“Shannon’s a bodybuilder,” Rashid “Roc” Shabazz tells me. “If he had competed in bodybuilding instead of football, he might be Mr. Olympia now.”

Shannon Sharpe is arguably the greatest tight end to ever lace up cleats, and yet his true passion was not the gridiron; it was pumping iron. Now that his playing days are behind him, you might think he would do nothing more strenuous than swing a 7-iron or stroll to his seat on The NFL Today set. Instead, at age 38, he is pursuing his true passion with new abandon, achieving his all-time best conditioning for our photo shoot. In July, I journeyed to Atlanta, Georgia, to talk bodybuilding and football with the future NFL hall-of-famer, and to discover how Shabazz’s training and diet program brought out Sharpe’s sharpest shape ever.

FIRST QUARTER After playing wide receiver at Savannah State College (now Savannah State University), a Division 1-AA school, Sharpe was not highly touted when he was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the seventh round of the 1990 NFL Draft. With only seven receptions in his rookie season, he seemed bound for the sort of truncated pro football career that makes players joke that NFL is an acronym for “Not For Long.” However, in his second year, destiny intervened when he moved from wide receiver to tight end. At 6’2″ and 230, he was undersized for a tight end, a position based on blocking 300-pounders and snaring catches in front of linebackers, but his height was accentuated by long arms and “good hops” (in college, he also played basketball and competed in the triple jump), the 230 pounds were virtually fat free and he was, pound-for-pound, one of the strongest men in the NFL. Add to that the crucial truth that he had two of football’s surest hands. During his 12 years with the Broncos and two with the Baltimore Ravens, Sharpe caught more receptions (815), scored more touchdowns (62) and racked up more yards (10,060) than any other tight end in NFL history. He was an eight-time Pro Bowl player and a three-time Super Bowl champion. All the while, what he loved to do most was lift weights.

SECOND QUARTER “I didn’t really start training with weights until college,” Sharpe states. “In high school, we didn’t have much in the way of weights, and I was so much better than everyone else that I really didn’t have to lift. Then I remember my brother going off to college and coming back, and I was like Dang! He had changed a lot in a hurry.” Shannon’s older brother is Sterling Sharpe, a five-time Pro Bowl receiver with the Green Bay Packers and now, like Shannon, an NFL television analyst. “I always wanted to be like my brother. Throughout my life, I’ve been following his lead,” Shannon explains.

“In college, I started lifting weights and changing my body, and I was hooked. I was like an addict. When my teammates were going to parties at 10 o’clock at night, I’d be in the weight room. Eventually, football was like a byproduct, because I would’ve rather lifted than play football. Football allowed me to do what I really, really loved to do: lift weights. For me, benching was the thing. In college, you benched three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday; Tuesday and Thursday were for legs. I’m tall with long arms, so you wouldn’t think I’d be a good bencher, but I taught myself how to be good, and I was just naturally strong.”

Sharpe has always been wary of maximum singles and their potential for injury, but he’s benched more than 400 pounds for enough reps that he’s confident he could’ve benched at least 500. “I liked powerlifting first because I watched the strongman competitions with Bill Kazmaier, so I was always fascinated by strength.

“I remember back in 1985 when I heard Ted Arcidi was the first person to bench press 700 pounds – he got 705 – and that blew me away. I remember working out that day and thinking about how much that was.”

THIRD QUARTER If you’re surprised he can, off the top of his head, correctly name the year, powerlifter and weight of a record set more than two decades ago, just get him started talking bodybuilding. He attended his first bodybuilding contest in 1994, the Chicago Pro Invitational won by Mike Francois in his pro debut, and he’s been absent from only two of the last 10 Arnold Schwarzenegger Classics. (Unfortunately for him, the Mr. Olympia takes place during football season.) He’s bought nearly every bodybuilding magazine since 1990.

“I think the two best bodybuilders ever – just from an aesthetic point of view – are Flex Wheeler and Dexter Jackson,” Sharpe opines. “I like Ronnie [Coleman]. It’s unbelievable that anyone can be as big as Ronnie and still be as cut up as he is. He’s a freak of nature. But to me, right now, Dexter Jackson has the best body in the world.”

As we discuss bodybuilding, past and present, he tells me, “I can’t imagine not doing it. I say sometimes I’m going to go a week without lifting, but I can’t. Or I’m going to go a week without some form of cardio, but I can’t. I’ve always got to work out because that’s what I love doing. I don’t really have any other hobbies. Sometimes I’ll come to the gym two or three times a day, and people ask me if I wouldn’t rather relax. The enjoyment people get out of going to the mall or on vacation, that’s the kind of joy I get out of going to the gym and working out.”

FOURTH QUARTER Football strength training emphasizes compound exercises, such as bench presses, squats and power cleans. In his NFL years, Sharpe always did more bodybuilding exercises than his teammates. “Guys used to ask me, ‘Does looking like that help you?’ It probably didn’t help me [in football], but in my mind, I had to look a certain way and be a certain weight, and I knew that in order for me to look that way, I had to train and eat a certain way. I had to do the due diligence to be in the best possible shape to go out there and compete at the highest level and help my team.”

