What did the game of football mean to Warren Sapp?
"There's nothing else I know and love," he said, "that's taken me from a dirt road to heights I'd never even seen…and now to a gold jacket!"
What did Warren Sapp mean to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? He gave them a presence, a force of nature that wouldn't be denied. And, as of Saturday, he also gave the Buccaneers a more powerful presence in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, the Hall enshrined seven new members at its annual ceremony in Canton, Ohio on Saturday night. Sapp, the larger-than-life defensive tackle who helped rejuvenate the NFL's 27th franchise in the 1990s and lead it to its first Super Bowl Championship in 2002, was a member of that star-studded Class of 2013. He took to the podium sixth, right after Curley Culp and right before Ohio's native son, Cris Carter. Sapp was presented by his daughter, Mercedes, and serenaded by an unexpected but rousing "TAMPA – BAY" chant from both sides of Fawcett Stadium.
In a surprisingly concise but fully emotional 15 minutes at the podium, Sapp thanked family and friends, touched on some of the most important influences in his journey and revealed the first and most important motivation that set him on his way to football immortality.
"I never played this game to get into the Hall of Fame," said Sapp. "I played this game to retire my mother."
The three-hour ceremony was all about football and its greatest stars, but it was also unlike any other NFL event during the year. The crowd was a wild jumble of fans from a half-dozen franchises, some of them decked out from head-to-toe in their teams' colors. Many had spent the afternoon touring the Hall of Fame next door and soaking in the history of the game. They came to cheer for Sapp, Carter, Culp, Bill Parcells, Jonathan Ogden, Larry Allen and Dave Robinson as they pulled the covers off their bronze busts, signifying the highest honor in the game.
Sapp became the second player to be so honored who spent all or the majority of his career as a Buccaneer, joining 1995 inductee Lee Roy Selmon. He was joined in Canton by dozens of former teammates and current friends, including fellow Buccaneer greats Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. Sapp, Brooks and Lynch were the original "Big Three" who formed the core of what would become one of the greatest defenses in NFL history.
Lynch arrived as a third-round draft pick in 1993; Sapp and Brooks were both first-rounders in the 1995 draft, and the first two players selected under the Glazer family ownership. Despite being a dominant college player at the University of Miami, Sapp slipped to the 12th spot in the first round before the Buccaneers called his name.
"Tampa Bay was there when it wasn't fashionable to be with Warren Sapp," he said. "I was sitting there for two hours and 45 minutes, but they took me and said, 'We're going to change this organization.' Derrick Brooks, he was with me that day. Without that dude, ain't no way we turn it around. And I see [him] right there next to John Lynch. He's the back end. We were the front, the back and the middle."
In 1996, Tony Dungy arrived as the Buccaneers' new head coach and gave Sapp the defensive framework he needed to emerge as a superstar. Sapp had nine sacks in '96, and another 10.5 in '97 as the franchise broke a 15-year playoff drought. In 1999, the incredibly disruptive DT was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year after amassing 12.5 sacks and leading the Buccaneers to within a few minutes of their first Super Bowl berth. In 2000, Sapp set the Bucs' single-season record with 16.5 QB takedowns.
"Tony Dungy showed us a structure and a path, and a way to get it done, day after day," he said.
Sapp would go on to play nine seasons with the Buccaneers, then another four with the Oakland Raiders, eventually finishing with 96.5 sacks, the second-highest total ever for a defensive tackle. He would be named to the NFL's All-Decade Teams for both the 1990s and the 2000s, an accomplishment that seemed to earmark him for an eventual spot in the Hall.
That spot opened up for Sapp in 2013, the first year he was eligible, making him part of an elite fraternity and the first Buccaneer ever to make it in during that first year of eligibility. In the coming years, Sapp and Selmon could find themselves with more Buccaneer company – Lynch will be in his second year of eligibility in 2014, Dungy and Brooks in their first, and the recently-retired Ronde Barber is not too far behind. Sapp came first in this potential new Buccaneer wave, and it was only too fitting. He was drafted in April of 1995, just three months before Selmon got his own bronze bust. Selmon was the first draft pick in franchise history and its first Hall of Famer; Sapp was the first draft pick of the Glazer era and its first Hall of Famer.
Sapp helped pave a new road for the Buccaneers, one that led to Canton, Ohio. That was never his goal, but it was the inevitable result of his innate talents and his love for the game.
"I love this game," said Sapp. "I love the passion of it. And now I'm here with the greatest."