The competition is supposed to be over at this point. Once you've arrived at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, you are the elite of the elite. What is there left to prove?
Perhaps you have never met Deion Sanders or Shannon Sharpe. Along with Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Richard Dent, Les Richter and Ed Sabol, Sanders and Sharpe make up this year's class for the hall, which will be inducted on Saturday in Canton, Ohio.
Traditionally the scene of deep, emotional moments, the presence of Sanders and Sharpe could lead to a slightly different presentation. Or as one might call it, the Super Bowl of Trash Talk.
"Yeah, that could be interesting. No telling what Shannon and Deion will do."
Eugene Parker, Sanders' long-time friend and agent, strongly disagreed with the notion that Sanders was a trash talker. But Parker's belief may be just a matter of definition. If you expand the idea of trash talking to include showboating and high-stepping, Sanders qualifies.
And he was unparalleled.
"Deion took it to a whole other level," Parker said. "He was a quote, sound-bite machine. He was quick-witted and funny. If you're just sitting around and talking, it's going to be fun and entertaining."
Was there anyone like Sanders before he came into the league in 1989?
"Not in the NFL," Parker said after a brief pause. "He was the Muhammad Ali of the NFL."
If Sanders was Ali, Sharpe was every bit of George Foreman. From his hysterical pre-Super Bowl exchange with Ray Buchanan to his on-field wars with the likes of Derrick Thomas, Sharpe's tongue knew no boundaries. Everyone was fair game.
Of course, none of that was accomplished without a foundation of greatness. If you aren't any good, nobody cares what you have to say. Among the greats to ever play the game, Sanders and Sharpe stand shoulder to shoulder with any of them. They are arguably the best players ever at their positions or at least in a specialized subset of their positions. If Sanders is not the greatest cornerback of all time (his tackling skills were a running gag during his career), he is at least the best cover corner ever. And as Sanders once noted years ago, "What's a cover corner? Isn't that what a corner is supposed to do, cover someone?"
As for Sharpe, calling him the greatest tight end ever is a stretch. But he was perhaps the greatest receiving tight end ever. At the time of his retirement, he held the record for most catches (815), yards (10,060) and touchdowns (62). All of those numbers have since been surpassed by Tony Gonzalez(notes), one of the few you could argue was better than Sharpe at catching.
"As a receiver, the NFL is all about matchups, and with Shannon we always had great matchups," former Denver quarterback and fellow Hall of Famer John Elway told the Denver Post in February. "A [strongside] linebacker or a strong safety couldn't cover him. And then when we'd go to our third-down package, if they tried to cover him with a defensive back, he was so much stronger than they were."
But the pair stood out in entertainment. Sanders, with his self-proclaimed "Prime Time" and "Neon Deion" nicknames, was a one-man variety show. He scored touchdowns in five different ways (three as a receiver and 19 via interception, kickoff, punt and fumble returns). He played Major League Baseball on a part-time basis for nine years. He became the only man to ever play in both a World Series and a Super Bowl and even played both sports in one day in 1992.
More than anything, however, Sanders had an intuitive understanding of what defined greatness. For instance, there was his take on musician Sean "P. Diddy" Combs:
"You just know that without music, P. Diddy would still be something. Muhammad Ali was the same way. Boxing was just a platform. He would have been great in politics or something else. Your performance has to be there, but you've also got to be able to reach people and bring them to where you are. To make them feel you."
Sharpe's tongue tended to be more forked. In the 1998 season, for instance, he drove the late Thomas, a fellow Hall of Famer, to distraction by referring to a woman they both knew during the middle of the game. Twice during the game, Thomas got so riled that he grabbed Sharpe by the facemask and twisted Sharpe's head. Thomas ended up getting kicked out of the game and suspended for another.
Then, before the Super Bowl against Atlanta later that season, Sharpe and Buchanan got into it. Buchanan started off by admitting Sharpe's talent at talking before making fun of him.
"Shannon can always win, because he can talk," Buchanan said. "But Shannon looks like a horse. I'll tell you, that's an ugly dude. You can't tell me he doesn't look like Mr. Ed."
Sharpe responded strongly.
"Ray said that?" Sharpe said. "Well, I think he's ugly, but did I ever call him that? No … Tell Ray to put the eyeliner, the lipstick and the high heels away. I'm not saying he's a cross-dresser, but that's just what I heard."
Even as Buchanan warned Sharpe to be careful not to talk too much during the game for fear of getting knocked out, Sharpe only egged on Buchanan: "I'm not hard to find. I'm No. 84 and I've got the biggest mouth on the field. Tell Ray I'll be looking for him also."
Sharpe didn't just have the biggest mouth on the field. He was everywhere.
"If Shannon was in the room, you knew it," Lewis said. "You didn't have to look for him, you just listened. It could be on the field, in the locker room, in the weight room, in the shower, you were going to know that Shannon was around."
To Lewis, Sharpe's confidence was what helped propel Baltimore to the Super Bowl title in 2001. After Sharpe left Denver, he joined the Ravens and became the team's most consistent offensive weapon. Sharpe carried the offense in the playoffs. Moreover, he carried an infectious attitude.
"What I've said is that those guys on offense, we weren't great, but they got better and better as the season went on," Lewis said. "So much of that was Shannon having that confidence that no matter what, we were going to do something on offense to help the defense, do enough to get ourselves through it. Shannon had that swagger and as the season went on, the rest of the guys got it too, like, 'Hey, we're going to do this, we're going to find a way. Follow me and we'll be fine.'"
With Sanders, who joined Baltimore for two seasons in 2004, Lewis learned a different lesson. It wasn't just about talking the talk, it was about the whole package, right down to how you dress.
"You play the way you dress, you present yourself the way you dress, that's what Deion showed me," Lewis said. "If you're going into battle and you're ready, you look sharp, you look confident, the other side notices that. They understand, 'This person is serious.' "
To that end, Sanders used to lay out his uniform on the floor before each game, making sure it looked right before he put it on. Every little bit of the uniform had to be right, from the pants to the shoes to the gloves.
"Everything had to be perfect," Lewis said.
"It's Deion," Ochocinco said. "It's not even a question. Deion defined what that position was supposed to be. It was everything, the look, the talk, the success. He did it all."
Lewis had a harder time picking sides.
"Oh man, I can't pick that," Lewis said.
No, no, no, there has to be a winner.
"I'm going to take Shannon because most people will take Deion," Lewis said. "Shannon was unstoppable when it came to talking."
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