SAN DIEGO — There’s a scene in the “Godfather” films where a member of Michael Corleone’s Mafia family is about to confess to a Senate subcommittee. Michael arrives at the hearing with an older Italian man by his side, who turns out to be the would-be snitch’s long-lost brother from Sicily. The snitch looks up, sees the old man, and immediately takes his whole story back, says he lied and made it up.
Later, when Michael explains to his wife what happened, he says this: “It was between the brothers.”
I always fell for that scene. Maybe it’s because I have a brother. Maybe it’s because only men with brothers can understand the silent bond that connects, threatens, hovers, and most of all, understands.
The Sharpe brothers have that, Shannon and Sterling. I never knew that until I got to this Super Bowl and saw them together. For several years, I have worked with Sterling at ESPN. He was, as you know, a brilliant receiver with the Green Bay Packers, certainly headed for the Hall of Fame, when a neck injury cut short his career.
He retired and immediately went into broadcasting. Through the years, I have known him as a funny, boisterous, powerfully built man who loves to dress in suits the colors of sherbet — lime, grape, mango — and can’t resist shouting when he’s confident and happy.
One of the things he shouts is “Get the ball to 84!” He shouts this whenever we discuss the Denver Broncos. “Get the ball to 84!”
Of course, 84 is his kid brother, Shannon, who on Sunday will try to beat his older brother’s former team every which way he can.
Heeding big brother
Their relationship goes back to a farm life in Georgia, where their father died young and their grandmother did most of the child-rearing. Sterling was older, by three years, and he was a sports star, one of those kids who had so many varsity letters, he needed a new jacket. Because there were no other children around, Sterling and Shannon would play against each other, one-on-one games of basketball and a football contest called “put-back.”
“I could never accept that I couldn’t beat my brother,” Shannon says now at one of the Super Bowl media sessions.
Never mind that he was three years younger. He kept pushing and pushing, trying to gain that elusive emotional triumph that comes with besting your older sibling. Without that, the younger brother might never have tried so hard. And so, in this way, Sterling Sharpe made Shannon Sharpe what he is today.
Then came the time when Shannon, who also became a high school star, failed to score 700 on his SAT tests. This virtually eliminated him from playing major college football. He was about to enter the military when Sterling came home from his All-America career at South Carolina to lecture him.
“Look, before you give up on football, try going to Savannah State,” Sterling said. “It’s Division II, but at least you’ll know you tried.”
Shannon took his older brother’s advice, and once again, his life was turned. He parlayed his Savannah State career into the NFL draft, where he was taken in the seventh round. And he slowly climbed through the ranks with the Broncos, catching seven passes in his first year, 22 in his second.
In his third season, he led the team in receptions, just as, a thousand miles away, his brother Sterling was leading the Packers. It was the first time in NFL history that in one year, a set of brothers led two teams in receptions.
And, in one of their happiest moments, Sterling called Shannon to tell him they were both going to the Pro Bowl. They were on clouds, finally, happily, on equal footing.
Then, a few years later, everything changed.
Sterling suffered the neck injury. Doctors warned against playing football again. It was risky. The Packers chose not to bring him back, not to take the risk. Sterling fought the decision, but ultimately retired.
And suddenly, the Sharpe family had only one NFL player, and he was the younger one, the one always bringing up the rear. And now the kid is at a Super Bowl, something his older brother never achieved.
“Yeah, it is weird,” Shannon admits. “But if he can’t be in it, the next-best thing is having me here. He’s playing the Super Bowl through me, telling me what I should do, how I should catch things.”
He smiles. “The thing is, if I could make him be here instead of me, I would.
“When he had to leave the game, that really hurt me. I would have gladly traded positions with him. When you love someone, you want to take their pain away.”
Instead, Shannon will try to beat the defense that wears Sterling’s old colors. Denver against Green Bay, remember? And if you’re wondering where Sterling’s loyalty lies, you’re wasting your time.
“That’s the dumbest question,” Sterling says. “Sure, I’m grateful to the Packers. Sure, I have plenty of friends in Green Bay. But long before I got there, and long after I left, Shannon was my family. And he’ll always be my family.
“He plays for the Denver Broncos. So this week, I’m a Denver Bronco fan.”
He casts a long-distance look toward where Shannon is giving interviews, and for a brief moment, there is a flash of recognition, and perhaps all the memories of the old farm and the school days and their first Pro Bowl come together, in a brilliant unified chorus. But those of us standing around hear nothing. It was between the brothers. It always is.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.