The Big Easy has proven that it can endure the worst and best tossed its way, that its longevity is not capped. And so it goes for Sharper.
He is 34, still roaming and plucking passes and pulverizing receivers and running backs in his 13th NFL season. In today's youthful, speedy NFL, this is like watching a wagon keep pace with a jet. The game may, indeed, be new school, but Sharper keeps carving an old-school niche.
He arrived in the NFL in 1997 from the College of William & Mary, where he played on teams with Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin and Philadelphia defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. Sharper's NFL teams include Green Bay (1997-2004), Minnesota (2005-2008) and now the Saints.
His Pro Bowl berths come from these years: 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2009.
Spreading that type of excellence across 13 seasons at a position that requires churning legs and a fearless heart is a wonder. Reaching the Super Bowl as a rookie, unsuccessfully pursuing a repeat appearance for 11 straight seasons and then cracking the game this year makes Sharper grateful.
This second time around is his best time.
|All-Time Interception Leaders
|A look at the top seven names on the NFL's all-time interceptions list:|
|Player (Years active) ||INTs|
|Paul Krause (1964-79)
|Emlen Tunnell (1948-61)
|Rod Woodson (1987-2003)
|Dick Lane (1952-65)
|Ken Riley (1969-83)
|Darren Sharper (1997- )
|Ronnie Lott (1981-94)
His neck was a tad tight on Monday morning and his body ached. He said he would pile on the ice this week and get back, get right. Sharper knows how to do this.
He said his father, Harry, who was an All-America tight end at Virginia State and was in Kansas City's training camp as a halfback in 1971, takes credit for giving his son strong football genes. And through meticulous diet and stringent off-season speed training, Sharper has preserved himself for the long haul.
"I have been blessed to never have serious injury,'' he said. "Usually when you reach 30 in this league, regardless of your position, the legs are first to go. I've been fortunate there.''
So fortunate that he set the NFL single-season record for interception return yards (376) this season. His nine interceptions tied with three others for most in the league. Three of those he returned for touchdowns. His 63 career picks ties him for sixth on the NFL all-time list with Ronnie Lott.
Some people insist that Sharper has been to the Saints' defense what Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning has been to the Colts' offense. The Saints led the league this season in interceptions (26) and in passes defended (109).
Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson said of Sharper: "I love to see older guys playing well in a young man's game. Even though he played well in Green Bay and in Minnesota, he has found a system and a defensive coordinator (Gregg Williams) who has allowed him to be a playmaker first. When you are making plays in the secondary, you have to sometimes technically be in the wrong spots. The best defensive coaches understand that they call the plays and the players they trust make the play calls come alive. He makes that defense come alive.
"Even when the Saints made it to the NFC championship game three years ago, I didn't think they had a defensive leader. I know linebacker Jonathan Vilma is a big force there but who's new when you look at where they are now? It's Darren Sharper. Sometimes it takes that one player to make the biggest difference and he is it. I don't think they are in the Super Bowl without him. They finally have a defensive player there who has raised the level of expectation in the meeting rooms, on the practice field and on the field.''
An NFL general manager added: "All I can say is that there is not much back there in the secondary that Darren Sharper has not seen. He knows every trick in the trade. That makes the matchup of him and Manning a great one, because these two guys know the passing game on a different level. You have to take your hat off to Sharper playing at the level he is at this juncture in his career. He gets people lined up in the right place. I credit coach Sean Payton and Gregg Williams for bringing Sharper in when a lot of teams thought his best football was over.''
Among Saints coaches and players there is agreement: Sharper provided a missing piece for their defense. They describe him as 6-foot-2, 210-pounds of pure pro.
This Richmond, Va., native finds New Orleans similar to his hometown, both places, he said, that are 'down-to-earth'' and who have embraced him.
He is excited about matching wits with Manning.
"I know what he is -- he is going to go down as the greatest quarterback of all time,'' Sharper said. "We know he is going to drive that ship, that team, in this Super Bowl. We are teams that have common threads. I came here from Day One with the idea of winning the Super Bowl. I've got a chance to do that after all these years. It's sort of like back to the future.''
Yet, still fresh, still new. Still humming. Still running with the class of the league.