MIAMI — All week long, Darren Sharper has been quizzed about the secret to his longevity.
Finally, the word is out: It's sandpits.
Alas, it is not some magical combination of rare herbs, nothing supernatural, nor a priceless piece of advice that he has put to use.
No, just sandpits. Lots of 'em.
The Saints' All-Pro safety is 34 and has been playing a brutal sport for 13 grueling seasons. Yet, in the twilight of his career, he produces arguably his best season to date, making a liar of conventional wisdom.
That's where those sandpits come in.
Each year, just prior to training camp, Sharper subjects himself to more than a month of physical punishment that routinely pushes him to the brink. Since early in his career, he has sought the help of famed trainer Tom Shaw, who these days conducts his pre-training camp, rear-end-kicking sessions at Disney's Wide World of Sports.
There's nothing remotely fun about the workouts, but if they have contributed to Sharper being where he is today — heading into Sunday's Super Bowl XLIV — then those sessions have been well worth the pain, of which there's a lot. Running in those sandpits is not exactly easy on the legs.
"I think there's a direct connection with the longevity that I've had in the league," he said Thursday at the team hotel.
"I started with them going into my fourth year in the league and just the regimen that (Shaw) puts us through really prepares us for training camp. … and the long season. I really saw my play elevate after I started working out."
Some might say he's getting better still.
Sharper tied a career high with nine interceptions and was the catalyst behind a reshaped, ball-hawking defense that is responsible for finally making New Orleans a more complete team. What the defense lacked statistically (it didn't rank higher than 20th in any primary defensive category), it made up for in attitude. Sharper, who plays with equal doses of aggression and emotion, has been the unit's heart and soul.
New Orleans might not be known for defense, but the Saints couldn't care less.
So, what if they gave up 357 yards per game in the regular season? It does an opponent no good if the drive ends in a turnover, as many did. And if opponents reach the red zone, so be it. The Saints ranked second in the league in red zone defense, giving up a touchdown just 39.3 percent of the time. And don't forget the eight defensive touchdowns, most in the NFL this season.
Sharper had three of them.
It's hard not to think that Sharper's league-record 376 interception-return yards in 2009 had something to do with him being in better shape than his competitors. Even Deion Sanders and Ed Reed are looking up at Sharper on that list. He went 97 yards for a touchdown on Sept. 20 after picking off the Eagles' Kevin Kolb, then two weeks later took one back 99 yards against the Jets' Mark Sanchez.
When he doesn't score, his teammates tend to think something's wrong.
"I think we as a secondary give him a hard time when he doesn't score," cornerback Jabari Greer said. "He kind of established a precedent early. So, when he doesn't score, we don't give him much slack."
Sharper laughs off his teammates' jokes, but his training and nutrition routine is no laughing matter. He is meticulous about his diet, methodical with his use of the cold tub, and conditioning is about as important as breathing.
That's where those summertime workouts are key. Well-conditioned athletes are less susceptible to injury, and it goes without saying that a player who lasts 13 seasons hasn't had many of those.
"The fact that you go down there for five weeks before training camp means you go into training camp and don't really have to worry about injuries," Sharper said. "And you can take that with you throughout the season."
Without his staying power, there's no way Sharper could've amassed his stellar resume. He leads active players with 63 interceptions and ranks sixth all time. Only Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson (12) has more interception-return touchdowns than Sharper (11).
Those stifling Central Florida afternoons have been beneficial.
"We do all different types of workouts, whether it's speed and agility work, whether it's conditioning, the weights — everything," he said. "We have a drill that we usually do on the last day of every week where you basically run until you pass out. It's sprints. You get a five-second rest and then it's another sprint. It's gassers up and down hills.
"And, man, we run in those sandpits."
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.