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.

But Ryan was loyal only to "his" boys, youngsters desperate to make their mark and veterans who had played for him for years.

Luis Sharpe fit into neither category, and he says Ryan rarely spoke to him in their year together. But longtime team leader Sharpe wasn't afraid to speak his mind in the locker room after the 1994 Cardinals again performed below expectations.

"He was like the Sheriff Joe of pro football," Sharpe says, "always wanting to get the credit when something good happened and ready to shit on everyone else when the roof caved in. That was Buddy Ball."

In the last year of his contract, Sharpe figured he'd be a goner after the 1994 season ended. But it ended for him suddenly, that November, after he was hurt badly for the first and only time in his career. It came against the Philadelphia Eagles, and it was a play like a thousand others over Sharpe's career. He and Eagle defensive end William Fuller tumbled to the turf. Sharpe's knee bent at an odd angle and gave out.

Everyone assumed that Sharpe, then 34, was done as a player. But he says doctors told him in late 1994 that coming back after rehab wasn't out of the question.

By that time, however, Luis Sharpe was a deeply confused man. He was moving back and forth from his home in Ahwatukee to the apartment in Tempe. And, unshackled from the drug-testing clause in his contract, he was battling a powerful urge to fall off the wagon. He sat alone in his apartment, trying not to think about how much he already missed football.

"I never lost the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach before kickoff," Sharpe says. "The nervousness. I wanted to do well and not embarrass myself. I started missing the guys--Eric Hill and his jokes, Swannie [Eric Swann] and his personality.

"I missed being in our hotel on the road hanging with the guys. We were war partners. We're getting ready to play the Giants, for example. It's cold at the Meadowlands, the turf's like a rock, 80,000 people are screaming, all for the other team. We're 11 guys against the best defense in the league. Lawrence Taylor is bearing down on me personally. I really missed that and I still do. A lot."

Sharpe says three NFL teams contacted him after the 1994 season after hearing that he might be available. Despite the competitive fire that still burned within him, Sharpe officially retired.

"I probably could have collected an extra couple million like so many other guys, stretch it out a couple more years," he says. "I had too much pride. I quit the NFL--it didn't quit me."

Bored, lonely, depressed and tired of sobriety, Sharpe decided just before Christmas 1994 to return to the "life," as he calls it.

His first taste of crack in almost three years, he says, was beautiful.

On the Streets
Luis Sharpe's low points since Christmas 1994 have been chronicled by Valley media--the arrests, the shooting, the court appearances, the jailing.

Even as he spiraled downward, Sharpe still was able on occasion to pull himself together. In early 1995, he still was seeing his children regularly, despite a widening rift with Kathi. One day, he took his two oldest daughters to an audition for a church scene in the movie Waiting to Exhale.

The girls got the parts, and the director also liked what he saw in Sharpe.
"They cast me as a sports agent and ex-football player who was out on the prowl at the Jockey Club," Sharpe says. "I got to slow-dance with Angela Bassett, a real nice lady, and got to say a few lines. I don't think anybody on the set knew how stoned I was."

Around this time, Sharpe became convinced Kathi had been cheating on him with his best friend. (She denies this through her attorney, and a psychologist has indicated in a court-ordered report that the allegations likely are spurious.)

Sharpe doesn't seem to recognize that if his wife did have an affair, he may have driven her to it with his philandering, drug abuse and unnecessary roughness.

"You know how men feel about wives," he responds. "They're possessions. You don't want anyone else screwing them."

In the predawn hours of April 16, 1995, Phoenix police responded to the Sharpe home after Kathi had dialed 911 from a pay phone. Luis had awakened her, she told them, by sitting atop her and spitting in her face. Then he'd shoved her against a wall, bruising the back of her head.

She escaped his grasp and called police. Sharpe's version isn't much different from his wife's, except he denies striking her.

The following day, Kathi obtained an order of protection against her husband from a Phoenix court. "[Luis] slammed head into wall--police called," she wrote on a form. It was the first of more than a dozen police calls to the Sharpe household during the next several months.

"My shit hadn't hit the papers yet, but my teammates were calling me right and left," Sharpe says. "Anthony Redmon called me every day, but I wouldn't call him back. I was a depressed crackhead, and I thought I was alone."

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