NFL: Sharper relishing his return to the Big Easy
By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
METAIRIE, La. — Darren Sharper's crutches are long gone.
He walks without a trace of a limp, nothing wrapped on his surgically repaired left knee.
He has a constant, knowing smile on his face, as if his return to the defending champion Saints — after testing free agency — is working out as planned.
"The luxury of the position I've been in and playing for the amount of years is that money is not a factor now," said Sharper, who'll be entering his 14th season next fall and is the NFL's active leader in interceptions with 63.
"It's playing on a winning team, enjoying what we experienced last year, feeling like playing with the guys in this locker room, playing in this city, was worth much more than money," he said.
After an All-Pro season, Sharper was bound to draw interest as a free agent, despite the fact that he'll turn 35 on Nov. 3 and is coming off a microfracture procedure that requires several months of patient rehabilitation to ensure that new cartilage forming in his knee joint holds firmly in place.
The New York Giants were among the teams showing interest in Sharper, who also visited Jacksonville shortly before he agreed to return to New Orleans for a base salary of nearly $1.6 million with bonuses of about $1 million tied to the number of games he plays.
"Sharp made it clear that it would take a very unique situation for him to leave what he considers the perfect place to play," Joel Segal, Sharper's agent, said of the five-time Pro Bowl player's return to the Saints.
Sharper became a fan favorite in one season in New Orleans, highlighted by his nine interceptions returned for an NFL single-season record 376 yards — with three interceptions brought back for touchdowns.
It wasn't only his play that brought the boisterous Louisiana Superdome crowd to its feet. On the sideline, he routinely engaged fans, leading them in team's well known cheer: "Who dat say dey gonna' beat dem Saints?"
He was a constant presence in New Orleans even while he was a free agent. He showed up — on crutches — for a premiere of the Saints' championship DVD in late March, attended several autograph sessions in the metro area and sat courtside at a number of New Orleans Hornets, standing up and acknowledging the roaring crowd each time he was shown on the video screen.
After all that, Sharper knew he'd have a tough time leaving, even though he was impressed by his meetings with the Jaguars.
"The city of Jacksonville is a little bit different than New Orleans and we all know that, and I just kind of grew a little bit of a bond here and that was a big part of me coming back," Sharper said.
Sharper attended the Saints' set of voluntary offseason practices this week but did not participate fully, still focusing on his rehabilitation.
He remains unsure of his status for minicamp June 4-6, but said he hopes to be full speed by training camp at the end of July.
"It could be before that," Sharper said. "I've been a fast healer in my career and I truly expect to do that ... and come back quicker than expected."
Coach Sean Payton has said Sharper looks good and that he expects him to regain a prominent role in the defense, as long as he focuses on his health.
"His role is hopefully the same. The key is going to be the rehabilitation of the injury and getting back into his playing shape," Payton said. "That's really where his challenge lies. He does have good instincts, a way of being around the ball and good ball skills. I think more important than anything else it is battling the health issues."
When Sharper's free-agent status lasted into May, fans in New Orleans were clearly nervous. At one point, Sharper found out about an idea being kicked about Internet chat sites for fans throughout the area to pledge a dollar or two each to a pool that might supplement whatever shortfall existed in the Saints' contract offer.
Sharper called that "the funniest thing" he saw during the offseason.
"I said, 'You don't have to do that. I'm all right,"' he recalled, chuckling.
In the end, Saints fans got what they wanted — and it seems Sharper did, too.
"You don't want to be a journeyman when it comes to the end of your career, but I still wanted to play football," Sharper said. "If it came to the point in my career where the only opportunity was to go somewhere else, I wanted to play, so it could have happened, but I was just happy that I was able to continue my career here and end the story right."