<span style="">The College of William & Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia is world renowned for many things: the second oldest college in the United States of America, the school that produced degrees for President's such as Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler and James Monroe, and as the founding institution for Phi Beta Kappa, the premier academic honor society in America.</span>
It would stand to reason that few students from one of the most prestigious colleges in the world would elect to pursue a career in the rough-and-tumble world of professional football, but two of the most amazing success stories in recent years on the NFL landscape both have strong ties to the venerable institution that lies in the heart of colonial Williamsburg.
Newly signed Saints safety Darren Sharper, the NFL's active interception leader with 54 career picks, and Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin not only were teammates at William & Mary, but also fraternity brothers and close friends. Sharper, 33, and Tomlin, 34, have turned out to be the epitome of NFL high-achievers.
Said Sharper of the success that has followed the Super Bowl winning head coach, "When he was a defensive coordinator - he actually coached me in Minnesota for a year - I could tell he had the makings of being a head coach by just his presence, his knowledge of the game, and how he was able to motivate all players."
Sharper, a four-time Pro Bowler who will be entering his 13th NFL season after being selected in the second round of the Green Bay Packers in 1997, is a native of Richmond who takes his football and his intellectual pursuits seriously.
He has gained valuable experience playing in a variety of defenses and has earned his reputation as one of the most opportunistic ball-hawks and playmakers in the vaunted history of the NFL and looks forward to bringing his penchant for making plays to the Saints' secondary.
"I'm excited to bring leadership to this team, and I'm excited to bring playmaking ability," Sharper said of his decision to join the Saints via unrestricted free agency. "That's what I have always tried to do and had the good fortune of doing throughout my career."
Tomlin is among a large group of football insiders that appreciate the skills, abilities and leadership qualities that Sharper brings to a team. When asked what the Saints will be getting with the addition of Sharper to the defensive backfield, Tomlin said: "They will get a competitor. A guy that's got a desire to be great, a guy that's got a reputation and a resume. And truth be known, what he's missing is the Lombardi (the Super Bowl trophy). And I think that's what drives him. And I think those are the kind of guys you want on your football team."
Sharper said, at the end of the day, his hunger and desire to play for the "Lombardi" was the driving factor in his decision to join the Black-and-Gold. "This is a team that is getting close," he said. "The only thing left to do is win a championship."
Another newcomer, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, one of the most respected architects in the NFL, was one of the main reasons Shaper chose the Saints when other options were clearly available.
"When I started free agency, the Saints were one of the teams at the top of my list. I know the relationship between me and (defensive coordinator Gregg Williams) will be a great one, and I'm excited to play for Sean Payton. He's going to let playmakers be playmakers," Sharper said.
Saints Head Coach Sean Payton is among those that admire what Sharper can bring to not only the football field, but the locker room and meeting rooms, as well. "He's a guy that obviously we spent a lot of time on (studying), and we're excited that we could add him to the mix on defense to help improve our secondary play," the head coach said. "He's a player with extremely good ball skills. I am certain his experience is going to help."
Sharper's journey from Richmond to William & Mary and through the NFC North battle grounds holds a special place in his heart, because he knows the road he has taken to NFL success is, indeed, the road less traveled.
"I guess coming from where I came from, William & Mary, which is a small school, you don't even know if you are going to get drafted, let alone play in the NFL," Sharper said. "I was fortunate enough to have a good rookie year, played cornerback and honed my coverage skills and then adapted to playing safety, which has served me well. Through it all I have really learned the meaning of perseverance. I've kept working hard to put myself in the position to have the career I've had thus far."
Saints' Executive Vice President/General Manager Mickey Loomis said that team had many reasons to sign Sharper as a free agent. "I think, number one, you have to look at his résumé and how long he's been in the league," Loomis said. "He's had success and made plays. I think if you look at what we've got at the back end right now, most of our guys are in the front end of their career.
"I think adding some experience to that group with a veteran who's had some success -- a lot of success," Loomis said.
Success appears to be of a hereditary nature for Sharper, as his older brother, Jamie, played nine seasons in the NFL as a linebacker for Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks, and amassed 882 tackles, 25.5 sacks and earned a Super Bowl XXXV trophy as a member of the Ravens. "I outlasted my brother in the NFL and know I can play into the next decade," Darren said. "He's at home now enjoying retirement, but I have a lot left still I want to accomplish."
Thus the younger Sharper, who in his free time away from the football field has started to pursue a career in broadcasting, knows that goal is something he will have to address down the line. "One day I want to get into broadcasting and be a color analyst for pro and college football games," he said. "I went to the NFL Network's football boot camp a few years ago and also was able to work some games in NFL Europe. It's something that interests me, but I'm very happy doing what I am doing now and being a Saint."
Spoken like a true scholar.