No parade upon Sapp's farewell

He could have been beloved, but former Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who retired Jan. 4, seems not to have sought it in Tampa Bay or Oakland.

Published January 15, 2008

His was the noisiest of careers. And it ended in the quietest way you could imagine.

He will be remembered for how nasty he was on the field. And how nasty he was away from it.

He was a hard man to like. And he was a hard man not to.

And so ends the career of Warren Sapp, the largest contradiction the NFL has ever seen. You will not see his like again. Whether that is a good thing or a bad one will depend upon your particular viewpoint.

As for me, well, the big lug has been gone for a week and a half, and I miss him already.

Somebody has to, I suppose.

Perhaps that surprises you. Perhaps it says as much about me as it does about Sapp. After all, a lot of people never had much use for Sapp even when he was a great player, and as his skills began to dwindle, so too did the number of people who found something to admire about him.

Still, there is a part of me that was fond of a part of Sapp. I thought he was a fascinating, mesmerizing athlete. As he walks away, warts and all, I cannot help but imagine what the past 10 days might have been like if only Sapp had been a little nicer to the world and if only he had allowed it to be a little nicer to him.

By now, the fans would have demanded that the Bucs re-sign Sapp to one of those honorary, retire-as-one-of-us contracts that Emmitt Smith and Jerry Rice got from their old teams. By now, there would be renewed talk of a ring of honor. By now, you would hear chatter that perhaps the Bucs should find room for Sapp in their front office, on their coaching staff, on their broadcast team. Somewhere.

For the most part, fans love it when their heroes come home. Wait until John Lynch retires. Wait until Warrick Dunn gives it up. If this really is farewell for Tony Dungy, a celebration awaits.

When a man is as hard on his fans as Sapp was, however, his playing days do not end in farewell tears and candlelight vigils.

No matter how you feel about Sapp, there is a sadness there. It has been said a thousand times, but the guy could have owned this town. He was funny enough, smart enough and charismatic enough to pull it off. He could have been our Michael Jordan. He could have been our Joe Montana. He could have been beloved.

Instead, there are a thousand memories of him, and for every great play, there is a story about how shabbily he treated someone in public. For every amusing anecdote, there is a refused autograph, and for every insightful comment, there is a rebuffed handshake. Collectively, when the fans were screaming their approval, Sapp seemed to love them. Individually, not so much.

At times, it seemed as if Sapp enjoyed being disliked. Either that or perhaps he felt the public had disliked him first.

This story bears repeating: During an interview in 2001, two years after he was defensive player of the year and one year before he would be part of a Super Bowl champion, I brought up Sapp's stature as a celebrity in Tampa Bay. Sapp insisted that "four out of five" fans would prefer to see him fail than succeed. He said then, "When I'm gone, most people will be happy."

Was Sapp correct? And if so, how much of the blame does he share? Fans, most of them, only want a little. A word here or there. A smile. A bit of acknowledgement that you appreciate how much they appreciate you. Is that so hard?

Instead, he was a swirling, confounding ball of controversies. Mike Sherman. Les Steckel. Keyshawn Johnson. NFL owners. And on and on.

So when it comes to Sapp, feel how you must. Good or bad, he has earned it.

As for me, I've sorted through a lot of my memories of Sapp during the past few days. And, yes, a lot of them still make me smile. An interview with Sapp could be like a trip to the carnival.

Remember, Sapp was the guy who once said he would take a bullet for Dungy "if I was sure it wouldn't kill me." He was the guy who once wouldn't let his teammates tape Martin Gramatica to the goalposts because "he's our only guaranteed points." He was the guy who referred to Michael Strahan as "Mr. Ed."

And there is this. When my daughter K.C. was younger, she decided she wanted a Bucs jersey. In particular, she wanted a Warren Sapp jersey. During an empty moment that week, I mentioned it to Sapp.

"That must scare the hell out of you," Sapp said, laughing loudly. It was typical Sapp, funny and coarse and on-point.

The shame of it was, not enough people saw enough of that side of a man Tampa Bay tried to love, and failed.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.