Waiting to Inhale

Luis Sharpe led a double life. In public, he was an admired NFL star. In private, he was a crackhead hell-bent on self-destruction.

Luis Sharpe contacted New Times staff writer Paul Rubin several weeks ago from the Maricopa County Jail. The ex-Arizona Cardinals star said he was ready to talk about his demise publicly and unconditionally. The pair spent more than 12 hours in jailhouse sessions between May 13 and May 22, when a county judge placed Sharpe on probation. He's currently in a rehabilitation clinic in Minnesota.

"Way Over the Edge"
Luis Sharpe cuts an imposing figure as he steps into a small visitors' room at Maricopa County's Towers Jail.

"I'm here to talk about a lot of things I've never talked about before," he says, his booming baritone bouncing off the walls. ". . . Let's start with this: I smoked crack when I was making millions as an all-pro, and then I smoked crack on the streets of Phoenix for a year straight. I still know who I am. I'm not evil. I'm a drug addict who fucked up his life."

The 36-year-old Sharpe has lost his family, his once-stellar reputation and nearly his life to a crack-cocaine addiction.

His fall from grace has been the most dramatic of any major Arizona sports figure in memory. Only the mid-1980s revelations of Phoenix Sun Walter Davis' substance problems come close, but there was a difference: On the surface, Davis seemed the same sleek athlete he'd always been.

On and beneath the surface, Luis Sharpe has been a mess. His decline has transcended the sports pages, as Valley residents shook their heads in disbelief and some disdain at his troubles.

Gaunt and hollow-eyed, Sharpe seemed a broken, pathetic shell of the 280-pound tackle who'd ruled pro football's trenches for more than a decade. And he was.

He says he smoked crack almost daily from Christmas 1994 until this April, with a hiatus of a few months early this year in his home state of Michigan.

In little more than a year, he moved from his $450,000 home in Ahwatukee to a Tempe apartment, to drug-infested motels on East Van Buren Street, to the back seat of a beat-up car (he'd wrecked his BMW and Porsche), to South Phoenix alleys--where he'd sit back to back in the dirt with another crackhead and get high.

Along the way, he was shot during a robbery outside a Phoenix crack den. His addiction was so insidious, he says, that he returned to the den several times after the near-fatal shooting.

Sharpe landed at the Towers Jail on April 15, to await sentencing on convictions of possessing a crack pipe and striking a sheriff's deputy.

He's in the general population--"Nothing special or protective about my custody, believe me," he says. That means residing with about 45 other men in a pod built for 30. His roommate is a young black man from Los Angeles also awaiting disposition of drug charges.

Jail, of all places, seems to have done well by Sharpe. Locked up, biding his time, thinking about things, he's succeeded at keeping the hellhounds at bay.

He says--and a court-administered test confirms this--that he's stayed off crack since his incarceration, despite the drug's apparent availability at the jail. Sharpe adds that he tested negative earlier this year for the virus that causes AIDS. If so, it's a godsend, considering the risks he's taken.

He is surely the only millionaire in this joint. As recently as 1994, Sharpe earned about $125,000 per game, or about $50,000 more than Arizona's governor collects in a year.

He is still solvent only as a fortunate by-product of his ongoing divorce hearings: A judge last summer froze Sharpe's assets, which total more than $3 million, limiting him to a monthly stipend of $5,000.

In jail, he's allotted the same amount of money on his "books" as any other prisoner, $50 a week. With that, Sharpe buys sweets and other luxuries.

Even in jail blues and pink socks, he retains the towering presence and proud bearing of a warrior. His shaved head adds to the effect. He takes off his shirt to show off his physique, testimony to the resiliency of the human body. After exercising relentlessly daily for more than a month, Sharpe appears to be in excellent physical shape.

It was the same look that led a director to cast him as a lust interest of Angela Bassett's character in Waiting to Exhale. Sharpe proclaims, oddly, that he considers his brief appearance in the popular flick to be his greatest professional achievement, greater than anything he ever did on the football field.

Almost in passing, Sharpe says he was high on crack during the scene, shot in early 1995 at the Jockey Club, a central Phoenix nightclub that since has closed.

He says some of his woes are attributable to others, especially his estranged wife, Kathi. But he's most brutal on himself.

Sharpe knows his odds of staying off crack after he returns to society aren't great. He may have had the will to excel in the NFL for 13 rugged years, but crack cocaine has proved to be a more difficult foe than anyone Sharpe battled on the gridiron.

Though he admits to having free-based the drug during much of his NFL career, he performed at a superior level game after game. Sharpe claims he went straight for almost three years beginning in early 1992, scared sober after police almost busted him.

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