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Shannon Sharpe (Jason Miller/Getty Images)

Sharpe words

Sports | A silver-tongued Hall-of-Famer delivers a grand speech on his sad life

Issue: "Back to School," Aug. 27, 2011

Achievement in professional athletics often carries with it the opportunity to speak. Shannon Sharpe took full advantage of that curious reality during his induction into the National Football League's Hall of Fame. The former Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens star took the Canton, Ohio, stage for more than 26 minutes on Aug. 6, delivering what many consider among the best acceptance speeches in the hall's 49-year history.

What made it great? Take a listen: "It's time for me to give Mary Porter a face for all who don't know who she is. . . . My grandmother was a very simple woman; she didn't want a whole lot. My grandmother wanted to go to church and Sunday school every Sunday. She wanted to be in Bible study every Wednesday. And the other days, she wanted to be on a fishing creek."

Sharpe's ode to his deceased grandmother, who raised him and his two siblings like her own, wound through stories of sacrifice, kindness, and simplicity. When he first realized he was in line to make millions of dollars, Sharpe asked his grandmother what she'd like him to buy for her. She said she'd like a house just decent enough to keep her dry through a night of rain. She'd never had as much. "That's what drove Shannon," Sharpe said, referring to himself in the third person. "That's what got me here."

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Sharpe spoke of a "five-alarm fire" raging within him to escape the poverty of his youth. He recounted memories of burlap bed sheets, pots and pans scattered across a concrete floor to catch the drips of a leaky roof, and the impossible monthly decisions whether to pay utility bills or buy groceries.

The struggle of such circumstances pressed him to outwork athletes of greater natural ability. It pressed him to insist on achievement by sheer force of will. And he did it all for the grandmother who loved him. That is the stuff of great speeches.

But Sharpe's single-minded dedication to making it in the NFL produced casualties, too. Obscured between the applause lines and self-deference, a subtext of broken promises and tattered relationships revealed a deeply flawed and burdened man. His discussion of his children was nothing short of heart-breaking: "I didn't want my kids to live one hour in the life that I had, let alone a day. And I neglected my kids. I missed recitals. I missed football practice. I missed graduations. I was so obsessed with being the best player I could possibly be that I neglected a lot of people. I ruined a lot of relationships. But I'm not here to apologize for that, because it got me here. And it got them to a life they never would have enjoyed had it not been for that."

Pursuing a dream at all costs can get expensive. Without apology, Sharpe asked those closest to him to pay dearly. And in hindsight, he is without remorse, filled instead with a twisted sense of gratitude: "Thank you for making all those sacrifices other kids didn't have to make so your dad could live out his dream."

A great speech? Perhaps. A great life? Hardly.

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