During his playing days, he returned to his Atlanta home in the offseason and trained under NPC official Ty “Ropeman” Felder and NPC competitor Darrell Monson. This year, when he witnessed the conditioning Shabazz attained for his IFBB debut at the San Francisco Pro, he enlisted Shabazz, who trains several pro athletes at The Gym of Buckhead. (Called “the Beverly Hills of the South,” Buckhead is an affluent Atlanta community.) The mission was to whip Sharpe into competition-level shape, and the eventual target date was an important milestone in any bodybuilder’s life: his first FLEX photo shoot. When Shabazz started training Sharpe in late March, he weighed 257. Less than four months later, on the day of our shoot, Sharpe had reached his goal of returning to his playing weight of 230.

“He’s very regimented, and I’m really proud of him because he followed the program verbatim,” Shabazz says. “I have guys who train for bodybuilding shows who aren’t as consistent as he is.”

Shabazz believes in training people with similar goals together as teams, so he typically grouped Sharpe with such pro athletes as Rod Gardner of the Green Bay Packers, Takeo Spikes of the Buffalo Bills, Gibril Wilson of the New York Giants and retired NBA star Nick Anderson. The routine featured reps as high as 50 and circuit training to build explosiveness and endurance, but Shabazz also devised exercises designed specifically to accentuate Sharpe’s physique.

“Roc has really shown me a different way of training – how to squeeze the muscle to keep tension on it, and how to bring the bar in at different angles to bring out parts of the muscles,” Sharpe says. “I always wanted to challenge myself and go heavy. But I started thinking, I’m 38 years old, I’m retired from football, and I can’t use really heavy weights or I’ll grow too much and weigh 300. I told Roc, ‘Yeah, I like being big, but I have to be on TV and I have to fit in my clothes.’ I mean, I like shopping, but it’s not cost-effective if I have to buy all new suits.”

The high reps, peak contractions, new angles and fast pace of the routine Shabazz designed accentuated the shape and details of Sharpe’s muscles, but it was the cardio (initially eight to 10 hours per week) and low-carb high-protein diet that helped shed 27 pounds.

“I went to hell and back,” Sharpe says with a grin. “I wouldn’t wish the last three days on anybody. I’ve always been disciplined about what I eat, but this was a whole new level. I was already on low carbs, and then cut the carbs to damn near nothing. I went from three quarts to two quarts to a quart of water [daily] and still did cardio. The mundaneness of the diet is what’s hard, and then at the end, you just can’t find much energy anywhere.” He adds, referring to competitive bodybuilders like Shabazz, “I tell you, I have a whole new respect for these guys.”

OVERTIME “I’ve always been in pretty good shape. Even at 257, I had only 8% bodyfat. Right now I’m probably down to four or five [percent]. I’m going to try to stay under 10 [percent] as long as I’m alive.” Then Sharpe adds with a deep laugh, “I’m not going to walk around at 4% though, I know that. I’ll probably go back up to about 250 and stick there.”

In the dog days of the diet that led to this shoot and interview, Shabazz gave Sharpe a photo of Jackson posing at the 2004 Arnold Classic, which the NFL legend stuck to his refrigerator for motivation – not that he needs much incentive to train all-out and eat lean. It’s what he’s long done and what he has no intention of ever stopping. But first, sitting across from me in the Steak ‘n Shake after the last photos were snapped, he’s going to savor a double steakburger (with cheese and bacon), chili and fries, and wash it all down with a cookies-and-cream milk shake. It’s pig-out time. Shannon Sharpe is a bodybuilder, after all, and in attaining the shape of his life when most retired athletes are going soft, he just won his own personal contest – the only kind that truly matters.

Shannon Sharpe talks football.
– New era “One of the biggest changes in the NFL over the past 15 years is a lot more emphasis on nutrition. Football players have learned from bodybuilders. You’ll see a lot more protein shakes and other supplements. Strength conditioning coaches put that extra emphasis on it. A lot of it is about money. When I came into the league, the minimum [salary] was $60,000. Now, guys are making a minimum of [nearly] $300,000. So teams want to protect those investments, and guys want to stay in the league as long as possible. So there’s a lot more emphasis on things like year-round training and nutrition today.”

– Football Physiques “There have been three guys during my 14 years of playing in the National Football League of whom I said if I didn’t have the body I have, I’d like to be built like him: Ty Poole, Priest Holmes and Ray Jacobs.”

– Steroids in the NFL “I don’t think steroids are that prevalent because guys don’t have guaranteed contracts, so if they get caught with steroids, that can hurt or even end their career. I’m not going to be naive and say no one in the NFL does them out of 1,800 guys, because I don’t think any sport is free of drugs. But I think it’s a small percentage.”

– 2006 NFL Season “There’s been so much turnover of major athletes that I cannot tell you with any degree of certainty what’s going to happen this year. Every good team is an injury away from being a bad team. As long as there aren’t any major injuries, you have to like the Patriots, the Colts and the Panthers. There’s no way Pittsburgh repeats.”

– 2006 Sleeper Team Jacksonville Jaguars

– Super Bowl Prediction Carolina Panthers vs. Indianapolis Colts