TAMPA, Fla. – Now headed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Warren Sapp smiles as he remembers accepting the challenge to turn around one of the worst franchises in pro sports history.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 10 or more games for 11 consecutive seasons before selecting a mouthy, fun-loving and sometimes downright irreverent defensive tackle in the opening round of the 1995 NFL draft. He struggled during a 7-9 rookie season that ended the double-digit losses streak – but hardly lifted the team out of a funk.
Enter Tony Dungy with a plan that a young, supremely confident, 23-year-old Sapp found irresistible.
“When he walked into the job, it was kind of funny. We were walking through old One Buc Place going to see each other. I was coming through the back door and he was coming from his office. We met about halfway. We looked at each other and he said: ‘I was looking for you,’ and I said: ‘I was looking for you.”’
They returned to Dungy’s tiny working quarters, sat down and the coach explained how he planned to install a defensive system that would allow Sapp to flourish the way the 6-foot-2, 300-pound tackle with exceptional quickness and speed for his size did in college at the University of Miami.
“I said, ‘Wait. Let’s define that.’ I said, ‘We used to trample the run on our way to the quarterback and build a camp in the backfield that was three yards deep.’ He said, ‘I like that.’ I said, ‘If that’s what you’re asking me to do, then I can do that for you.’ He said, ‘But it’s going to require a lot of work.’ I said, ‘I don’t mind work, I’ve been working since I was 13 years old, so I’ll be right here with you.”’
At age 40, Sapp still gets excited talking about Dungy replacing his first NFL coach, Sam Wayche, and setting a lofty goal of chasing down Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the old NFC Central. He and linebacker Derrick Brooks, also drafted in the first round in 1995, bought into the plan right away.
“Now we had a structure and a path. With Sam, it was a three-ring circus and you didn’t know if you were part of the lions, tigers, bears, trapeze artists, horses or what. It would depend on his mood that day when he walked in. Once we got a structure and direction, we all were like: ‘Let’s go that way,”’ Sapp said.
“It was a man who walked into this job, steady as a rock every day. And it was the first time in my life I ever had a black man leading me in anything. Me and Brooks looked at it, and were like: ‘Yeah, we have a figure in front of us that everybody tells us is a God-send, there’s no way we won’t play football for this man. There’s no way I wouldn’t take a bullet for him if it didn’t kill me. I have always said that.”
Working within Dungy’s version of Cover 2 that Sapp, Brooks, safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber helped evolve into what’s known today as Tampa 2, the self-described “small-town country boy” from Plymouth, Fla. – outside of Orlando – developed into one of the most dominating defensive tackles in league history.
Sapp was a four-time All-Pro selection and made the Pro Bowl the final seven years of a nine-season run with the Buccaneers, who ended a 15-year hiatus from the playoffs in 1997; made it to the NFC championship game in 1999, when Sapp was NFL defensive player of the year; and, won their only Super Bowl title in 2002.
Tampa Bay hasn’t won a playoff game since. Sapp played four seasons with the Oakland Raiders before returning in 2007 with 96½ regular-season sacks.
“I think you have to remember Warren Sapp for the big games. That’s when he was at his best. Playoff games. Games that you had to have. Games that were on (national) TV,” Dungy said. “He was going to show up and play well. And that’s what you wanted, a guy who was going to be at his best in the big games.”
There were times when Sapp’s boisterous, brash style rubbed opposing players, coaches and fans the wrong way – on and off the field.
Teammates, however, loved what he brought to the locker room and his commitment to winning.
“Warren didn’t want to be second in anything. He brought an attitude and the swagger this franchise needed,” Dungy said.
The Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, plan to retire his No. 99 jersey during the club’s annual Ring of Honor ceremony in November.
“Warren never gave less than his all. His days on the field were headlined by incredible passion, overwhelming talent and, of course, his louder than life personality,” team co-chairman Bryan Glazer said.
Sapp joins Lee Roy Selmon, the first-ever draft pick of the expansion Bucs in 1976, as the only Hall of Famers who spent the majority of their careers in Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers ranked in the top 10 in fewest yards and points allowed for nine straight seasons from 1997-2005.
“We took a place where they said careers came to die to a place that’s become a destination,” Sapp said. “We got a No. 1 receiver (Vincent Jackson) who just walked in the door here last year. That was never the case. Nobody was coming here as a free agent. We got Simeon Rice to walk in this place and help us win a championship. There were some choice things that went on.”
Year in and year out, no team was as consistent defensively as Tampa Bay during Sapp’s heyday. The impact is still felt around the league.
“Whenever you think of the Purple People Eaters, you’ve got to go to Minnesota. When you think of Doomsday, you’ve got to go to Dallas. The Steel Curtain, you’ve got to go to Pittsburgh,” Sapp said. “They play Tampa 2 everywhere.”
Growing up on an unpaved road, Sapp said he dreamed of one day playing in the NFL but that the Hall of Fame never really entered his mind until he retired.
He was elected in his first year of eligibility in February and will be enshrined in Canton on Saturday as a part of a class that also includes Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells and Dave Robinson.
“I played the game for the love and respect of the people I played with and against. And if you are picking a team, and you’ve got a defensive tackle position, I’m taking 99. And twice on Sunday,” Sapp said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted. If you had a defense, and you set a defensive tackle position, if I’m not that one, I’m definitely the other one. If you’re not taking me, I want to see the two you are taking.”
Lots of family, friends and former teammates will help him celebrate in Canton, though Sapp will miss one person who will not – the late Hall of Famer Deacon Jones, who died in June.
Like Sapp, Jones grew up in a small town on the outskirts of Orlando. The two grew close in recent years.
“He invented talking trash and backing it up. He invented coming from a little small town, making it to the Johnny Carson show, movies, all the stuff he did,” Sapp said.
“The man was everything you wanted that signified a Hall of Famer. Everything that it was. And they said he was gatekeeper,” Sapp added. “And for me, in the 50th year of the Hall of Fame to be going in and the gatekeeper not be standing there, who else? That’s the only question I have. Who else is going to sit there and talk trash to me?”