There's a fine line between hero and horse's ass, and Warren
Sapp walked it on Jan. 4. As the third quarter of an NFC
divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field drew to a close, the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-year defensive tackle paced the
Green Bay Packers' sideline bearing bad news. "I'm gonna be here
allllll day," bellowed Sapp, who had forced two fumbles, sacked
Brett Favre three times and helped hold Green Bay to 13 points.
"I ain't going nowhere. I'm gonna build a house right here."
Although the Bucs lost 21-7, they played the Packers tough. Just
as Green Bay once closed the gap on the Dallas Cowboys and the
San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay looms ever larger in the Pack's
rearview mirror. Sapp is in the driver's seat, leaning on the
horn, flashing his brights and shouting, "Out of my way!" Or
words to that effect.
"Why should I get stuck behind that truck?" Sapp asks on a
recent February morning. Why should he, Warren Sapp, be
inconvenienced just because the state has been delinquent in
widening this highway? Having been boxed in behind an 18-wheeler
while cruising east on Interstate 4, Sapp has just overtaken the
big rig by using an unoccupied on-ramp as a passing lane. "You
don't understand," he tells his white-knuckled passenger.
"That's just the way Florida people drive."
He is behind the wheel of his azure 500 Mercedes SL convertible,
one of his two Mercedes--three if you count his three-month-old
daughter, Mercedes. He's glib and cocky and smart, and as
talented as any defensive lineman in football. It has been two
months since his 25th birthday and six weeks since the end of
his breakout season, in which he had 10 1/2 sacks and the hat
trick against the Packers and displayed both an uncanny ability
to play his best in big games and an unwillingness to let anyone
else have the last word. Sapp's game-long dialogue with Favre
provided a delightful subplot to their postseason meeting and
sparked what promises to be a long and smack-intensive
relationship. A month later, three days after getting married,
Sapp played in his first Pro Bowl.
Yet there has never been a better time than this morning to be
Warren Sapp. That's because on the previous evening, Feb. 17,
the Minnesota Vikings made Sapp's friend and fellow tackle John
Randle the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history: five
years, $32.5 million, including a $10 million signing bonus.
Sapp seems ebullient during this drive from Tampa to Orlando
because the Bucs will probably bestow a similar fortune upon him
within the next few weeks. That's only fair, because Tampa Bay,
you may recall, got him on the cheap.
A state trooper is patting down a long-hair on the freeway's
shoulder. "Lot of cops out today," Sapp notes. It is the third
officer he has seen in the past hour. Sapp can empathize with
the guy getting frisked. Last June, Tampa police searched his
car for 45 minutes. In the backpack of one of Sapp's friends,
officers allegedly found 12 1/2 grams of marijuana, which,
according to police, the friend said was his. Sapp and his
friend were charged with misdemeanor possession, but the case
was thrown out when a judge ruled that the police did not have
sufficient cause to search the car.
The incident recalled the controversy that surrounded Tampa
Bay's 1995 selection of Sapp, a consensus top five pick out of
the University of Miami whose stock plunged when, in the days
leading up to the draft, reports surfaced of his alleged drug
use. NFL Security, the Big Brother arm of the league in charge
of conducting background checks on prospective draftees, filed a
report--which was leaked to the media--that said Sapp, while at
Miami, had tested positive for cocaine in addition to having
tested positive for marijuana six times.
Sapp vehemently denied the seven positives--"I didn't take that
many drug tests at Miami," he said--and insisted recently he
would never so much as try cocaine, which, he says, "makes you
steal from your mom, and I love my mom." (He did admit to having
twice tested positive for marijuana, once as a Miami freshman
and again at the scouting combine.) While the NFL has stood by
its findings, a Tampa Bay executive says the league has since
told him that it mishandled Sapp's case. But the damage was
done. The Bucs took Sapp with the 12th pick and signed him to a
four-year, $4.4 million deal, which, for example, was worth $1.6
million less than the four-year contract that the seventh pick,
Boston College defensive end Mike Mamula, signed with the
Despite a dozen or so lawyers urging him to sue the NFL, Sapp
chose not to. "I just wanted to put it behind me," he says. He
was an underwhelming performer as a rookie, getting three sacks
and losing, for eight games, his starting job midway through the
season. His disappointing debut was attributable to confused
coaching by Sam Wyche, who went through defensive schemes the
way Larry King goes through spouses, and to the guy looking out
at Sapp from the mirror every morning. "I was forcing things,"
says Sapp, who has since done a better job of, as he puts it,
"letting the game come to me." After a much improved second
season, during which he had nine sacks under defense-minded
first-year coach Tony Dungy, he seemed ready to bust out.
