HOF not a case of if, but when for Warren Sapp

TAMPA, Fla. — Each Warren Sapp memory has its own flair. Some are humorous, while others are tributes to his Mensa-like football IQ. Some cast him as a defensive wizard, a gumbo of terror and genius, while others place him in a Georgia Dome end zone shaking his backside like Beyonce after a touchdown catch. 
Variety should be expected. Greatness, no matter the arena, is far from two-dimensional. It’s a kaleidoscope of discipline and motivation, of passion and perseverance and so much more, and Sapp was anything but simple over a 13-year career which included nine with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The elite share two qualities: They redefine their roles and impact their franchises in quantifiable ways, leaving a shadow that lingers long after they’re gone. 
Sapp, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick — 12th overall — in 1995 who matured into the face of a franchise’s rebirth, accomplished both in a Bucs uniform. In more ways than one, the big guy had bounce.
“You look at him all the way from college at Miami, through the Buccaneers and finishing up with Oakland, he was a winner,” former Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, who coached Sapp from 1996 to 2001, told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “He had a big impact on the University of Miami football program and the way that they were viewed and had a tremendous impact on the Buccaneers. You have to look at where we were as an organization and where that team was. 
“He was a big part of turning them into a winner. To me, it goes beyond what he did at the defensive-tackle position and the impact he had on games. All of the sudden, once he was there in ’96, ’97, ’98 we could win. To me, that’s what Hall of Fame players do.”
Soon, we’ll learn if Sapp joins the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. The announcement comes Saturday in New Orleans, where 17 finalists will discover if they’ll slip on gold jackets on a humid Saturday night in August in Canton, Ohio. Soon, we’ll learn if Sapp is named one of the NFL’s best. 
It’s no simple task. To be inducted, a finalist must receive a minimum of 80 percent of the vote. Sapp is one of four first-year eligible nominees, a list that includes worthy candidates such as guard/tackle Larry Allen, offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and defensive end Michael Strahan. Eight other modern-era players under consideration include running back Jerome Bettis, and receivers Tim Brown and Cris Carter.
But Sapp’s argument is no light presentation. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound specimen finished with 96½ career sacks, an astounding number for an interior defensive lineman. He was named the 1999 NFL Defensive Player of the Year after leading the Bucs to their first division title in 18 seasons. He was a first-team All-Pro four consecutive campaigns, from 1999-2002, selected to seven Pro Bowls and was part of five playoff teams wearing red and pewter including a Super Bowl XXXVII championship. 
He became as much a part of Tampa Bay’s identity and its attitude as chasing beads on Gasparilla.
“I always say Warren Sapp was definitely one of the most talented guys that I ever played with as a defensive tackle,” said former Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice, Sapp’s teammate from 2001 to ’03. “He could pick up skills well. If he shot a basketball, he could finish with his left and right hand. Extremely explosive. He’s a unique athlete, and when he’s in a zone, he’s in a zone.” 
That zone could startle as well as impress. It revealed Sapp’s love for his craft, a dedicated chase to evolve and become one of the game’s greats. 
It could be striking in its detail and quirky in its execution, but it could also be effective in its results. It involved becoming so aware of teammates’ taping patterns that he would recognize a hand in a scrum for a fumble and yell, “The ball’s on you! Pick up the ball by your hand!”

It involved becoming so aware of fissures in a quarterback’s routine that, after about 10 seconds of watching film, he would tell teammates, “Oh, we’re going to get a great get-off. The quarterback has a hitch.” 

Those are examples of the traits Dungy envisioned from the start. In one of the pair’s early talks, the coach told Sapp about his defensive plan, how he pictured Tampa Bay’s situation to resemble the Pittsburgh Steelers of the early 1970s. He wanted Sapp, like defensive tackle Joe Greene did two decades earlier, to become more than the unit’s cornerstone. He wanted Sapp to grow into an emotional and inspirational leader. 
“First and foremost, he was the greatest football player I ever played with, hands-down,” said former Bucs safety Dwight Smith, Sapp’s teammate from 2001 to ’03. “He was just a very smart football player, and he was also very skilled. I don’t see why he shouldn’t go in first ballot. I really believe him and (former Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle) John Randle redefined that position. I don’t know why he shouldn’t go in.”
Perhaps it’s not a question of, “Should he?” but rather “When will it happen?” Pete Fierle, manager of digital media/communications for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said 83 percent of players who became finalists were eventually elected. Repeat finalists have been elected 89 percent of the time, according to Fierle. 
So will Sapp serenade the NFL world from a stage at Fawcett Stadium in August? If not this year, perhaps soon. 
“The idea that he has made it to the finalist round of the Pro Football Hall of Fame speaks volumes, because just to get to that level is a great honor,” Fierle said. “It certainly places him among the greatest players to play. From that point forward, it’s difficult to get in your first year of eligibility. … But making it through in his first year of eligibility down to a finalist certainly places him under consideration.”
Rightfully so. For each Sapp memory, there’s another. For each moment, there’s a complex profile that reveals his spark.  
Humorous? A terror? A defensive genius? 
Try all of the above. 
A Hall of Famer?
 
We’ll learn soon enough.  
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.