinley and Alshon Jeffery rose above him in career catches and yardage, Sharpe is still thought of as the greatest receiver in program history, evidenced by his retired No. 2 adorning one ramp at Williams-Brice Stadium.
As the No. 7 draft pick in 1988, Sharpe joined Green Bay and became a five-time Pro Bowler, leading the league in receiving three times before a neck injury prematurely ended his career.
Sharpe still made it onto the dais at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though, when little brother Shannon Sharpe was inducted as part of the Class of 2011. The younger Sharpe brought tears to his brother’s eyes when he labeled himself “the only pro football player that’s in the Hall of Fame, but the second-best player in my own family.” Shannon Sharpe followed by asking selection committee members to simply judge Sterling Sharpe’s numbers against other enshrined receivers and consider if they should become the first set of brothers in the Hall.
Sharpe will be joined in the College Hall by several luminaries, including Derrick Thomas, LaDainian Tomlinson and Wesley Walls. Former Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton, a South Carolina native (Alvin), also will be enshrined.
2014 COLLEGE FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME CLASS
... DRE BLY – DB, North Carolina (1996-98)
... TONY BOSELLI – OT, Southern California (1991-94)
... DAVE BUTZ – DT, Purdue (1970-72)
... SHANE CONLAN – LB, Penn State (1983-86)
... JOE HAMILTON – QB, Georgia Tech (1996-99)
... JOHN HUARD – LB, Maine (1964-66)
... DARRIN NELSON – HB, Stanford (1977-78, 1980-81)
... WILLIE ROAF – OL, Louisiana Tech (1990-92)
... JOHN SCIARRA – QB, UCLA (1972-75)
... STERLING SHARPE – WR, South Carolina (1983, 1985-87)
... LEONARD SMITH – CB, McNeese State (1979-82)
... DERRICK THOMAS (deceased) – LB, Alabama (1985-88)
... LaDAINIAN TOMLINSON – TB, Texas Christian (1997-00)
... WESLEY WALLS – TE, Mississippi (1985-88)
... MIKE BELLOTTI – 137-80-2 (63%); Chico State (Calif.) (1984-88) and Oregon (1995-08)
... JERRY MOORE – 242-135-2 (64.1%); North Texas (1979-80), Texas Tech (1981-85) and Appalachian State (1989-12)