Sharper to the rescue

Safety Darren Sharper is making a habit of answering the Packers' biggest challenges this season, on and off the field. He's more than happy to talk about getting those jobs done and getting his team where he wants to go this season.<P>

The retirement of LeRoy Butler left a hole not only in the defense, but also in the lockerroom where Butler was the unofficial "go-to guy" who was quotable on every subject. In steps Sharper, now a sports page fixture.

When a lackadaisical practice session had coach Mike Sherman steamed enough to call an additional full-pads practice, Sharper was vocal in his support of the coach and team. His leadership turned a bad day on the practice field into a surprisingly enthusiastic extra workout.

So when the Packers needed a reversal of fortune Monday night at Lambeau, it came as no shock that Sharper provided the spark. Sharper recovered the football after Cletidus Hunt swatted down a Browns field goal attempt, then charged 35 yards into the end zone. The safety finished the feat with the first Lambeau Leap of the preseason. The TD brought the Packers to within four points and changed the momentum for good.

Also no surprise: Sharper had plenty to say on the topic.

"It was one of the plays that we needed to have happen at that time of the game because it seemed as though Cleveland couldn't do anything wrong," Sharper said. "(Hunt) got an excellent push from Hardy Nickerson and put up his big hand and got a paw on it, similar to the play he made against San Francisco in the playoff game last year," Sharper said. "Then I saw the ball fly up in the air and I thought (Erwin) Swiney was going to catch it on the fly, but he dropped it, like most rookies do when they have a chance to make a big play.

"The ball went right through his hands and I was thinking to myself, watch this ball, it's going to keep spitting out, it's going to keep spitting out," he continued. "So I just kept trailing the ball, trailing the ball, waiting for my chance to pick it up. Finally it spit off some more and I said, I'm not going to just dive on this thing, I'm going to try to pick it up and score with it. Right when I picked it up, I could have sworn somebody was trying to trip me up because I kept stumbling and I was able to keep my feet and get into the end zone."

The TD wasn't the only play on Sharper's highlight reel Monday. He dominated the second quarter, starting with his punishing hit that brought down Andre' Davis after a 5-yard reception, Sharper was in on four consecutive plays to almost single-handedly halt a Browns drive.

"Every time I go out, whether it's preseason or regular season, I just try to play hard and hopefully good things will come my way," Sharper said. "Early on in they game, they return a kickoff for a touchdown and everyone on the field could feel the air go out of the stadium. Going into the first drive, I felt that we were out there for about 100 plays, they kept moving the ball, moving the ball, then they scored on a pass play. I just felt like we were really down as a team. I was just telling myself, try to make a play, try to make a play, but don't rush anything, be patient. That's what happened in the second quarter is a lot of things started coming in my direction and I every time I made a play, whether it was a tackle or breaking up a pass, get excited so that hopefully our defense could feed off of it."

Sharper has made it no secret that his goals for this season stretch well into 2003. The loss at St. Louis wasn't the best send-off for Sharper's trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. This year, he's determined to go back to Honolulu, but this time with another ring to show off when he gets there. The fifth-year pro said he felt that determination more than ever when the Packers finally made their debut at the improved Lambeau Field Monday."

"It definitely still has that Lambeau mystique. When we came out before the game through the tunnel and you could hear the fans, it might be even more exciting because the tunnel is longer," Sharper said. "You have a longer time to get that feeling of hearing the crowd roar because they know you're coming out. I tell you what, I've been missing that feeling for a while and it's good to get back here playing in a home game and playing in front of our fans."

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