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.

At home, Sharpe showered affection on his growing brood. But when he got high, he often took out the frustrations that simmered within him on his wife.

"Before I went to Betty Ford in 1992, I had been physically abusive to Kathi--I mean, hitting her--on and off for years," Sharpe says. "These things are difficult for me to think about. I also had my affairs, as in womanizing."

The domestic violence happened behind closed doors. And the Cardinals were willing to ignore rumors about Sharpe's extracurricular activities as long as he came to play every week. Of that, there never would be a question, whatever his physical condition.


Read Related Story, "Shape Up or Sharpe Out"

"I never had a problem with taking pain pills and stuff . . . ," Sharpe says. "Yeah, there's a lot of pressure to play, but that's what they were paying me to do. I played because I wanted to.

"I remember Joe Wahler breaking a finger before a game. It hurt, no doubt, but he didn't even fucking play! I told him, 'You want me to call your mommy?' Once against New Orleans, my job was to block Pat Swilling--a tough one--and I had a terrible groin pull. I got shot up and I kept Pat off the quarterback. We won, and I couldn't even move the next day, but I felt pretty good. Wins were few and far between with the Cards."

Sharpe was excited when Bill Bidwill announced that the Cardinals would move to Phoenix after the 1987 season. He hoped a new town would mean a better day for the long-suffering franchise. It didn't.

Luis Sharpe was an instant hit with Phoenix football fans. He worked tirelessly to keep immobile quarterback Neil Lomax mostly out of harm's way en route to a second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance.

In the community, Sharpe did more volunteer work that first year than some players do in a career.

But his was a Jeckyl-and-Hyde existence: His football ability had made him a rich man, but hadn't turned him into a prima donna like so many peers. At the same time, he was a closet crack smoker whose addiction showed no signs of abating.

In 1992, Sharpe's image took its first hit when the Mesa Tribune's Scott Bordow reported that Glendale police allegedly had linked Sharpe to cocaine purchases from an indicted dealer.

"The cops told me, 'We got video on you and we got telephone calls regarding you and your buddy,'" Sharpe recalls. "'Either start working for us or you can go get help.' This was the shove I needed. I went to Betty Ford right after the season."

Kathi Sharpe joined him at the famed Palm Springs clinic for part of his 30-day stay. There, Sharpe says he started to come to grips with his ugliest sin--his physical abuse of Kathi.

"I learned some things about myself and made a vow never to strike her again," he says. "Despite what she might say, I didn't. Could have, wanted to sometimes. But didn't . . ."

Sharpe later agreed to a clause in his contract with the Cardinals that allowed random drug testing. He says that--and his group-therapy sessions with other addicts--kept him clean for almost three years.

Sobriety, however, did little to improve his marriage.
"I was a different person sober, a stronger person mentally, with more self-esteem and confidence," Sharpe says. "Kathi couldn't deal with this. I would go on ski trips and other events with people in the program, but she wasn't interested. She'd smoke pot in front of me, which wasn't fair to a guy trying to hold a sobriety together. We grew farther and farther apart. To be honest about it, I kept playing the field with other women even when I was straight."

Sharpe's allegations about Kathi Sharpe's marijuana use appear grounded in fact: Last July, court records show, she tested positive for THC--a chemical found in marijuana--in a test ordered in the divorce proceedings. At the same time, Luis Sharpe tested positive for cocaine.

Kathi Sharpe's attorney, Donald Lindholm, says he's flabbergasted Luis Sharpe is raising the marijuana issue.

"It's like a terrible alcoholic here complaining that his wife had a glass of wine," says Lindholm. "That's the relative nature of this thing. This man exposed his kids to all these ugly things, and he's talking about this?"

Sharpe still was a force on the football field in the early 1990s. But, as happens to all players, he began to be more average than great.

"The one regret I have as a pro is that I played for a loser my whole life," he says. "The communities I played in were never proud of the team. I came along before free agency and, because I was good, I was punished in a way by being stuck on a lousy team. The highlight of my career? Blocking for Joe Montana in the Pro Bowl. I can brag to my grand kids about that. That's it."

In 1994, Bill Bidwill turned over day-to-day operations to Buddy Ryan. Ryan talked a great game--who can forget his "There's a winner in town" proclamation at his first Phoenix press conference?

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