There, just like here, the excitement is building. Inside, the same as on the outside, the chatter is about the Arizona Cardinals. Across the yard of the Florence (Ariz.) Correctional Institute, men in orange jumpsuits are talking about the Super Bowl. There are those who have just jumped aboard the Cardinals bandwagon, and there are others who cling to their doubts. When the discussion reaches the big man from unit E-36, he simply smiles. And for a minute, Luis Sharpe allows his mind to drift. What if? What if he had stayed clean? Sharpe, yesterday's hero, sighs heavily. Perhaps he could have worked for the Cardinals, his old team. Perhaps he might be a television analyst. Perhaps he could have been someone, anyone, in the middle of this Super Bowl. "I think about how different things might have been every day," Sharpe, 48, says by telephone. "Every day. But I threw it all away with the choices I made." Once, when he was young and strong, Sharpe was the best of the Cardinals — a tough, talented left tackle who made three straight Pro Bowls (1987-89) despite playing for an awful team and spending his Sunday afternoons blocking the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Dexter Manley.
In those days, there were two things you could count on in Phoenix: high temperatures and No. 67.
These days, Sharpe's number is 122301. Still, inmates tend to recognize the 6-foot-8, 250-pound man. He laughs as he describes the scenes around Florence, which has suddenly become Cardinal country as the inmates gather to watch the games on a television in a common room.
He is in the early stages of a six-year sentence at Florence, the punishment of a lifetime in which crack cocaine seemed to mean more to him than family, than football, than anything. It is all gone, the life that could have been, stuffed into foil and up in smoke.
Twice, he has been shot while cruising for drugs. He has spent tens of thousands of dollars. He spent nights at crack houses and seedy hotels and the backs of cars. The big house is gone, and his wife has divorced him, and these days, the mention of his name causes an Arizona fan to shake his head at the waste.
"The losses are tremendous," said Sharpe, sentenced in 2008 to prison. "It's an addiction. If cocaine wasn't so powerful, we wouldn't have all of the social ills affiliated with it. It's the devil, in my opinion. The devil was put on this earth to kill, to steal and to destroy men, women and children. That's what drugs do. They're the devil."
Life was so good, but the lure of drugs was so strong. It didn't matter that Sharpe made millions as a player. It didn't matter that Sharpe was popular. It didn't matter when he got a walk-on part in the movie Waiting to Exhale.
"I never robbed nobody, never stole anything and, thank God, I never sold the (stuff)," Sharpe told the Phoenix New Times in 1996. "But I was flat crazy. Didn't change my clothes sometimes for two or three days. Didn't brush my teeth. I'd be riding down there (in south Phoenix) at 2 in the morning. Stood out like a sore thumb, but I wasn't afraid and I didn't carry a weapon."
Once, his friends took him to the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs. He stayed less than a day, left and found crack. A few days later, he paid a cabbie $550 to take him back to Phoenix.
Sharpe is different now, he says. He sees his story as one of redemption, not of recidivism. He talks quickly and firmly, insisting that when he gets out (his scheduled release date is 2013), it will be different from the other four times he was released from jail since 1995. He comes across as bright and charming, as the sober version of Sharpe always has, as many drug abusers often do.
"The only thing I can do is make the changes I need to make," he said. "There will be a day when I'm released. I still have a chance to overcome all of these obstacles, and I still believe I will.
"I think I'll be able to talk to young people when I get out. I can tell them, 'You're not above the law. You're not indestructible.' It all stems from how you think. Look at Pacman Jones. Look at all the others."
Throughout Sharpe's history, however, he has never taken to sobriety. Sharpe was reckless, and he was self-destructive, and nothing could change that for very long. Not the failure of his marriage. Not the public embarrassment when his problems hit the headlines. Was the crack really worth it? Does it feel like 50 touchdowns? Does it feel like 100 victories? Is it worth everything?
"Every day I wake up, it's a blessing," Sharpe said. "It's by the grace of God that I'm still alive, and it's by the grace of God that I'm still in my right mind. That's the only reason He didn't let those two shooters kill me. That's the only reason I haven't lost my mind."
There were times he wondered. Last summer, for instance, his daughter, Leah, 23, was found murdered in a Phoenix alley. Leah, too, had served time for drugs and theft. When her body was discovered — she had been shot — it led Sharpe back to drugs.
"I don't like talking about it," Sharpe said. "I get so angry and so hurt. It's the toughest thing I've ever dealt with, and it's one of the reasons I had a relapse."
Does Sharpe think his own problems led to those of his daughter?
"I'm sure they contributed," he says quietly. "I'm sure it wasn't easy for her to grow up with a father who had drug problems."
When he gets out, Sharpe says, he is going to get married to a woman named Melody Burton.
Burton first met Sharpe 11 years ago when she worked as a pretrial officer (she did not remember him as a player). The romance did not begin until after Sharpe was incarcerated last year.
"I wasn't looking for this, but life happens," Burton said. "He's a wonderful man. He's the consummate gentleman. Most people know him from what they've heard about him, but I've had the pleasure of hearing it from his own words. That's one of the reasons I didn't give up on him. I trust him.''
In the meantime, Sharpe is looking forward to Sunday's game. Throughout the playoffs, he has insisted to his fellow inmates that the Cardinals were one of those teams that got hot at the right time.
"I'm kind of living vicariously through their success," he said. "That offensive line has played great. They have a quarterback in Kurt Warner who is up there in age and doesn't scramble much, and they've still kept him upright. I would love to play for this team."
It wasn't this way in Sharpe's days. In 14 seasons, the Cardinals won only 78 games. Still, Sharpe has praise for the Bidwills, the family that owns the team.
"The Bidwills have been as gracious and supportive as they come," he said. "Three years ago, they gave me a chance at employment. Mr. B (Bill Bidwill) gave me a game jersey. I have nothing but respect for him."
For the record, Sharpe thinks the Cardinals are going to win 27-21 on Sunday. He thinks Warner will throw for more than 300 yards. He thinks Bidwill will look just fine holding up the Lombardi Trophy.
Somewhere in the desert, behind the locked doors, the caged bird will cheer.
Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.