St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Beyond Beyonce, a heart

Is there more to Warren Sapp than end zone dances and nasty glares? Be careful how you ask the Bucs DT.

RICK STROUD
Published September 28, 2003

TAMPA - He is waiting for the last dance.

Eventually, it will become a distant replay. But every time he looks at a television, there it is. Warren Sapp, bopping and spinning in the end zone after catching his first career touchdown against the Falcons.

The hip-hop highlight is practically in syndication. Today. ESPN. HBO. Everywhere but on C-SPAN.

"I'm sick of looking at it," Sapp claims. He spits out a laugh. "That's exactly what I wanted, a lasting impression. So I got it."

To most, the play is a testament to Sapp's rare athleticism, a 303-pound defensive tackle who is quick and nimble enough to play tight end.

To others, it's a tribute to his arrogance, because Sapp is great and he knows it. Coach Jon Gruden knows it too, and he's bringing more attention to the one player who might benefit from less.

"No one has ever seen a defensive tackle do what I do period - not even playing defensive tackle," Sapp said. "That's the thing, I'm only measured against me. (Gruden) is crazy. That's the worst part about it. I'm being fed by a worse madman than me. That's why I say I'm not calling the plays. And anything I do on defense is by sheer will of me doing my technique. So when I'm enjoying myself after the play, why does it seem that I'm gloating and showboating?"

The cameras are always on Sapp and he embraces them.

But here is where he won't let the cameras go.

Sapp is riding in his souped-up golf cart at Avila with Peter Woodward, a 16-year-old from Tampa who had been diagnosed with lymphoma in February. The Children's Dream Fund granted his wish to play golf with a celebrity and Sapp volunteered.

"I told him, he ain't got a celebrity, he got Warren Sapp today," Sapp said. "We're going to go out here and have a good time."

Sapp showered the teen with gifts from his QB Killa clothing line, golf balls, even the putter he was using. "The kid said he had the best time of his life," Sapp said. "I couldn't believe it. My cart goes 25 miles per hour, that might have something to do with it."

So far, this story has a happy ending. Woodward's lymphoma has responded to treatment and he is back at boarding school. "I get a perspective you can't get anywhere else," Sapp said. "It'll reshuffle your life for you."

Sapp has always done his best work in the fall. But whatever the season, his thoughts drift to Autumn. In 2001, he began raising money for pediatric cancer by posing for an ad campaign with a 6-year-old patient, Autumn Harrison.

She had enormous eyes that danced when she spoke. Chemotherapy had taken her hair; cancer eventually would take her life. They appeared together on billboards all over Tampa Bay, this giant defensive tackle holding a bundle of inspiration on his shoulders. Or was it the other way around? Her indomitable spirit lives on in Sapp, who was humbled by her.

"Autumn made a dent in my heart that will always be there," Sapp said. "All the stuff we take for granted: getting up, driving to work in a $100,000 car, running around here, playing like a kid. That little girl Autumn woke up every day knowing they couldn't find a match for her. And when they did find a match for her, her heart wasn't strong enough to take the surgery. I mean, how many more mountains do you put in front of a 6- or 7-year-old? I'm not talking about an obstacle. I'm talking about a mountain. Mount Everest. Here you go. And she climbs it and here's comes another Mount Everest.

"Your heart aches. And there was never a down day for this little girl. You walk in there, and she'd light you up. Those eyes. That smile will light your face up."

Sapp goes silent for a moment, shaking his head. He remembers feeling so helpless.

"You're stricken with something that's irreversible and there's nothing I can do about it," Sapp said. "I can do anything on a football field and almost whatever I want off the field and it ain't going to do nothing for you, sweetie. Just me playing with you, that's all I can give you."

But Sapp gives more than that. His campaign with Autumn raised more than $60,000 for the Pediatric Cancer Foundation. This year, he is doing another billboard campaign with 6-year-old cancer patient Joanna McAfee.

"I don't get the perception of me," Sapp said. "And then they say, "Well, he doesn't do nothing in the community.' What, I need someone to follow me all the time? I didn't want anybody there that day I took a picture with another little girl on my shoulder."

Don't get him wrong. Sapp does not want you to think he is man of the year material. Off the field, he's about as approachable as a hornet.

Although one of the best interviews on the planet and truthful to a fault, reporters better duck for cover if they probe too deeply into his personal life.

Sapp admits the bipolar approach to his career. There is Sapp the player and Sapp the person.

"I separate them," Sapp said. "Number 99 is number 99. I was 21 years old before I ever came here and became Number 99. It was 76 in college. Forty-nine in Apopka. When 99 takes that jersey off, you must separate the two. And if you can't, they mesh together. I've always said that."

Colts coach Tony Dungy says Sapp reminds him of Joe Greene, his former Steelers teammate. "He thought he had to always be Mean Joe," Dungy has said, as if revealing his human side would make him appear vulnerable to opponents.

Handing your heart over doesn't come easily for guys like Sapp.

"Tony skewed it," Sapp said. "Because Tony never said, "No.' And then you go from Tony to the face of the team, which is me, and I rarely say, "Yes.'

"It's become water off a duck's back at time. From the first day I walked into this league, I walked into a whirlwind of BS. And it hasn't stopped for nine years. Sometimes, on my own accord, I bring it. But, hell, that's how I am. But I never ran from anything. That's why I've always wondered why certain people skew their view of me. It's right in front of them.

"Tony taught me the perception vs. reality. That's the one thing I take from him more than anything, because it's a powerful microscope we sit under. The eye that's looking through it is skewed off the top. Because they come in with preconceived notions."

Linebacker Derrick Brooks, who has known Sapp since high school, sees both sides.

"The human side of Warren, when someone says something negative about him or he says something, I'm kind of a checkpoint," Brooks said. "He'll say, "Was I really wrong?' I'm the voice of reason. Some of the things I've called him out on. Sometimes he is right, but it's the way it comes off that's wrong."

The legion of stories involving Sapp's encounters with fans are legend. But Sapp has one of his own.

"I was getting off the plane the other day, coming home from Chicago," Sapp said. "This guy in first class was running over people to get his bag in row six. He comes to me and grabs me. I look at him and I say to myself, "Okay, this touchdown has really gotten people crazy.' Guess what the man says to me? "Are you going to try out for the team?"'

"How am I supposed to answer that? I can't say anything. But when he gets home tonight and tells the story, he'll say I cussed him out. I can't win. There's perception vs. reality."

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.