Waiting to Inhale
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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.
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?
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."
"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."
Former teammate Eric Swann showed up one day at a Tempe hotel where Sharpe was staying. He wasn't there to share the pipe with his former football mentor.
"I appreciated Eric being there for me," Sharpe says, "but I wasn't ready to be talked to by anybody. I just wanted to find me a crackhead woman, check in at some fleabag joint, smoke some rock, watch some porno and get after it."
When the 1995 pro football season started, Luis Sharpe wasn't wearing his familiar number 67 for the first time since 1982.
"I watched one Cardinals game last year on TV, that's it," he says. "I didn't read the sports pages, didn't watch the Super Bowl, didn't know what was going on in the world. I heard Swannie made the Pro Bowl, and that was cool. I was living in crack houses, in dives, in cars--my trusty $500 Cutlass Supreme. When I'd run out of my $5,000 for the month, that was it. I'd be all tapped out. People would be whispering--'You ought to be ashamed of yourself,' but I wasn't ashamed. There was just a lot of anger inside me.
"I never had to eat food out of garbage--Circle K hot dogs and nachos were fine. . . . I never robbed anybody, never stole anything and, thank God, I never sold the shit. But I was flat crazy. Didn't change my clothes sometimes for two or three days. Didn't brush my teeth. I'd be riding down there [in South Phoenix] when I had my Porsche at two in the morning. Stood out like a sore thumb, but I wasn't afraid and I didn't carry a weapon. I felt there was someone greater than me protecting me."
Something had to give, and it did. His run-ins with the law in what Sharpe calls "the month from hell"--November 1995--actually started on Halloween evening. That night, sheriff's deputies arrested him at an Ahwatukee motel on charges of allegedly forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him.
Sharpe scuffled with deputies during the arrest, which led to additional charges. (A deputy whose face was bruised during the clash later filed a civil lawsuit against Sharpe.)
Sharpe's account: "Me and another guy were smoking crack with this woman in my hotel room. As for the sex stuff, I thought we were after the same thing, when it was obvious that she wasn't, I stopped . . . I never intentionally hit the guy who sued me. It was just a bad scene all around."
Sharpe was booked and quickly released from custody. Prosecutors later declined to file sexual assault charges after flaws in the woman's account came to light. Sharpe later pleaded no contest to attempted aggravated assault stemming from the clash with deputies.
A few days after that arrest, a good friend of Luis and Kathi Sharpe's named Julie convinced two ex-teammates of Sharpe's to perform an intervention. The pair, Larry Lee and Roy Green, came by their friend's house and got Sharpe into a car.
"They're wrapping me up tight in this tape and I'm going, 'What the fuck are you guys doing?'" Sharpe says. "Someone had slipped me a tranquilizer, and I fell dead asleep. When I woke up, the first thing I saw was the Betty Ford sign. I wasn't ready for that shit. I wanted to get high."
Sharpe stayed at the clinic for less than a day, then says he took a cab to a nearby hotel. He says he soon scored some crack--"Yes, even in beautiful Palm Springs," he says, chuckling--hung around for a few days, then hailed a taxi for Phoenix.
"I knew I couldn't walk through an airport fucked up or something bad might happen," Sharpe recalls. "I had a cool cab driver and I got high right across the desert."
The fare was $550.
He says he picked up some clothes and money at Julie's house--it was the beginning of the month and his $5,000 was waiting for him. Sharpe then checked into a Tempe motel.
On November 14, Phoenix police arrested Sharpe on East Van Buren on charges of possessing crack cocaine and drug paraphernalia. He was back on the street within hours of his arrest.
In the argot of mental health professionals, Sharpe was decompensating rapidly. Julie tracked him down and invited him to spend that Thanksgiving with her family (she and her husband have four children). He seemed to enjoy himself that day, shooting hoops with Julie's husband and playing with their kids.
