Even amid the uproar in the Denver Broncos' locker room, moments after they'd defeated the New York Jets to earn the right to defend their Super Bowl title Jan. 31, it was impossible to miss Shannon Sharpe. Wearing a white horse's-head helmet with blue-and-orange streamers floating just above his 52-inch chest, the Broncos tight end was doing one of the things he does best—holding court before teammates and reporters. This despite a concussion that had knocked him out of the game in the third quarter.

"John's done some magnificent things in 16 years," Sharpe, 30, said of Broncos expected-to-retire quarterback John Elway, whom he'd just released from a celebratory bear hug. "I can tell my kids I got an opportunity to play with one of the greats."

Others may say the same about Sharpe. During nine seasons in the National Football League, the seven-time Pro Bowl pick has caught more passes for more yards than any other player at his position. Sharpe just may have set records, too, for Maalox moments among opposing linemen, driven mad by his incendiary trash talking and inescapable blocking—and for yardage on reporters' tape recorders. (Among his printable jabs: During the Broncos' recent 38-3 trouncing of Miami he taunted Dolphins players, "How does it feel to have the Super Bowl at your house and you're not invited?")

"The guy is a character that every team needs," says Broncos defensive end Harald Hasselbach of the man called "the most quotable athlete since Winston Churchill played cricket at Eton" by a writer for Denver's Rocky Mountain News. (Sharpe memorably pronounced Denver's kicker as being "in field-goal range as soon as he drives into the stadium parking lot.") "He provides comic relief, as well as being a tremendous leader with his playing ability."

Sharpe's athletic skills, at least, were evident early on in rural Glennville, Ga. That's where he and his older brother Sterling, now 33, and sister Sherra, 38, were raised on a farm by their doting grandmother Mary Viola Porter after their parents split up. (Sharpe's mother, Mary Alice Dixon, would visit a few times a year from Chicago; he saw little of his father, Pete, who died of lung cancer when Sharpe was in eighth grade.) "If there was an opportunity for me to make fun of something, I jumped at it," says Sharpe, who remembers a time in third grade when a classmate was struggling to sound out a word. "The teacher said, 'Johnny, it sounds like, it sounds like...' and I said, 'It sounds like Johnny can't read.' "

In fact, clowning may have been a way for Sharpe to keep classmates from making fun of his own lisp—or of his family's poverty. It also helped him to carve out an identity distinct from his big brother, a five-time all-pro receiver with the Green Bay Packers until a spinal injury ended his playing career in 1994. "Shannon never did want Sterling to outdo him," says Sherra. "He just wanted to do what Sterling did and a little better. Always. He hated losing."

At Glennville High, Shannon lettered in football, basketball and track, but, partly because of poor SAT scores, planned to enlist in the Air Force. That's when Sterling, then an all-American at South Carolina, advised him to give nearby Savannah State a try. Recalls Shannon: "He said, 'I think it would be a tragedy with all this athletic ability you have if you don't cash in on it.' "

And that is what Shannon has been doing ever since. "Once I got to college, I started working out and said, 'I want to be like my brother,' " recalls Sharpe, who went on to become a three-time Division I-AA ail-American at Savannah State, where he majored in criminal justice. Drafted by Denver in 1990, Shannon seized the opportunity two seasons later to claim No. 84, just like his brother. "The biggest cause of where I am and who I am was him," says Sharpe, who presented Sterling with the Super Bowl ring he won last year as a token of gratitude. "I thought he gave me a piece of his heart," says Sterling. "I wear it with pride."

While the underdog Broncos' triumph in Super Bowl XXXII ranks as Sharpe's most memorable moment, what keeps him going day in and day out is family. "He thinks he's a Greek god and all that, but he's a very sweet fellow," says sister Sherra. Until Sharpe finally bought a home of his own in Atlanta in 1994, he continued to live in Glennville during the offseason with his 76-year-old grandmother. And he still calls her four or five times a day. "No matter how much money I make," says Sharpe—who in 1997 signed a three-year, $7.7 million pact with the Broncos—"to my grandma, I'm her baby."

Sharpe has three babies of his own—daughters Kayla, 6, and Kaley, 5, and son Kiare, 6—from three now-ended relationships but says he has yet to meet the woman he wants to marry. "I can't for the life of me—and I've tried—love someone like I love my grandmother, my sister and my mom," he says. "I might run out of here and murder 10 people, and they would say, 'He's wrong,' but they would still love me. Everybody else, they love you on conditions."

Although his children live with their mothers in Georgia and Florida, Sharpe tries to see them as often as he can. Come Super Bowl Sunday, some of them may be in Miami watching the Broncos square off with Atlanta's Falcons. Winning would be great, says Shannon, but victory alone may not be enough. "Hey, I want to be out there making plays," he says. "I want them to call my name. I want them to say, 'The Broncos won the game and Shannon Sharpe had something to do with it.' "

Pam Lambert
Vickie Bane in Denver

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  • Vickie Bane.