He was floating in sleep when the word came, drifting through one
of those sweet naps when the humidity and the hum of traffic drag
you under and you don't want to wake. . . . Then someone was
calling his name. Then Warren Sapp mumbled, surfaced and opened
his eyes, and the real world he had left was not the same anymore.
``Somebody called,'' a friend visiting his apartment told him.
``Somebody said you tested positive for cocaine.''
This was Monday evening, March 13, 40 days before the 1995 NFL
college draft, and suddenly here sat one of the jewels of that
draft, conceivably a top-five pick overall, in front of a
television in Miami, desperately punching the remote with his
thumb. CNN. ESPN. Local news. Nothing. He called his agent. What
did it mean? Where did it come from? He flew through the channels
again, waiting for the words. How would they sound? Then, on the
late news, there was former Miami Dolphin receiver Jimmy Cefalo,
now a sportscaster, suitably grave, saying that The New York Times
was reporting that Sapp, the Miami Hurricanes' 1994 Lombardi Award
winner and college football's defensive player of the year, had
tested positive for cocaine and marijuana at the NFL scouting
combine in Indianapolis in February. Sapp punched to another
station. That guy was saying it, too. Then another. They all were
saying it now.
``It was killing me,'' Sapp says. ``Killing me. . . . You just
didn't know where they were going next. It started and then it
escalated, and it was all on radio and in the papers. It just
exploded on me.''
But unlike most jock-drug revelations, this one quickly assumed an
erratic trajectory. On Tuesday the NFL issued a statement saying
that the Times's report, which cited unnamed sources and listed
Sapp and five other college players who had supposedly tested
positive for drugs, was inaccurate. The NFL said that Sapp did not
test positive for cocaine, conspicuously omitting any mention of
marijuana, and that former Miami running back James Stewart, who,
according to the Times, had tested positive for marijuana, ``did
not test positive for any illegal substance.'' In response, the
Times stood by its story, saying in Wednesday's editions that four
unnamed NFL team officials had told the newspaper they had seen
reports indicating that Sapp had tested positive for cocaine and
marijuana and that Stewart had done so for marijuana.
With nothing resolved, the story has hung in the air like a dark
cloud ever since, leaving Sapp's reputation dangling in a strange
limbo, somewhat redeemed and somewhat damned. For his part, Sapp
flatly denies having ever used cocaine. ``That's not something I
would involve myself in,'' he says. ``Definitely not. Anybody
who's ever been remotely close to me can attest to that. It's not
Five NFL team officials told SI that they had seen a single-page
list of players who tested positive for drugs at the combine and
that only a single word was listed next to Sapp's name: marijuana.
When asked about this, Sapp is less emphatic. ``It's a matter
between me and the NFL,'' he says. Pressed on whether he smokes
pot, Sapp says, ``That's not me.''
If Sapp tested positive only for marijuana, he would be guilty of,
at the very least, bad judgment. It would mean that, even though
he knew a drug test was mandatory at the combine, he either had
used marijuana or was in the company of people who had. He risks
losing as much as $4 million this season if, as seems possible,
he slips from being one of the top-five picks in the April 22
draft to being taken later in the first round.
Few NFL observers imagined him going any lower than fifth. But
now few figure him to go higher. Carolina and Jacksonville, the
expansion teams with the first two picks in the draft, are wary
of a potential public-relations debacle should either make a
player with a positive drug test the first selection in
franchise history. And Houston, Washington and Cincinnati, with
the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 picks, are aiming to fill different needs.
NFL front-office types vary greatly in their reaction to a
positive marijuana test. One NFC general manager says, ``As long
as the guy can stop and test clean consistently, I don't view it
as a huge problem. Two of my own children admitted they smoked
pot in college, and I know how great they turned out. So I don't
view it with the fear that some other people in the league
Others -- most notably Carolina general manager Bill Polian --
don't see any difference between pot and cocaine. Polian says the
Panthers give each draft prospect a grade for ``football
temperament,'' which takes into account drug use, brushes with the
law and the like. ``We don't make any distinction between
[marijuana and cocaine] when we determine a player's grade,''
Polian says. ``And the football-temperament grade weighs very,
very heavily in where we draft players -- or if we draft them at
Still, Sapp's talent could well lift him back into the elite. At
6'1-1/2", 285 pounds, he possesses marvelously quick feet for a
defensive tackle; he can punt for 60 yards and dunk a basketball.
He leaps over blockers, reads linemen at a glance and runs an
absurd 4.69 40-yard dash. He is strong, smart, bubbly.
Both Jacksonville and Houston scrambled to recheck Sapp's
background after the allegations last week, and those teams that
are curious to know if he would submit to weekly testing have this
answer. Sapp is willing to test daily if necessary. ``I have no
problem with that,'' he says. ``No problem. I'm clean, definitely.
If that doesn't convince them, Sapp isn't worried. ``If they
drop me to 10th, that's still more money than I've ever seen in
my life,'' he says. ``It's still an opportunity to fulfill my
dream of playing in the NFL. So if one team feels this incident
makes me less of a player or the wrong kind of person for their
franchise -- to each his own. If they pass me by? Well, good
But on that Monday night, after the Times's story came out and
before the NFL issued its statement, Sapp wasn't so nonchalant. He
didn't sleep much. He kept staring at the ceiling, repeating to
himself, I've got to talk to Mom. She had gone to sleep before the
story broke, he knew, and Sapp wanted to reach her before she
heard about it Tuesday morning. He kept dozing off, then shaking
awake. She's going to have a nervous breakdown in the morning. It
was like being the fat kid all over again, everybody picking at
him, hitting him, and no way for him to hit back. He was too far
away from her home. She's going to have a heart attack. . . .
