TAMPA, Fla. — Now headed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Warren Sapp smiles as he remembers accepting the challenge to turn around one of the worst franchises in pro sports history.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost 10 or more games for 11 consecutive seasons before selecting a mouthy, fun-loving and sometimes downright irreverent defensive tackle in the opening round of the 1995 NFL Draft. He struggled during a 7-9 rookie season that ended the double-digit losses streak — but hardly lifted the team out of a funk.
Enter Tony Dungy with a plan that a young, supremely confident, 23-year-old Sapp — who was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in February and will be enshrined in Canton on Saturday as a part of a class that also includes Larry Allen, Cris Carter, Curley Culp, Jonathan Ogden, Bill Parcells and Dave Robinson — found irresistible.
"When he walked into the job, it was kind of funny. We were walking through old One Buc Place going to see each other. I was coming through the back door and he was coming from his office. We met about halfway. We looked at each other and he said: 'I was looking for you,' and I said: 'I was looking for you.'"
At age 40, Sapp, who spent the final four years of his career with the Raiders, still gets excited talking about Dungy replacing his first NFL coach, Sam Wayche, and setting a lofty goal of chasing down Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in the old NFC Central. He and linebacker Derrick Brooks, also drafted in the first round in 1995, bought into the plan right away.
Working within Dungy's version of Cover 2 that Sapp, Brooks, safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber helped evolve into what's known today as Tampa 2, the self-described "small-town country boy" from Plymouth, Fla. — outside of Orlando — developed into one of the most dominating defensive tackles in league history.
Sapp was a four-time All-Pro selection and made the Pro Bowl the final seven years of a nine-season run with the Buccaneers, who ended a 15-year hiatus from the playoffs in 1997; made it to the NFC Championship Game in 1999, when Sapp was NFL Defensive Player of the Year; and, won their only Super Bowl title in 2002.
"I played the game for the love and respect of the people I played with and against. And if you are picking a team, and you've got a defensive tackle position, I'm taking 99. And twice on Sunday," Sapp said.