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.

An All-American
The oldest of three children, Luis Sharpe was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1960, two years before the Cuban missile crisis. His family moved to Detroit when Luis was 6.

These days, his brother Felix is an aide to the mayor of Detroit. His sister Indira is a cosmetologist in Detroit.

Sharpe hesitates to discuss the dynamic of his immediate family (the sole time he outwardly censors himself in more than 12 hours of interviews) saying only, "There's a lot of love, but there's also dysfunction."


Read Related Story, "Shape Up or Sharpe Out"

Whatever their shortcomings, Luis Sharpe's parents taught him and his siblings to set their goals high.

"I always knew I was gonna have money," he says, "knew I'd be successful. I had dreams about owning a house and dreams about playing professional sports. But I thought it would be baseball, not football."

Sharpe excelled in sports and in the classroom at Detroit's Southwestern High. When the time came, college football's biggest names courted him. For several reasons--the sun, football tradition, classic campus and, he says, "the amazing female scenery," Sharpe chose UCLA.

A three-year starter, Sharpe garnered All-American honors in his senior year. He also earned good grades as a political science major. Media guides and news stories about Sharpe invariably have said he graduated, but he didn't. He says he left UCLA after the spring 1982 semester, 16 units shy of a degree.

The St. Louis Cardinals made Sharpe their first pick in the 1982 NFL draft, the 16th selection overall. He bought his parents a home in the Detroit area with his signing bonus. But there was a good chunk of money left over.

"I didn't do my first line of cocaine until after college," he says. "It was right at the time I signed my first pro contract. I had always turned cocaine and marijuana down because my mother told me drugs would ruin my life. But this player I met from Mississippi said, 'Try some of this.' I figured, this is what people with money do. I tried it, liked it, and went from there."

Sharpe's new taste for cocaine apparently didn't interfere with his professional pursuits. He impressed his coaches from the outset, and started as a rookie left tackle in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

A reporter once asked quarterback Mike Tomczak what his left tackle meant to him. "Only life or death," Tomczak replied.

He wasn't kidding.
When a right-handed quarterback drops back to pass, he is exposed on his left, his blind side. That's where the NFL's pass rushers prowl, intent on inflicting harm. It takes a combination of strength, quickness, guts and guile to keep them at bay.

Sharpe possessed all of the above. He made the All-NFL Rookie team, and the Cardinals selected him as the team's co-Most Valuable Player, a rarity for a rookie.

"It was important for me to be part of the team," he says. "When the veterans gave me some black beauties [amphetamines] to try, I said sure. There were drugs all around. These old guys took speed before the games and they'd be all revved up. But I thought my heart was gonna explode, so I didn't get into it. Cocaine was another story."

Sharpe says he and a teammate snorted some coke shortly before a game at the Los Angeles Coliseum in his second NFL season. The pair also slipped away at halftime for another toot.

"I felt like my heart was gonna burst right through my chest and start bouncing around on the Coliseum turf," he says. "Luckily, I played terrible or I might have gotten used to it."

Sharpe was a newlywed, having married college sweetheart Kathi in July 1983. The couple had their first child, Leah, the following February.

The Sharpes were an outgoing couple whose community-mindedness thrilled the Cardinals brass, first in St. Louis and later in Arizona. They invested their money wisely, living well but not beyond their means.

Sharpe was as nimble in interviews as he was in cleats. He hit all the standard cliches--about working harder, focusing more--but often did so in a clever, seemingly candid way.

But as is often the case, things were not all they seemed with the clean-cut family man. By the mid-1980s, Sharpe was free-basing cocaine regularly, if not yet on a daily basis.

"Once you take your first hit on the pipe, well, it's sweet, great," he says. "But I didn't lose control of myself in terms of ball except for once. Make that twice. One time, I had my wife call and say I couldn't make it to a practice because I had to fly to Detroit--my brother had been in a terrible accident. A lie. I was at my house, strung out. Couldn't stop doing dope. Then I missed an exhibition game at ASU because I was supposedly sick with the flu. Bullshit. But I never missed a real game because of drugs.

"I really did believe in earning my money. It wasn't like I was smoking crack and facing off against the Dexter Manleys of the world," says Sharpe, ironically mentioning yet another drug abuser. "On the road, I stayed focused, getting ready for the war. I was very serious about my profession and I took it to heart. I also was a functioning crackhead."

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