Warren Sapp's HOF legacy connects Bucs' past, present
AUG 02, 2013 6:37p ET
On this July afternoon, Sapp is in his element. This is a time of nostalgia before he is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle is in a different phase of his life, but his heart has never left a time when he roamed Raymond James Stadium in a pewter-and-red No. 99 uniform, play matching his passion.
"I never thought of the Hall of Fame," he says. "I never dreamed of the Hall of Fame."
Sapp has lived a dream for six months. Since he was elected into the Hall of Fame in February before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, in his first year of eligibility, he has had time to reflect on what made him one of the NFL's greatest players.
The numbers reveal one legacy: He earned 96.5 sacks, seven Pro Bowl appearances and was named a First-Team All-Pro four times. The reflections show another: He was part of an era when the Bucs' remade themselves, turning the franchise from a place "where careers came to die" into a destination.
A transformation is obvious as Sapp speaks. He is standing in the same building where guard Carl Nicks, a two-time Pro Bowl player, and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a three-time Pro Bowl player, entered as coveted free agents last year. He is standing in the same building where cornerback Darrelle Revis, a four-time Pro Bowl player, was introduced after an April trade with the New York Jets that sparked renewed interest.
For Sapp, a sense of pride is clear, his legacy here determined. As the Bucs have moved on, he has influenced their present. Evidence of his impact is never far away.
"I played the game for the love and respect of the people I played with and against," he says. "And if you were picking a team, (and) you had a defensive tackle position, I'm taking 99. And twice on Sunday."
Sapp's legacy lives with the past. It's shown in Ronde Barber standing outside One Buc Place during a training camp practice, transitioning into a post-football life of his own.
The former Bucs defensive back announced his retirement in May after 16 seasons. Early in his career, he saw Sapp become one of the era's most feared defensive linemen.
Sapp entered the NFL as a raw No. 12 overall pick from the University of Miami in 1995, someone who was skeptical of Tampa Bay as a positive destination. From 1997 to 2003, Barber and Sapp were teammates, and Sapp's influence in changing the franchise's culture became known.
"I've played with a lot of great players, and he is at the top of the list of deserving guys to be there," says Barber, who plans to be at the induction. "I'm glad to share it with him."
Barber was witness to a complex man. Sapp became a hot-and-cold personality to some teammates and reporters. He could serve as a mentor but also be quick to snap. Polarized opinions about him carry to this day.
Still, Barber joined Sapp as part of a group that revamped a tattered franchise. Tampa Bay stumbled through 12 consecutive losing seasons before drafting Sapp. By 1997, the Bucs clinched their first playoff berth since the 1982 season. Tampa Bay went on to reach the playoffs each year from 1999 to 2002, including a Super Bowl title after the 2002 campaign.
"We grew together," Sapp says. "From 12 straight double-digit loss (seasons), and then me and (linebacker Derrick) Brooks walk in, and (former coach) Sam (Wyche) wants to put us in orange-on-orange the last game of the year. ... It was special."
Sapp's physical traits impressed, but the secret was found in his football intellect. He picked up skills with speed and precision. Simeon Rice, a former Bucs defensive end who played with Sapp from 2001 to 2003, recalls Sapp being so athletic that he could shoot a basketball smoothly with both hands.
Sapp's history remains part of the men who shared it with them, even as time has passed. He left Tampa Bay for the Oakland Raiders after the 2003 season. He retired four years later.
But here, when it comes to No. 99, the past is never too distant.
"There's no way," Barber says, "I was missing out on going to Canton."
Sapp's legacy lives in the present. It's shown in rookie defensive linemen William Gholston and Akeem Spence speaking after an August practice about lessons learned.
Both are only beginning their careers, but they watched Sapp tear through NFC offenses growing up. When given the chance, they study his tape and try to pick up nuances: His quick first step off the ball, rip moves and other counter measures to create distance against offensive linemen when chasing a quarterback.
Careers end. The teaching never stops.
"His first step off the ball was tremendous, his relentlessness," says Gholston, a defensive end. "I'm playing inside, too, so I want to mirror some of the moves."
"When I do get some time around here," says Spence, a defensive tackle, "I try to turn on his film and steal a couple things."
Sapp's influence has remained. He has shared his opinion on the current Bucs: They are an offensive juggernaut with enough potential, starring running back Doug Martin and wide receiver Vincent Jackson, to make him think, "Oh my God." Still, he wants to see the defensive front develop, to play with the same bite that he showed in his prime. He knows personal drive matters. Recently, he challenged defensive end Da'Quan Bowers by saying, "Last time I checked, if you wore pewter and red, you hunted the quarterback here."
"Sapp's a good friend and a good mentor," Bowers says. "If I can play with the kind of intensity that that guy played with all those years, hopefully you guys will be asking me about the next generation sooner or later."
That is another angle to Sapp's influence. Players come and go, but his shadow lingers within a franchise 18 years after he arrived and 10 after he left. The greats teach after they are gone. Their reputations inspire.
His induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a personal achievement, but the recognition holds collective power, too. Within One Buc Place, for decades to come, he will be a standard, a model, much like former defensive lineman Lee Roy Selmon became. His greatest legacy is found in his influence on those playing this fall and his impression on others to come later.
"When you go watch him practice, you'll realize that's how he became the player he was," Bucs coach Greg Schiano says. "We're trying to create that atmosphere here. If you work in practice, the games will take care of themselves."
Back behind the microphone, Sapp is living large. Listening to him becomes an event. The experience is part stand-up comedy, part NFL analysis, part "Did he really say that?" The stories keep coming.
He turns reflective when speaking about his roots in Plymouth, Fla. All people are a collection of their influences. It is clear the past molded Sapp into the Hall of Fame talent he became.
"My magnolia tree that I planted as a little boy is now a monster size," he says.
Sapp's legacy has grown, too. It was shaped in the past, but it has carried into the present. Later this fall, when Tampa Bay hosts the Miami Dolphins on Nov. 11, the two will intersect when his No. 99 is retired.
Sapp never thought of the Hall of Fame early in his career, but he will be remembered by the achievement after his induction Saturday. Others who dream of a similar endpoint will watch and wonder.
"That's got to be the best feeling in the world," Gholston says. "To play this your whole life and be able to get the highest reward -- you're basically a football immortal now. ... I kind of get goosebumps right now talking about it."
All legacies start somewhere, long before the highlights, the Hall of Fame speeches, the goosebump moments. For Sapp, the destination became as large as the dream.
"We talked about a parade coming down (in) Tampa," he says, referencing the Super Bowl victory. "I've still got my video. It was good times."
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.