- Photo by Jonathan Bachman
- Safety Darren Sharper (No. 42) leads all active NFL players in interceptions. In his first season with the Saints he has picked off eight interceptions in 13 games.
Every guy remembers his first. Even the most experienced ones. Darren Sharper responds as quickly and surely as if he were stating his own middle name.
"Scott Mitchell," Sharper says. Mitchell, formerly of the Detroit Lions, was the first NFL quarterback Sharper ever intercepted, but 12 seasons later, Mitchell is a member of a club that is conspicuous by its lack of exclusivity.
The Saints safety leads all active NFL players in interceptions. His first one was no routine play. As a rookie with the Green Bay Packers in 1997, he picked off Mitchell's pass and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. The Packers won the game before a national television audience. For Sharper, the play portended future greatness.
"It was one of those out-of-body experiences," Sharper recalls. "You kind of look and you can't believe that you just made this play. Everybody was coming up to you saying, 'Great job, great job.' You're a young player so you're trying to find your niche in the league. And you just feel like you finally belong."
The 34-year-old Sharper has been a perfect fit in his first season in New Orleans. Through 13 games, he has a team-leading eight interceptions. His instinctive play, propensity for picking off opposing passers and rare return ability have made him one of the biggest impact defenders the Saints have ever signed in free agency. Sharper has solidified a position that, more often than not, has been a reliable Achilles' heel throughout team history.
Sharper appears poised to become the first Saints safety to make the Pro Bowl since Sammy Knight in 2001 and only the third Saint ever to make the Pro Bowl as a safety.
He's done all of this despite being the oldest member of the Saints defense and playing a position that demands he stalk younger players who seem to get faster and more physical every year.
"I may have surprised some, I haven't surprised myself," Sharper says. "Whenever someone is older than 30, they always want to see when the decline is going to happen. I think that's the main thing that motivates me is to not let that decline happen at an alarming rate. So if I've surprised some people, hopefully they're going to keep being surprised because it's going to keep happening while I'm still playing. If it happens where I can't do the things I'm used to doing, I'll hang it up."
Under the direction of first-year defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Sharper and his teammates have managed to remake the Saints defense into something that is unrecognizable compared to its predecessors — an aggressive, turnover-hungry unit that routinely delivers game-changing plays at the most crucial moments.
That just happens to be Darren Sharper's specialty.
The Packers picked the Richmond, Va., native out of the College of William & Mary in the second round of the draft. He spent eight seasons in Green Bay, Wis., where he made the Pro Bowl twice and played in nine postseason games. He was released by the Packers after the 2004 season, when he "pulled a Brett Favre," years before the star quarterback ever contemplated leaving Green Bay and ended up with its nemesis in Minnesota. As a member of the Vikings, Sharper got a chance to show the Packers, twice a year, what they were missing. He continued to burnish his resume with two more Pro Bowl appearances.
As he began his fourth and final season in Minnesota, however, Sharper says it was clear the Vikings wanted to inject more youth into the secondary. They used their first draft pick on Arkansas State safety Tyrell Johnson. The previous year they signed free agent safety Madieu Williams to a big-money contract.
"So me being the age I was, I was pretty sure they weren't going to sign me back," Sharper says. "Businesswise, you have a younger guy making less. Of course it's natural that they're going to let him go and start."
In the free-agent market Sharper settled on the Saints. Not only did he view the team as a contender, he was attracted to Gregg Williams' attacking style of defense. Sharper says Williams exhaustively prepares his players for game situations but doesn't constrain them on game day.
"He's going to let you play," Sharper says. "He's going to trust guys to do the right thing, and he doesn't want robots out there. That's the type of coach I love to play for."
That's not just fulsome praise. The statistics bespeak a fruitful relationship. Sharper had just one interception last season in Minnesota. So far this year, he has eight times as many. Williams feels both the Saints and Sharper have been vindicated by his standout play.
"There's a lot of people in the media and a lot of personnel people in the NFL who thought he was washed up, who really didn't think we made a very good decision in bringing him here, and look how young he looks," Williams says.
Saints fans aren't just witnessing a season for the ages. They're also watching an all-time great hone his craft. With one more interception, Sharper will have 63 for his career, tying him for sixth place all-time with Pro Football Hall of Fame member Ronnie Lott, who won four Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers.
"He's someone I've looked up to his whole career," Sharper says. "I wear No. 42 because of the fact that he wore it. He was one of my idols growing up. That's one of the ones that I would kind of look back and say, 'OK, I've had a pretty darn good career if you can match the numbers that Ronnie Lott has put up.' One thing that he has that I don't have is that Super Bowl ring, so that's something I would like to get and that would put me closer to his territory."
Though he plays safety, Sharper has proved to be quite a scoring threat for the Saints this season. He's returned three interceptions for touchdowns (he's done that 11 times in his career), and he's only the second player in NFL history to return two for 90 yards or more in a season (cornerback Deion Sanders was the other). Every time Sharper intercepts a pass, he averages a stupefying 44 yards.
Sharper, a former high school quarterback, credits his time as a punt returner during college and early in his pro career for helping to produce those numbers.
"I returned punts when I was a young player, and I always knew that when I caught it, when I got my hands on it, I was pretty comfortable trying to elude guys and make guys miss," he says. "I had a chance of getting a lot of yardage so that always gives you a better chance to score."
Predictably Sharper's larcenous ways have made him a favorite among the Saints' zealous loyalists. But it's no one-sided relationship. On several occasions this season, Sharper has been seen trading post-game high-fives with fans or leading his own boisterous "Who Dat" chants. He may have spent a dozen years playing in the heartland, but it hasn't taken long for Sharper to appreciate the souls of Saints fans.
"I can tell the passion and the loyalty," Sharper says. "The thing that struck me is a lot of the fans here have been Saints fans for a long time. Everyone knows they've been through a lot of heartache and pain. It just feels good seeing how much they appreciate us doing what we're doing now and how special the season is and how, hopefully, great this outcome is going to be at the end."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV, ABC26.