But he says he was crushed that Kathi wouldn't allow the Sharpe children to stop by for a visit. "I hadn't been a good dad, but . . . ," he says, unable to complete the sentence before emotion overtakes him.
Two days after Thanksgiving, Sharpe and a crackhead pal showed up at his former residence. By a coincidence, Julie and her children were visiting Kathi Sharpe and her five kids at the time.
The women saw Luis Sharpe running across the backyard. "I screamed," Julie said in an affidavit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court. "Kathi screamed."
Next thing they knew, Sharpe had ripped the screen off an open window and climbed into the house.
"He said, 'The man in the house is back,'" Julie stated in the affidavit. Kathi ran out the front door to call police, leaving Julie to deal with Sharpe.
"He told me that if he had caught Kathi he would have killed her," Julie avowed. "He was very much under the influence of drugs. All of the children were crying. He was sweating, his face was moving and twitching, his eyes were dilated, and he had a terrible look on his face."
Sharpe expresses surprise at Julie's statement, which he says he's never seen.
"I'm sure I scared the shit out of them because they didn't expect me there," he says. "But after Thanksgiving, I made the decision to see my kids . . . I was stressed. I was yelling, 'She's a whore, a slut,' speaking my piece. It was the holidays again and they are my kids, too, and she wasn't being fair. I was obsessed, but I don't remember threatening Kathi at all."
Obvious parallels with another, more prominent NFL star--O.J. Simpson--come to mind.
"I really feel like if Juice was going through what I was going through--the feelings of abandonment and betrayal, the pain--and if he had turned to drugs, I can see him sitting up one night and being under the influence and losing it. I think he loved that woman and I think he probably killed her. If I hadn't completely numbed some feelings I was going through at the time, I could almost put myself in O.J.'s place."
Phoenix police arrested Sharpe for allegedly violating the order of protection, then rearrested him for supposedly threatening Kathi in a call from jail.
Her attorney, Don Lindholm, says he asked a judge to keep Sharpe in jail "for his own good as well as for my client's." But the judge again released Sharpe in short order.
A few days later, Sharpe almost died.
He adamantly denies having a death wish, but his own account of being shot outside a crackhouse at 26th Street and East Pueblo raises troubling questions.
"I had $1,500 in my pocket and I was flashing it like a fool," Sharpe says of the midmorning incident last November 30. "A guy comes up to me. 'This is a jack. Put your money down or I blow your brains out. I was stupid enough to say, 'You'll have to shoot me first.'
"It was a neighborhood--people out on their porches, kids riding by on bicycles. I'm thinking, 'This guy isn't going to shoot you just like that.' He fires as I'm sort of turning to the side. Hits me in the right shoulder. Another few centimeters and they say . . . I would have bled to death.
"I throw my wallet down. He picks up the money. For some reason, I start walking toward him. The blood's coming down my arm. He says, 'Motherfucker. One more step and I blow you away.' I stop. He runs off somewhere. They never caught him. I walk a block. Where was I going? I remember laying down by a phone, completely exhausted. I wanted to take a nice, long nap. For some reason, I felt peaceful."
Into this surreal tableau walked an unlikely good Samaritan.
"This lady I knew--a crackhead named Diane--she ran and got a cold towel and put it on my head. 'Don't go to sleep, don't go to sleep,' she kept saying. 'Talk to me.' She stayed with me until the paramedics came."
Sharpe got to thank Diane a few months later.
"I went back there to get more drugs, man," he says. "Drug addicts do stupid things to get drugs. You put everything else to the side."
The image of this once-proud man bloodied and crumpled next to a pay phone was riveting. Sharpe's family in Michigan responded immediately when they got word.
At the family's request, a court commissioner ordered Luis Sharpe's involuntary commitment to a county mental hospital. After doctors deemed him a potential threat to himself or to others, the commissioner offered two alternatives: continued commitment at the county hospital, or up to a year's rehab at a private facility.
