Darren Sharper is enjoying his finest year as a professional.
In the past, Packers safety Darren Sharper did what most motivational experts would insist is a necessary component for attaining success. He would meticulously script his personal goals, spending time to keep an updated list of both football and social objectives.
From interceptions to personality traits, Sharper wanted to plan his accomplishments.
What he noticed, however, was an unusually high occurrence of overachievement. He played more than expected, and when he did, Sharper put up better numbers than he originally projected. The modest four-year veteran assures that the results never have been perfect, but he felt confident enough in his abilities to try something new this year - placing no limits on himself and, as a result, halting his conventional goal-setting system.
"I just went out there with the attitude, 'Whatever's going to happen is going to happen,'" he now says. "I just wanted to go out and play, and so I ended up not writing any of my goals down. In my mind, I always have things that I want to improve on, and that's to become an overall better player in every area. Every day I'm going to work hard and push myself, never be complacent or satisfied with the level I'm at now."
He remembers a time when he was only one of a handful of people that gave him a chance to succeed in football. A high school quarterback, Sharper was injured his senior year and subsequently passed over by several major schools near his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. William & Mary, known much more for its prestigious scholastic credentials than for football, took full advantage of the other universities' oversight and recruited him as a potential double threat on offense and defense.
The decision for Sharper was academic.
"One of the things that my parents stressed to me was to go to a school that was not just a great football school," he says. "I wanted to go to a school that also had great academics. I just wanted to go out and play, and I looked at football as a way to get a scholarship to pay for my schooling. It just so happened that when I got to William & Mary, things started escalating to the point they are today."
By the time Sharper was selected as a first-team NCAA Division I-AA All-American in his junior season as a defensive back and punt returner, it became clear he would be able to put plans for a master's degree in sociology and a career in the FBI on hold.
Instead of immediately continuing his education, he was selected in the second round of the 1997 NFL draft (60th overall) by Green Bay, where he made an immediate impact in the Packers' second consecutive Super Bowl season.
Playing primarily at the cornerback position, Sharper scored three times during his rookie year -- twice on interceptions and once on a fumble return.
"It was an excellent experience for me," the current safety says, looking back on his cornerback role. "I wish I'd have played corner even more after that. I feel like the fact that I played cornerback early in my career really prepared me for the speed of the game and helped my coverage ability once I moved over to safety. Once I did move over, I didn't have to worry about who was coming at me at receiver because, as a rookie, I already had lined up against the best receivers. It allowed me to concentrate on other areas of being a good safety."
He now is enjoying his best season to date, sharing the league lead with 6 interceptions through 10 games and leading the Packers with 57 solo tackles and 16 passes defensed.
In typical fashion, Sharper deflects the escalating praise for his play and credits his teammates and this year's coaching staff for simply giving him the chance to be more active in the defensive backfield.
"This year, the coaches aren't putting any restrictions on me," he explains. "They're saying, 'Go out there and make plays. If you see something, and you want to jump a route, or you think the quarterback is going a certain way with the ball, go ahead and do that. Don't ever second-guess yourself - that's one of the first things they told me when they got here. It's been a combination of that and the players going out and getting the job done, knowing everybody's role and allowing each other to make plays."
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who brought the Packers' current defensive scheme from the Denver Broncos, says Sharper's play thus far has been solid and consistent.
"He's the type of player that can put a lot of pressure on an offense," Donatell says. "He allows us to do a lot of things with him. He can line up against receivers and also can cause offenses to change when you blitz him."
Sharper's brilliant play has created a buzz throughout the league that may result in his first post-season trip to Hawaii.
He cautions, though, that his team will carry his performance a long way.
"It's always one of those things where, when the team does well, you're going to receive those individual accolades," he says. "As long as we're winning, I know that if I continue to play well, I'll be going over to the Pro Bowl because I know my abilities allow me to do that."
Previously, that may have been on a long, written list of possible scenarios for Sharper. Now, he's just making it happen.