(AP) Fun-loving Sapp smiles all the way to Hall of Fame
By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
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.
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.
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.
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 96 1/2 regular-season sacks.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.