Last December 11, Sharpe enrolled at the Chandler Valley Hope rehabilitation center. Two days later, the facility discharged him after he tested positive for fresh use of cocaine.
Sharpe fled to Detroit, missing his December 15 arraignment date on his pending Maricopa County criminal charges. Judge Michael Ryan issued a warrant for his arrest.
Detroit police arrested Sharpe on the Arizona warrant a few days before Christmas. Sharpe's defense attorney in Arizona was Marc Budoff, a fine litigator in a tough spot. His client was a walking disaster, too stoned to care about court dates.
Budoff told Judge Ryan that Sharpe had agreed to undergo inpatient treatment at the Detroit-area Brighton Hospital, followed by weeks of outpatient rehab.
Lou Stalzer, the veteran deputy county attorney prosecuting Sharpe, agreed not to play hardball.
Ryan, a former prosecutor known as a firm, but fair jurist, quashed the warrant.
Early in Sharpe's stay at Brighton, a hospital therapist wrote a letter to Kathi Sharpe's divorce attorney, suggesting that Sharpe's three oldest children join him for a few days.
"We have encouraged Mr. Sharpe to involve his children in our family program," she wrote, "so that they can understand addiction and the role it plays on the family environment."
Sharpe is convinced that his wife and her lawyer stonewalled the hospital on the proposed visit. But attorney Lindholm says--and the court record supports him--that Dr. Brian Yee, a "special master" appointed to oversee the sticky case, denied the request.
"Kathi didn't have any objection to the kids going to Michigan and I let Dr. Yee know that," Lindholm says. "She always has wanted her children to maintain a relationship with their father, no matter what he's up to."
Sharpe says he knew he'd be smoking crack again after he left Brighton. But he claims to have slipped only once in the weeks before he returned to Arizona.
"I didn't have the same drug contacts in Detroit," Sharpe explains. "The one time I went into the streets looking for the stuff, I was kind of scared. . . ."
Sharpe returned to Arizona in mid-February. He says he successfully went crack-hunting hours after he landed. On April 15, Judge Ryan ordered Sharpe jailed without bond after several new incidents--small compared to what had come before.
Detention officers stuck Sharpe in a cell in Pod B at the Towers Jail. He says he laid on his upper bunk for a few days, thinking about the pit into which he had tumbled.
Finally, he decided to step outdoors during the daily recreation hour. The sun and fresh air invigorated him.
"People were checking me out--prisoners and guards," Sharpe says. "Big as I am, I'm not exactly easy to miss. I feel their eyes. They test me, playing psychological games. They don't know what to expect out of this rich football player, this old cokehead. But it wasn't me who put me up on any pedestal when things were going good. I figured I'd just be myself."
Sharpe began to walk the perimeter of the yard every day for the entire hour. Back inside, he started to do pushups and sit-ups, ten in a set, then 20, then 100. He says he could almost hear his body thanking him as the poisons sweated out of him.
But there still were some difficult tests.
"This Mexican guy in the yard tells me he can get me some rock, some crack," he says. "I tell him, 'I don't want your crack, dude. I'm gonna try to change my life. Don't you be comin' up to me with that stuff.'
"Later, back in the pod, he starts in again. 'Man, I can get you a one-16th right now.' I get pissed off and I curse him out in Spanish. It always blows people's minds that I'm fluent. 'You disrespected me, dude. I already told you once.'
"Time goes by, and here he comes again. This time, he's got a piece of paper with him. 'Can I have your autograph?' I tell him, 'That will be five items at the commissary.' He says no way. I go, 'Oh, it's okay for you to sell crack to me, but I can't sell to you?' He kind of laughs and walks away. There are all kinds of vultures floating around here."
Sharpe says he came to realize that, in his case, jail was a blessing: "I respect the fact I've had time to look at my life, look at myself, get physically back in shape. I'd like to think I've started my recovery where recovery is not a word you hear. This is easy. Training camp carried on for four weeks, and was mentally and physically challenging. This is just mental."