First, however, he got busted. The close encounter with Tampa's
finest earned Sapp a lecture from Dungy, who suggested that Sapp
balance his allegiance to his homeboys with a little more common
sense. "When he's with his old friends, Warren doesn't want
anyone to think success has changed him, and that's a good
quality," says Dungy. "What I told him was that, just as you
have a responsibility to your old friends, you have a
responsibility to your teammates and your organization."
If that brush with the law served as a reminder that the Bucs
had gambled by drafting Sapp, the events of last Aug. 31
suggested that their wager was paying off. That day, Sapp
single-handedly destroyed San Francisco in Tampa Bay's
season-opening 13-6 upset. He had 2 1/2 sacks and removed from
the game a future wing of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His
first-quarter sack of Steve Young resulted in Young's suffering
a concussion; his second-quarter tackle of wideout Jerry Rice, a
play on which Sapp was penalized for grabbing the face mask,
resulted in Rice's tearing ligaments in his left knee. When word
reached him later in the season that Rice was upset because he
hadn't called to apologize, Sapp had a question: "What should I
be apologizing for?"
How did Sapp's quantum leap from above-average player to
Godzilla-in-cornrows come about? He was more familiar with what
was expected of him in the schemes of defensive coordinator
Monte Kiffin, who joined the Bucs in 1996. Adds Dungy, "he had a
better understanding of how people are trying to block him, of
when he should play it safe and when he could turn it loose."
It also helped to be on the field. For the first six or so games
of 1996, Tampa Bay was infatuated with the zone blitz. "I was
getting pulled on third down," Sapp says. "I'd be on the
sideline foaming at the mouth. I was pissed." Over their last 10
games, the Bucs allowed an average of 74 fewer yards per game
than they had in their first six, and Sapp finished with a
flourish, picking up three sacks in the last two games.
In a way, it's fitting that marijuana issues have dogged Sapp
throughout his career: He's nothing if not blunt. "He gets that
from me," says his mother, Annie Roberts. "We were born under
the same sign, Sagittarius"--the archer. Among the targets at
which Sapp aimed arrows while cruising on I-4 were the NBA
("They're about to kill themselves. I mean, not everybody can
make a hundred million dollars"); the braggart Denver Broncos
("Terrell Davis totes 'em to a championship, now everyone's got
something to say"); and Wyche ("Usually you have to win
something before someone calls you a genius").
When the conversation turns to Sapp's contract--although he is
signed through next season, Sapp and the Bucs are talking about
renegotiating his deal--Don Rickles metamorphoses into Madeleine
Albright. "Tampa is the perfect place for me to play," he
gushes. "Just pay me market value."
One senses he'll get what's coming to him. It runs in Sapp's
family to know the value of a buck. Sapp recalls a long-ago
breakfast at a central Florida restaurant. When his maternal
grandmother, Rosia Lykes, asked what came with a $3.79 stack of
pancakes, the waiter replied, "Pancakes."
Looking back at her menu, Lykes uttered a declaration that has
since entered family lore: "Ain't nobody gonna rob me without no
Nor is her grandson likely to be underpaid, for a change. His
peers say Sapp is worth every cent he'll get. "He's definitely
top five" among defensive linemen, says Vikings guard Randall
McDaniel, a nine-time All-Pro who faces Sapp twice a year. "He's
always been good against the run, and he's become a dominant
pass rusher. That's a rare combination. I'm glad I won't be
around when he reaches his potential."
McDaniel has more credibility on this subject than Sapp's agent
and friend, Drew Rosenhaus, who predicts nothing less than the
Hall of Fame for his client. On the eve of Sapp's wedding, there
was a knock on Rosenhaus's hotel room door. It was the groom,
who said he was prevented by tradition from spending the night
with his bride-to-be and announced, "I'm sleeping here tonight."
Alas, the room had only one bed. When Rosenhaus offered to crash
on the sofa, Sapp told him to not be ridiculous. The two would
share the bed. "Five minutes after he falls asleep," says
Rosenhaus, "he's roaming all over the bed. I'm getting my ass
kicked, and then the snoring starts."
Upon awaking the next morning--"He was lying across the bed,"
says Rosenhaus--it was with genuine shock that Sapp asked, "What
are you doing on the couch?"
