What a long, strange trip

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"I counted last year because I suited up," he said. Well... OK, I guess, technically...

"No, it counts," he said. "I worked out all season, waiting for the phone call that never came. So I'm counting it. And then I realized, that's it. I'm through. But if someone called and said, 'Look, we need somebody right away,' I bet I could get myself in shape."

He thought for a moment. Sean Landeta is your textbook phone call in the middle of the night. A punter goes down. Quick, call Landeta.

Every time a team said goodbye to him, the final word was, "Stay in shape. You never know." It has paid off for the 46-year old ex-punter, who can list seven NFL teams and two in the old USFL -- that's right, 25 years ago -- on his résumé, some of them which were represented more than once, a couple in two different cities.

"The other punters out of work, well, they'd keep working out, but by October 1 they'd shut it down 'til next year," he says. "Not me. I was in shape right through January. A punter always can get hurt in the playoffs, right? And when they make that call, they want somebody right away, I mean the next day.

"I had the same routine I'd follow every week during the football season. I'd pretend I was in a regular week of the season. I mimicked the practice week. Monday and Tuesday I did some lifting, some running. Wednesday and Thursday I'd punt. I'd go out to one of the high school fields on Long Island, where I live. No, I never found anybody to go out and kick with me. The high school and college punters would all be in school. I'd take a bunch of towels out there, spread 'em 50 or 60 yards apart, and punt at them. Just me, I didn't mind. Toward the end of the week, I'd tail off, then on Sunday, I'd pretend I was in a game, punt 40 or 50 balls. If it was a game I wanted to go to, I'd punt in the morning.

"My theory was that it could happen at any time. A guy goes down, the phone rings. 'What kind of shape are you in?'"

I must have seemed a bit skeptical because he was quick to point out, "Hey, that got me another 10 seasons, almost."

The year was 1997, Landeta's 13th in the league, after three in the USFL. It was his fifth year in St. Louis, which had been Los Angeles his first year with the club. He was coming off three straight seasons of averaging in the 48's, which got him first place in the NFL, then first and second in the NFC. But the Rams had a new coaching staff and the special teams guy, Frank, Crash, Gansz, thought he had "found a flaw" in Landeta's technique. So Sean was gone, back to Long Island and the towels.

"I went home and punted by myself," he says. "I told myself, 'Stay ready.' Well, week one went by, then two, then three, then four. I said, 'This is it. It ain't gonna happen.'"

In week six, Tampa Bay's Tommy Barnhardt broke his collarbone, tackling the Packers' Bill Schroeder. A day later there were 11 punters in the Bucs' camp. "There were five young guys," Landeta says. "I was part of the old guys group...me and Rich Camarillo and Mike Horan and Mike Saxon, people like that. I thought everyone punted pretty well.

"They gave us lunch. We thought they'd come out of the office and say, 'OK, you're it.' But they told us to go home. They'd let us know. When I got to my house from the airport there was a message on the phone. I'd been picked. I just turned around and flew back down there. That phone call bought me 10 more years."


Warren Sapp's world was different. He came out of the University of Miami as an All-American, winner of the Lombardi Award, Nagurski Award, practically every award that had someone over 220 pounds attached to it. He was going to be right up there at the tippy top of the draft, but there was one little problem. Marijuana stories, what the scouts call "baggage attached." I remember talking to the Jets' coach, Rich Kotite, who said before the draft, "I've gotta have him."

"You won't have the guts to pick him," I said.

"Bet you a cigar on it," Kotite said.

The Jets took tight end Kyle Brady with the ninth pick. Sapp went to Tampa Bay at No .12. I'm still waiting to collect my cigar.

He played the under tackle position on the defensive line, where his quickness made him a valuable pass rusher. The heavy duty work of the nose tackle went to Brad Culpepper, later Anthony McFarland. Sapp didn't bother much with the run, but he was a problem for the pass blockers on downs when he felt like rushing. I think I picked him on my all-pro team once.

When the Bucs lost to the Rams, 11-6, in the Divisional Championship, I was in their locker room. Sapp yelled at me across the room, "What do I have to do to make your team?"

"Play the run," I yelled back. He went bonkers. "Play the run...play the run...hear what that guy said," and on and on.

That night I was back in the hotel room, writing my story. My redheaded wife asked me what the locker room was like and I told her about the exchange. She shook her head.

"The guy had just played the toughest game of his life," she said, "and you had to give him that glib crap in the locker room. Couldn't you just have said something nondescript. I mean, I don't blame him."

After I'd finished my story I thought it over. By golly, she's right. I sat down and wrote him a letter, care of the club. Kind of fatherly. I said I had always expected so much more from him, that's why I was overly critical, and so forth.

His response was a noise like an oyster.

Three years later, in 2002, he got into that thing with Packer tackle Chad Clifton. It was one of the meanest, filthiest plays I've ever seen on a field. Sapp took a 20-yard run at him, on a Buc interception, while his back was turned, and blindsided him with such ferocity that he left his feet, delivering the block. Clifton went to the hospital with a dislocated hip. There was no call. Gutless officials aren't exactly new to the game. The penalty for such plays is called unnecessary roughness. A play that is not necessary, get it? It's in the books. And they were far away from the action.

Sapp is a glib, witty person who will make a colorful TV announcer some day, but after that play I've never been able to think of him with any kind of respect.

He played as hard as he felt like in his four-year stint with the Raiders. Sometimes he seemed to have his old quickness back. Now he's gone.