Shannon Sharpe’s legendary, 14-year career in the NFL won him three Super Bowl championships with the Denver Broncos and the Baltimore Ravens. But in 2016, things took a surprising turn: Away from the public eye, the high-profile Hall of Famer was secretly battling prostate cancer. Sharpe is now urging others to undergo routine screening, which he credits with catching his cancer while it was still highly curable. “Me, being unafraid, I knew it could possibly save my life—and it did,” he said in a video posted to Twitter earlier this week.
In ending his silence, he has also opened up about the reason that he kept his condition quiet for so long. Read on to learn the heartbreaking reason he suffered in silence, and why he’s now making a point of speaking out.
READ THIS NEXT: The “Controversial” Way Ben Stiller Learned He Had Cancer.
Sharpe had an extensive family history of cancer, which compelled him to get routine screenings since retiring from the NFL in 2003. “My dad died at 39. Another brother, he died in his mid forties. And the other died in his late 40s, early 50s. So all that’s going through my mind. So absolutely, I’m getting checked out all the time,” he recently told People.
In fact, the athlete told the magazine that “everything felt fine” leading up to the routine screening that would ultimately reveal his prostate cancer diagnosis. “I felt fine. I was exercising, eating right, drinking plenty of water, no really bad habits or anything. I thought it was going to be routine,” he said. “I’ve fractured my eye socket, broken my collarbone, dislocated my elbow. I tore a rib cartilage, separated both of my shoulders. Those are things you can feel… I felt normal. There was no transformation in my body, I didn’t lose weight. There was no pain, no nothing, and if you had just looked at me, I looked like the picture of health.”
READ THIS NEXT: Cancer Survivor Rita Wilson Says She Stopped Eating This After Her Diagnosis.
There’s no good time to learn you have cancer, but Sharpe’s diagnosis came at an especially inopportune moment, he says. Just one month later, he was slated to move to Los Angeles for a co-hosting job on FS1 opposite famed sports columnist and commentator Skip Bayless. “It was difficult… this was my dream job,” he explained to People. “I had been wanting this job for so long and I had been given an opportunity that Skip believed in me. I was going to be a co-host of a daily debate show that we talked about football, basketball, track and field, golf, tennis, social issues. I was the first athlete to do what I do full-time.”
But his primary concern was how his illness might affect his family if he didn’t survive. “Like I said, my dad died at 39. He had another brother that died in his mid 40s. Another brother died in his late early 50s. That’s direct. That’s my dad. That’s my two uncles. I mean, he never got a chance to see me and my brother play in the NFL. The only thing I could do is give my son my dad’s name and tell him about my dad. I tell him about his granddad or tell my daughters about their granddad. So they never got an opportunity to sit on my dad’s lap, to go to his home and get candies or have him take them somewhere. They never got that opportunity. Well, I wanted that opportunity for my grandkids,” he said.
Sharpe kept his diagnosis private—even from much of his own family—for “at least a year,” he says. “Only four people knew at the time—my brother and sister and my girlfriend at the time. I didn’t tell my mom, I didn’t tell my kids. I didn’t tell anybody,” he told People, adding that he “didn’t want to worry” everyone.
“The last thing I need you to do is worry about something that you can’t control. You worrying is going to make me worry and that wasn’t going to help our situation,” he told the magazine. When he finally did reveal his health struggle, his children took it well, he says. “I think they understood that Dad is strong. Dad can do it. Dad does a great job of compartmentalizing,” he recalled.
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
At the time of his diagnosis, Sharpe says he was unaware of how racial disparities could play a role in cancer diagnosis and care. Now, he’s spreading the word about the importance of screening and prompt treatment within the Black community.
“What I want to do now is break down the stigma—do not be afraid to go to the doctor,” Sharpe told People. “We need to give Black people more access to healthcare, and then once we get better access to healthcare, don’t be afraid to go use it. Do not be afraid to just ask questions of your doctor. Do not be afraid to get screened because it could save your life. Now they mentioned there’s a 96 percent survival rate if you get screened and it gets detected early. I’m a part of that 96 percent. See, I can speak this. I’m not a paid actor. I lived this. I’ve been there. I can tell you that this could save your life. Saved my life. I’m living proof.”
With all his accomplishments on and off the field, Sharpe says he now prizes his health and time spent with his family above all. “At the end of the day, really all I have now is my health. It’s the most important commodity that I possess.”