Two hundred twenty miles north in tiny Plymouth, Fla., Annie
Roberts drove into the parking lot at Phyllis Wheatley Elementary,
where she works as a teacher's assistant. It was 8:15 Tuesday
morning. The Christian radio station stops broadcasting at 7:55
a.m. every day, so she had switched to 540 on the dial for sports.
She heard the radio voice say something about her son and how
maybe it would hurt him, the cocaine. Her head began to throb. She
said very loudly, ``Cocaine?''
Roberts sat and listened. She wanted to go home. She needed to
think. Not her Carlos, the middle name she and everybody else in
Plymouth still use for Sapp. . . . Not drugs. Pot was one thing .
. . but cocaine? She had always preached against drugs to her
youngest son -- and his five older sisters and brothers.
``It's something I really couldn't handle,'' she says. ``I've
never known Carlos to drink beer or smoke.''
Sapp considers Roberts more than a mother. He calls her his mother
and father, and his best friend because after his father left,
when Warren was a baby, she became all those things. She is the
family's law and light. When the kids were growing up, she worked
three jobs, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., to keep the money coming --
cafeteria worker, nursery assistant potting plants and cleaning
woman. Sapp never missed his father. ``How can you miss somebody
you never knew?'' he says.
``I had a very loving and caring mother,'' Sapp continues. ``I
had people around. I had a big family. I took what I had, and I
worked with it. Sometimes life deals you a dirty hand. So you just
have to rearrange it.''
He got into trouble as much as a kid can in the dusty orange
groves of Plymouth. Once his mother told him to stay home instead
of going off to one of his hangouts. ``She told me not to go to
the store,'' Sapp says. ``It's about 1:30, and I'm thinking, Mom
gets home at four. I can go down and play a quick game of pinball
and get back before she gets home.
``So I'm playing, and I'm good. I'm about to hit a million. The
phone rings. I know it's my mother, but I figure I'm about to
hit a million, so I can take this whuppin'. I'm playing, I'm
going, I'm going . . . still trying to get a million and getting
close, and Al, the store owner, says, `Your mother says come
home right now!' And I froze for a second, and as I froze --
oop! -- the ball went right down. I looked up. I was just six
from a million. I walked out, and I'm thinking, I didn't get a
million and I'm going to get a whuppin'. Boy, it ain't a good
Once during football practice at Apopka High, Sapp looked up to
see his mother marching onto the field. She told the coach her son
wouldn't play anymore unless his grades rose. He said, O.K., O.K.,
O.K. ``A tremendous lady,'' says Chip Gierke, the coach. ``Pretty
much a lady of proper priorities.''
When he was in ninth grade, she came upon Sapp getting beat up at
the bus stop. ``That Washington boy was hitting Carlos, and he
wasn't even hitting back,'' she says. ``I told Carlos to just go
on home. I told him, Never start a fight, but don't let anybody
hit you without fighting back.''
Sapp took her on many of his college recruiting visits. He
wouldn't hire his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, until his mother met
him and approved. Asked why he left Miami after his junior year,
forgoing the '95 season, Sapp becomes deadly serious. ``I saw a
way for my mother to retire,'' he says softly. ``She's been
working a long time. I'm her last kid, her last shot, and I have
an opportunity for her to kick up her feet and say, `I don't
have to go to work today if I don't want to.' ''
Roberts doesn't say much about the cocaine allegation. There was
no heart attack, no nervous breakdown. Once she calmed down,
Roberts was sure her son was clean. When they finally spoke
Tuesday afternoon, she joked with Sapp, told him she loved him,
told him this: ``If you run into trouble, you can come to me.''
For the first time in 24 hours, Warren Sapp smiled wide. ``I
didn't care about anything else,'' he says, laughing, ``as long as
my old girl knew!''
Sapp ambles down a sidewalk in South Miami. A school bus goes by:
Two kids hang out the windows and wave. Men -- young, old -- pass
by and say go get 'em, or don't worry. It doesn't seem like
anything's changed. But it has. ``I get just a little bit more
stare now -- `Is that him?' '' Sapp says. A kid slides past, eyes
flicker. ``See? Just a little bit more stare. I just go on. Life
goes on. As long as you don't let anything hammer you or keep you
down, just be yourself and let life go on. Because it will go
``What's up, Warren?'' a man asks.
``All right,'' Sapp says. Then he adds, ``That's the two-second
glance he gave me. That's it.''
Sapp's agent says the two of them are considering suing The New
York Times, but Sapp isn't so sure. ``They made a mistake,'' he
says. ``That's all I'd like: Admit you made a mistake. That's
being a man, saying, `I've learned.' And they're saying, `No, no,
we got it right.'? Dead wrong.''
His brother Parnell called from Houston, muffled his voice and
said he was a Chicago reporter investigating him; they both got a
big laugh. His sisters called. His friends have been telling
anyone who asks that drugs are not Warren Sapp's way. His center,
he insists, is still intact.
He says it was wrong to put himself in this position, but
carefully. He is very careful now. ``As a public figure, I have an
obligation to keep myself on the straight and narrow,'' he says.
``There are certain things I shouldn't be associated with. It
really shook me.''
More than he knows. For now, anytime Sapp is late for practice or
misses a flight, eyebrows will rise. When he is seen out at night,
there will be more than a few two-second stares. His name wears a
stain now, and it won't fade easy.