Thus refreshed, Sapp exchanged vows that afternoon with
22-year-old JaMiko Vaughn, whom he'd met during his rookie
season. The two went to an African arts festival on their first
date. "No one had told me he was a Buc, and he never mentioned
it," says Vaughn. "He kept mentioning that he had to be at the
hotel at 6 p.m." (Teams spend the night before a home game in a
hotel.) "I asked him if he worked the night shift."
Sapp working at a hotel. That would be worth the price of
You don't have your confirmation number? Is this, like, your
first business trip?
You need help with your bags? What you need is a personal trainer.
The truth is, if Sapp weren't smart and multidimensional, he'd
bore his wife, a former CIA employee. ("I was a contract
officer," she says, "and I can't say much more than that.")
Sapp's mind is a bear trap for trivia, of the sports variety in
particular. "For all the talking that Warren does, he's a very
good listener," says Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli.
"He retains everything." At a Minnesota Timberwolves-Orlando
Magic game, Sapp interrupted his running commentary ("Who the
hell told Cherokee Parks he could shoot?") to quiz his
companions: "Name the first draft pick in Magic history."
"Nick Anderson," Sapp answered, after no one volunteered a
guess. Thereafter, the sports talk ranged from Winter Olympic
medal counts--"How about Austria: 12 medals but only two golds!"
he said at one point--to the Tour de France, the highlights of
which he faithfully watches every summer.
Though not a cyclist, Sapp does fish, play golf, pilot his Wave
Runners and crank tunes. A music buff, he's considering joining
a group of investors in the purchase of a Tampa radio station.
Fatherhood and marriage have mellowed Sapp's tastes in music
ever so slightly, says John Hahn, a former Miami sports
information director who is now media relations director for the
Detroit Red Wings. "Usually when I call him at home, I hear rap
music in the background. The last time I called he was in the
nursery, and the background music was Brahms' Lullaby."
"There is a side that people don't see," JaMiko said recently,
while daubing her daughter's spit-up from the living room
carpet. "He can be gentle and caring."
"I think you broke my nose," Favre shouted at the gentle and
caring Sapp near the end of that playoff game. After sacking
Favre and stripping him of the ball in the second quarter, Sapp
had pushed Favre's face into the turf. Favre leaped to his feet
and commenced yapping at Sapp, who said, "You're gonna get your
ass busted today." To which Favre riposted, "It's 7-0. Who's
getting his ass busted?"
Not exactly Disraeli versus Gladstone, but not bad. The verbal
skirmishes continued throughout the afternoon, with Favre
mocking Sapp's listed weight of 276 pounds and insisting that he
could outrun him.
Sapp: "Are you serious?"
Favre: "I'm sure I can." Shortly thereafter, Sapp chased Favre
down for his second sack. When Favre saw who had tackled him, he
smiled and said, "You gotta love this!"
"You know I do," replied Sapp. "I'll be hunting your ass all day
As he walked to the sideline at the end of the third quarter,
Favre heard the words, "Hey, pretty boy!" He didn't need three
guesses to know who was talking. "Hold on, Mike," Favre said to
Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "I'll be right back."
A surprisingly civil exchange ensued, Sapp complimenting Favre,
Favre patting Sapp on the helmet. "One more quarter," said the
"Come on with it," said the Packer. As if Sapp had to be told.
As if he were going anywhere.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
During his breakthrough 1997 season, Warren Sapp had discussions
with the Buccaneers about extending his four-year, $4.4 million
contract, which runs through '98. However, expecting a windfall
from the NFL's TV contracts, which were announced in January,
Sapp elected to wait until the off-season before negotiating a
new deal. Considering how other defensive tackles have prospered
in the first several weeks of free agency, he appears to have
made a wise decision.
PLAYER, AGE VALUE OF NEW SIGNING 1997 1997
TEAM CONTRACT BONUS SACKS TACKLES
John Randle, 30 5 years, $10 million 15 1/2 58
Vikings $32.5 million
Dana Stubblefield, 27 6 years, $8 million 15 61
Redskins $36 million
Ted Washington, 29 5 years, $6.5 million 4 80
Bills $27 million
Eric Swann, 27 5 years, $7.5 million 7 1/2 68
Cardinals $25 million
Dan Wilkinson*, 24 5 years, $5 million 5 34
Redskins $21.4 million
Sapp, 25 -- -- 10 1/2 58
*Played end in 1997.
listener. He retains everything."