As the National Football League starts its 82nd season, the league has seen its growth expand exponentially in the United States and abroad. Football has unquestionably become this country’s most popular form of sport with the combination of high impact action and media-driven craze. For twenty weeks out of each calendar year, numerous fans go on a rollercoaster ride while cheering on their teams during their inevitable climatic rise and precipitous fall. There have been few players to change the game of football, but five-time Pro Bowl honoree and Super Bowl champion, Darren Sharper was one of those who left their indelible mark on the game. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s. During his illustrious career, he was known as a playmaking safety, emblematic leader and a driving force on the defensive side of the ball.

EBONY recently sat down with Darren Sharper to discuss his beginnings, career and life after football.

EBONY: At what point in your life did you think becoming a professional football player was an attainable goal?

DS: After my junior year in college, my coach brought me into the football office and there was a scout who had come to scout my tape from my junior season. I was a two-time Conference All-American at my position. Scouts began to take notice. The scout sat me down and told me that I had the possibility of one day playing in the NFL. He critiqued my game and told me what I needed to do to make it to the next level. This is when it really hit home for me that I had a chance to play in the NFL.

EBONY: During your career, you’ve broken and set records. As you look back, what are some of your most memorable achievements on the field?

DS: Making the Pro Bowl in my fourth season was a big step for me because it put me in the category as one of the premier players at my position in the league. Going to the Super Bowl my rookie year was a good experience; but we lost the game, so it wasn’t really a highlight for me. Having the chance to go to multiple Pro Bowls was a good marker for my career. Winning several division crowns with Green Bay and Minnesota was also fun. My crowning achievement has to be winning a Super Bowl in my thirteenth year in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints. It is definitely the best achievement that I look back on and have the most appreciation for.

EBONY: How did it feel playing in the NFL at the same time as your brother, Jamie and your childhood friends, Shawn Barber and James Farrior?

DS: It was always exciting to not only have a brother, but close friends playing in the NFL at the same time I was playing. We would always have conversations about things we would be going through, especially earlier in our careers because we had someone to lean on. It was easy to get advice about certain things whether it was being a rookie and going through adjustments to make it in the NFL and to try to become successful. James and my brother came into the league as starters. Whereas, myself and Shawn had to work our way up to our starting positions so in certain instances like that we would be able to get information and advice from each other. We would also work out together in the offseason. It’s one of the experiences I can look back on and really appreciate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      EBONY: How has the game of football progressed or regressed since you came into the NFL as a rookie?

DS: When I first came into the league, it was a more balanced league as far as offense goes. Offenses weren’t throwing the ball all over the field. The game was a lot more physical than it is now. Guys are now getting flagged and fined for hits that were legal when I first came into the league. Back then, it was a more lenient NFL than it is now. The new commissioner, Roger Goodell is cracking down on all of the unnecessary stuff that he feels takes away from the game like the illegal hits on guys, who are defenseless and hits on the quarterback.

When I first came into the league, you could really get after and knock quarterbacks around. This is just stuff within the game. Outside of the game, the business around the league has exploded. When I first came into the league and attended the NFL combine in Indianapolis, Indiana, you would be there to work out and be interviewed by some newspapers and there might be one of the local TV stations there for coverage. Now, it’s a big production. It’s on ESPN, NFL Network and you have sponsors that buy into it. It just shows you how big the NFL has gotten with the big TV contracts and sponsors. There is so much more money going around because of the league.

EBONY: Can you tell me more about your current job as an analyst for NFL Total Access on the NFL Network?

DS: I’m excited about the opportunity to work with guys who are Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers and guys who have had outstanding careers in the NFL. I love having the opportunity to continue to work around this great game that has done so much for me. I’m extremely happy about it because when guys retire from the league they don’t get the opportunities to do what they love. I’m still getting the opportunity and I’m definitely appreciative of it. It is also good because I get a chance to talk about the game and give fans my perspective that they couldn’t see when I played. When I would analyze the game, I would be in the locker room or at my house talking to my friends. Now, I get a chance to voice my opinion about different aspects of the game that people might not know about and give them a different view on football.

EBONY: When did you decide on starting your non-profit organization, Sharper Kids Foundation and what are some of the program’s initiatives?

DS: I started the Sharper Kids Foundation with my brother after my third year in the league. Our initial plans were to set up after school programs for kids in the communities that we were based out of. For me, it was Green Bay where I was first drafted then we launched the foundation in our hometown, Richmond, VA. My brother was drafted to the Baltimore Ravens so we set up shop there as well. As we moved on to different cities, we wanted to spread the message of the foundation. We wanted to find a way to give back and our foundation was a perfect avenue for us to do that. We’re still active with the foundation. I’m doing a lot of work in New Orleans and all over the country. We’re still striving to do these great things today.

Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.