Kathi Sharpe allowed her children to accept collect calls from their father for the first month he was in jail. Sharpe says he lived for the opportunity to gab with his kids.
But Kathi cut off the calls in early May, Sharpe alleges, after his oldest daughter, now 12, told him she'd gotten into trouble at school.
Sharpe wrote to the girl's school counselor, seeking an explanation. The counselor responded in a note dated May 6.
"Luis, I was very pleased to hear that you are determined to change your lifestyle. That's a good decision and everyone will benefit from it. [She] is doing okay. I talked to her this morning and I really believe she is trying to hurt you the way you hurt her. She is confused, angry and is making a loud cry for help."
Says Sharpe of the frank assessment: "She's right, but it hurts. How did things get this fucked up?"
Kathi Sharpe's attorney has an answer to that.
"He's been coddled for a long time now," Don Lindholm says, "and it's time for him to stand up and become a role model for his children. This poor child has had a particularly difficult time because of what she has observed in her father. She's the oldest and has faced great scorn at school over all this. And for Luis to cast aspersions at Kathi, who's kept this family together while he's been womanizing and doing his drugs and whatever else he does, is absurd and reprehensible."
One of Sharpe's biggest problems is that he's uncertain of what to do with himself. Without the safety nets of pro football, rehab clinics, or even jail, he knows he's a prime candidate for another fall.
"I just can't trust that it won't happen," he says. "I'm a drug addict and I could go off any day."
Sharpe's brief experience on the set of Waiting to Exhale intoxicated him, and he expresses a desire to become a professional actor.
He also speaks vaguely of wanting to help others with problems. He adds, chuckling bitterly, that he seems to be one of those people more capable of helping others than himself.
"My divorce is going to be over soon, and I'll be left with about a million-and-a-half bucks," he says. "I need some kind of guardianship arrangement with my sister [to oversee his financial affairs]. If I fall off the Earth again, I could go through that million and some in a few years. Then I'll really be a street person."
Luis Sharpe's sentencing shared time on television newscasts with that of Richard Djerf, who slaughtered four members of a west Phoenix family. Both men were sentenced by Judge Ryan, first Sharpe and then Djerf.
Djerf got death. Sharpe got his life.
As always, Sharpe said all the right things when the time came for him to talk. He sprinkled words such as "chance," "sorry," "addiction," "problems," "family" and "recovery" throughout his minutelong statement.
The judge said he appreciated Sharpe's comments, but that any noteworthy probation violation would mean incarceration of up to four years at the state prison.
After his sentencing, Sharpe checked out of jail. He said goodbye to his friends at the jail, shedding some tears. He also transferred the balance in his commissary account to his cell mate, the 23-year-old indigent gangbanger.
Sharpe says he considered taking his pink socks as a memento of his jail stay. But he was dissuaded by another inmate who said detention officers would stick a petty theft charge on him.
He and his sister Indira drove to Circle K and made a purchase. Sharpe joyfully lit up for the first time in more than six weeks--tobacco, not crack.
The two then stopped by the schools attended by Sharpe's 8- and 12-year-old daughters. Officials allowed him short visits with the children, though he hadn't called ahead.
"It was very sweet," he said last week, in a phone call from Hazelden, a rehab clinic near Minneapolis. "They were happy to see me, which made me feel very good. I told them I was going to get treatment for my illness, and that I really wanted to be part of their lives again."
The clinic is housed on 500 acres, with forested walking paths, a weight room, swimming pool and other amenities with special meaning to a man whose most recent residence was jail.
Sharpe is scheduled to stay at Hazelden for at least three more weeks. Then, he says he plans to go to Detroit and continue outpatient treatment and live with his sister as he tries to map his next step.
"I've got a family who loves me and kids who need me, I hope," he says. "I'd like to think I got a life ahead of me.
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