www.baltimoresun.com/sports/ravens/os-mike-bianchi-warren-sapp-bucs-0503-20130502,0,4023919.column

baltimoresun.com

Warren Sapp: From picking oranges in Plymouth to Bucs Ring of Honor

Mike Bianchi

SPORTS COMMENTARY

8:06 PM EDT, May 2, 2013

Advertisement

TAMPA – "Just a little boy from Plymouth, Florida," Warren Sapp says, wiping away a single tear zigzagging down his cheek.

A little boy who had a ginormous dream.

"If they ain't laughing at your dreams," Sapp says, "you ain't dreamin' big enough."

On Thursday, another one of his dreams was realized when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made Sapp the fifth person in history to join the team's Ring of Honor and only the second player to have his number — the iconic No. 99 — retired. This comes in the wake of Sapp's being announced as a first-ballot NFL Hall-of-Famer in February.

Not too shabby for that little boy who grew up on a dirt road on the outskirts of Apopka and was raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support the family. When you wake up at 4:30 in the morning to get on a bus that takes you to the groves where you pick oranges all day for $20, you appreciate where you come from. And do whatever you can to get out.

Sapp not only crashed through those boyhood barriers, he busted down the barricade of badness that had haunted the Bucs for most of their existence. But everything changed for the most laughable organization in professional sports when the Bucs drafted Sapp with the 12th pick in the 1995 NFL Draft and followed it up by taking Derrick Brooks with the 28th pick in the first round.

Sapp was a defensive tackle from Miami, and Brooks was a linebacker from Florida State. Together, they would help transform the franchise of futility into a Super Bowl champion.

"We were two Florida boys," Sapp says and smiles. "And if you know anything about Florida boys, you know we've got a chip on our shoulders."

Correction: Sapp didn't just have a chip; he had Mount Kilimanjaro ripping through his shoulder pads. He only lost five games during his college career at UM and was drafted by a franchise with 12 consecutive seasons of double-digit losses. Sapp recalls watching TV with Brooks during their first NFL season, and ESPN commentator Chris Berman kept referring to their icky new team as the "Yuks."

Sapp turned to his teammate and said, "Brooks, this will be the last time they disrespect us, and we're going to go about in a really nasty manner."

Said former Bucs coach Tony Dungy, one of several former players and coaches who showed up to support Sapp on Thursday: "Warren brought the swagger and the attitude that this franchise needed."

Sapp became the centerpiece of the famous "Tampa 2" defense essentially because he was unblockable. He was a fierce, nasty 300-pound man who ran like a tight end and hit like a freight train. Dungy played in Pittsburgh when Mean Joe Greene charged out on the field and spit in the face of intimidating Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. It was Greene's way of telling everyone that there was a new enforcer in the league.

Sapp had his transcendent moments, too. Like 1996 — Dungy's first year as coach — when Vikings running back Robert Smith turned the corner and was 40 yards downfield and headed for a touchdown before Sapp ran him down and tackled him. Or what about a couple of years later when the Bucs played the Super Bowl champion Packers and Sapp went face mask to face mask with legendary Packers QB Brett Favre?

"It was Warren's way of saying, 'You guys may be the world champions, but here we are, and now you've got to contend with us,'" Dungy says.

For the next 10 years, Sapp would be the most dominant defensive lineman in the league and would be named to the NFL's All-Decade Team in the 1990s and the 2000s. He was voted All-Pro seven times, named Defensive Player of the Year in 1999 and, of course, earned the Super Bowl ring in 2003.

"They used to say Tampa Bay was the place where careers came to die," Sapp says. "That's a lie. We made it a city of champions."

Warren Sapp, once the meanest, orneriest player in the NFL, wipes away another tear as he is introduced Thursday.

"Damn, this feels good," he says.

It should.

Hall of Fame. Ring of Honor. Retired jersey. World champion.

Nobody's laughing anymore at the little boy with the big dreams from Plymouth, Florida.

mbianchi@tribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.