Last year former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman Warren Sapp took his place among the greats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Like most former NFL players in Canton, Ohio the week of their induction, Sapp let his guard down while talking to reporters before his big weekend got underway. Below is the story I wrote for The Apopka Chief, Sapp’s hometown newspaper during his playing days at Apopka High School in Florida.
There was one piece of advice that stuck with Warren Sapp throughout much of his ascent from the dirt roads of Plymouth and the playing fields in Apopka to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“My grandmother said something to me a long time ago that I’ll never forget,” Sapp said at the onset of his enshrinement speech Saturday in Canton, Ohio. “She said, ‘boy, don’t you ever forget where you come from’.”
The late Rosie Lykes would be proud. Not only because her grandson was immortalized over the weekend among an elite group of 280 professional football players, but because he’s maintained a genuine compassion for those that helped him reach these heights along the way.
Sapp, who starred for Apopka High School before becoming a first round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of the University of Miami in 1995, spent nearly 12 minutes recognizing family, friends, former coaches and teammates at the Hall of Fame’s 50th anniversary gathering.
It was a peak behind the rugged exterior of one of the fiercest defensive tackles in the history of the National Football League.
“In that little dirt town in Plymouth, there wasn’t a lot to do,” Sapp said of his hometown on Saturday. “And I want to thank Quinnly Harper and Troy Rainey, because without you, Troy, I would have never played this great game of football.”
Sapp proceeded to address his roots as a high school football player soon after, with a tone in his voice that made it seems as though the mere thought of Roger Williams Field is still enough to get his competitive juices flowing.
“Apopka, the indoor foliage capital of the world. APK. The Blue Darters. Yeah, baby, we here. Yes we are,” Sapp said. “Coach (Chip) Gierke, you were my coach, but more like a father. I want to say I love you, coach.”
Sapp kept his sense of humor throughout the speech, but the moments of reflection, and most notably gratitude in the direction of his mother, Annie Roberts, showed the world who he is today as a man.
Growing up as a kid without cable television and air conditioning, Sapp thrived athletically with a passion for the game of football. His mother’s blessing helped him unleash the potential that his coaches eventually tapped into over the years.
“I never played this game to get in the Hall of Fame,” Sapp said during his speech. “I played this game to retire my mother, because my mother worked to the bone, and I wasn’t going to allow her or myself to be in that position again.”
Sapp wore his emotions on his sleeve throughout the weekend, much like he did throughout his playing career. But instead of trading verbal jabs with opposing players he was listening to legends of the game tell their stories while preserving as many moments as he could on a camera phone.
It seems not even one of the most dominant sack-happy defensive tackles in the National Football League could overcome the emotions that follow most inductees during Hall of Fame weekend. Especially not for a man who said he cried “every single day” since hearing his name included among the Class of 2013 in February.
“There’s not a day I haven’t cried,” Sapp said on Friday to members of the media. “It’s more than anything I could of imagined. I’m home. I’m a small-town country boy. This feels just like home.”
His only worry entering Saturday’s enshrinement event was leaving out the names of people who played such a huge part in helping him achieve such acclaim. From the dusty days of playing outside his childhood home behind a truck stop in Plymouth to his final down as a member of the Oakland Raiders, Sapp worried he would never be able to acknowledge them all.
“But they know I don’t forget them in my heart,” Sapp said. “I’m standing here a representative of so many people from a bunch of little towns that gave me a little push, a little helping hand, a little this and a little that.”
He remains loyal to family and friends in Central Florida who shared in providing the life-lessons he carries with him today. Chances are good that Saturday night was not the first time he thanked those people as he’s made a habit of returning home and giving back to the places that raised him.
“It’s a way of showing my appreciation, because I’m the exact example of it takes a village to raise a kid,” he said. “I used to get whoopins from anybody, whenever you did something wrong, up and down the neighborhood. You’d get one and they’d call home on you, and you’d get another one when you got home.”
As much as family, both on and off the field, has meant to Sapp it’s really no wonder that he chose his daughter, Mercedes, to present him at the Hall of Fame.
“To be a Hall of Famer you have to be the best at what you do,” Mercedes said in a prerecorded video presentation. “My dad was the best at what he did.”
After father and daughter simultaneously pulled the cover from atop a bronze statue bearing Sapp’s likeness, he kissed its forehead. It didn’t take long before his eyes watered up while standing at the podium.
It was a moment that finally validated all the hard work. Not only for Sapp, but also the communities that raised him.
“This game is so great, there is nothing else I know and love that’s taken me from a dirt road to heights I’ve never even seen, and now to a gold jacket,” he said. “Oh, my goodness.”