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No. 99: talk of the town and NFL -- just ask him

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2000


TAMPA -- Warren Sapp faced a flurry of numbers. Glancing up, he saw TV microphone flags from 8, 9, 10, 11, 13, 28 and 44. Surfing every channel but the English.

CNN, ESPN, Fox and continental legions of print journalists were on the way. Sapp was eager to be oiled by NFL playoff juices.

Weekdays at noon, the Bucs take a break from practice. They snack from a buffet. Reporters appear. At the cubicle of No. 99, always, there evolves conversation blunt and colorful. Kind of a daily State of the Sapp Union. A locker room game he plays willingly, adeptly and effectively.

Tape recorders vacuum Warren's words. A few of us newspaper dinosaurs scribble on note pads. Perched on a bench is Sapp's agile, powerful body in the round.

"You ask," he says, "I answer."

Warren's hair struts with cornrows. "My goal," said the intriguing, oft-entertaining 27-year-old defensive lineman, "is to become the first bust with braids in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."

Sapp could make it.

He has Pro Bowl talents. Heavy attention, local and national, is earned. But, on Warren, there is an obvious excess of newspaper and magazine coverage, radio sound bites and TV shots. He works at it.

Sapp is blunt, quotable and smart. Reporters often blitz past Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, Tony Mayberry and Hardy Nickerson to become Sapp's audience. Warren ranks sixth in NFL quarterback sacks but leads the league in self-marketing.

"My mouth equals my play," said the former University of Miami athlete. "I'm comfortable being the center of attention. I covet it. It ain't that tough to deal with. I really like it.

"I say what I think. Let it fly. I'm brutally honest. When I play crappy, I'll say so. My mother told me to use no wolf tickets; you know, empty boasts. Nobody cares about an empty wagon. I think my wagon is pretty full."

He makes $6-million a season.

"Years ago, the Hurricanes prepared me for this. I learned from (wide receiver) Lamar Thomas about talking loud and then being able to back it up. About keeping your name in newspapers and your mug on TV. By yapping a lot, I pretty much always get the last word."

On game days, cameras always seem to be tracking Sapp. They know his tendencies. Awaiting a gesture, a scream or a dance. He goes for enemy quarterbacks, then looks for attention. So easily, he appears to locate the lens. Like a savvy actor who understands every available tool on a stage.

He's an All-Pro showoff.

Brad Culpepper, his fellow Bucs defensive tackle, rolls eyes and gives a smirk upon seeing media masses at Sapp's station.

"He's a master at manipulating you guys," said No. 77, who has become one of 99's closest pals. "If he were any better at self-promotion, we'd probably see Warren's picture in the Bucs logo."

This time, Sapp was being questioned about the 1995 draft, when his stock was tainted by drug rumors. Warren deserved to be 1-2-3 in the first round but slipped to 12th. Tampa Bay did deep research and took a calculated chance. A move that paid bulging dividends.

Warren's memory is near-elephantine. He is more observant than your average professional athlete, keeping track of stuff even well removed from his world. So, it's easy for him to remember every heartbeat from the '95 draft. Almost five years later, he easily names all 11 collegians chosen ahead of him.

"Among them, only (Jacksonville offensive tackle) Tony Boselli has played as well as I have," Sapp assessed. "Steve McNair (quarterback of the Tennessee Titans) is now coming on. But it shows you how exaggerated, untrue information can distort.

"I failed two drug tests, one as a UM freshman and the other at the NFL combine. I was honest and admitted that. But by the time all the stories came out, some had me flunking seven drugs tests, including one for cocaine.

"That's what angered me. I see cocaine as something that can make you harm your mother. I love my mom too much to ever consider it. I used to do some playing around with marijuana, like probably half the guys in this (Bucs) locker room."

Signs of Sapp maturity are evident, but still you hear stories of rude, vulgar behavior in public. People claiming Warren is unapproachable and is quick to growl with nastiness.

Tampa Bay team officials have received repeated complaints. Bucs coach Tony Dungy and general manager Rich McKay are aware.

After a half hour with Sapp, sitting beside him on that bench, discussing the Washington Redskins, sharing some laughs, I approached him with a serious query about his community demeanor. It was a new question.

His eyes focused. Sapp listened hard. Then, as usual, No. 99 was blunt. Letting fly with his philosophy. Sounding a bit like basketball wizard Charles Barkley, a man noted for live-wire interviews but also unfortunate scrimmages in public.

"Everywhere I go, away from my home and my job," Sapp began his explanation, "I'm always encountering lots of people. I like to keep them at arm's bay. I don't like people touching me. Walking up and slapping me on the back.

"For every person who truly likes you, there are probably three who don't. Crazy things can happen. I like to keep going. No stopping to talk. I won't disrupt your life, so don't disrupt mine.

"When somebody buys a (Bucs) ticket or pays for DirecTV, I owe them all I've got for three or four hours on Sunday, or in this case Saturday. But, away from football, it's my life.

"I'm not interested in stopping and shooting the bull about last Sunday's game. I don't know these people. I can't be sure what they're about. I'm wary. I have fears, even when people come bearing gifts."

It's understandable when famous folks like Warren are wary. With so much exposure, outsiders come to think they truly know a celebrity. But exposure is pretty much a one-way deal. And, sadly, it is a time of stalkers and boldness and nuttiness.

That said, there are smoother ways to handle uncomfortable situations. Nicer tactics in avoiding extensive, unwanted conversations. Dungy handles on-the-street challenges with beautiful, stylish, consistent aplomb. Sapp has learned so much from his coach.

Tony can't tackle, sack or self-market as well as Sapp. But, don't you think, the NFL defender of the year might absorb one more obvious Dungy lesson? Like the big guy said about the ceaseless interviews: It ain't that tough to deal with.

Ninety-nine, he's an intriguing study.

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