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.

"I actually liked myself when I was clean," he says, "liked that I didn't have to lie to everyone about who I was."

But he got hooked again, and hard, in December 1994, about a month after his football career ended ignominiously.

He knows that if he continues to say yes to drugs, it will mean permanent separation from his five children and, probably, a premature death. The former seems to frighten him more than the latter: He expresses great love for his kids, breaking into tears more than once as he speaks of them.

Sharpe seems to fear death less than he does life off the pipe. At once, he abhors and revels in the madness that envelops a crack addict.

Sharpe craves the drug, craves the adrenaline rush the drug world provided him. His crackhead existence has been a dangerous substitute for what was missing in his life--football.

Life for Luis Sharpe has become a metaphor for sport, not the other way around.

"Street life was a lot like playing ball," says Sharpe, cited as one of the NFL's best tackles of the 1980s and early 1990s. "I got high being on the street just looking to get high. It's the hustle. Who's gonna come after you? When is someone gonna try to take you out? There's an edge, a lot of correlations. It's like being on the 40-yard line and you're playing the world champions. Need two points to win. With us sometimes, two points could be asking a lot. My job is to block LT [Lawrence Taylor]--one of the greatest ever and a fellow drug user, by the way. He knows we're throwing and he's coming after my quarterback. That's a rush, so to speak. Seductive. Like crack. Like those demons after my ass."

Sharpe was much more successful at deflecting hurtling linebackers than evading drugs.

Before his fall, he had shone as one of the few constantly stellar performers for the perennially substandard Cardinals, a team whose last playoff win came in 1947. That was 13 years before Sharpe was born. His record speaks for itself--a three-time All-Pro who started all but a few of the 189 professional games he played. By all accounts, he was a model pro athlete--disciplined and courageous.

Off the field, Sharpe's public persona seemed the antithesis of today's major-sport professional. He was a gentleman who always made time for fans, sick children and strangers long after the cameras and microphones went away.

The first sign of trouble emerged in 1992, when a news story linked Sharpe to a cocaine dealer.

Then came a 1993 lawsuit against Sharpe by his children's 21-year-old nanny, who alleged rape. The allegations turned out to be thin and a judge dismissed the case.

In November 1994, Sharpe left the field on a stretcher with a torn ligament in his right knee. It turned out to be less serious than first feared, but he would never play another down.

Until Sharpe's final play, his football philosophy reflected his blue-collar upbringing. To this day, his parents work on assembly lines in Detroit. They urged him to do what he had to do to get any job done, to speak up for himself but to never, ever whine.

Like many of his peers, Sharpe often played hurt and endured pain-numbing shots throughout his career without blinking. In return, the Cardinals paid him millions to keep opponents from harming the quarterback.

He was an outspoken leader of the players' union, but Sharpe also remained loyal to Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill. Even now, he refers to the diffident owner as "Mr. Bidwill," and speaks well of him.

Sportswriters long noted that, if even a handful of teammates had Sharpe's desire, the Cards would have been far more competitive. But his exit from the sport was inglorious.

"We ain't got anyone hurt that counts," head coach Buddy Ryan boorishly told reporters after Sharpe was injured. The thoughtless comment became a story, with fans and columnists weighing in almost exclusively on the player's side.

Though Ryan's comments hurt deeply, Sharpe says he had more pressing things to consider at the time. Kathi Sharpe had filed for divorce earlier in 1994. She withdrew the case several months later, but the marriage remained on shaky ground.

Shortly before Christmas, Sharpe moved out of his home into an apartment. He desperately needed the support of his fellow addicts in Cocaine Anonymous during this time of crisis. Instead, he sat alone in his barren apartment and did what he had detested in others on the football field: He felt sorry for himself.

The seductive solace of a crack pipe was the inevitable next step.
"I told myself, 'Know what? Go find yourself some rock, baby. You deserve it with all the shit she's putting you through.' It was what us drug addicts call sick thinking. The thing with Buddy was a negative, sure. But the fact that my marriage was failing and I was separated from my kids had much more to do with it. I have no excuse for not putting out an SOS. By that Christmas, I was using drugs every day, another sad statistic. And before I knew it, I was way over the edge."

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