TAMPA — Warren Sapp, basking in the adulation of a sellout crowd, looked to the east side of Raymond James Stadium. On cue, a covering was removed from the fašade, revealing the latest member of the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor.
Fireworks erupted over the stadium. The crowd at Raymond James Stadium gave him a standing ovation. His family members and teammates, many from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl XXXVII championship team of 2002, surrounded him in support.
That moment, Sapp said later, became one of the few times he was speechless.
”I’m home,’’ Sapp said. “It has all come full circle now. There’s nothing like being home.’’
In August, Sapp became the second Bucs player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It would be difficult to match that for thrills.
But according to Sapp, Monday night’s festivities actually surpassed his weekend in Canton, Ohio.
“This is where we built it up from the ground,’’ Sapp said. “These are the fans who supported us. This just felt a lot better than Canton because this is home.
“I tried to hold it together, but it was hard. I love this game. I love the people in the stands. I love everything about game day. It was tough for me to be out there, feeling the emotions like the old days, and not be able to bust a little head. There was a lot going on out there.’’
He received his Hall of Fame ring — “And it’s bigger than my Super Bowl ring,’’ Sapp said, grinning broadly. He was placed into the Ring of Honor, joining Lee Roy Selmon, John McKay, Jimmie Giles and Paul Gruber.
And his No. 99 jersey was retired, the second time that has happened for a Bucs player. Selmon’s No. 63 was retired in 1986.
“Aside from Lee Roy, I don’t think you can put a bigger, brighter, more charismatic face on this organization,’’ former Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. “There were lot of great players played before and after him, but there was nobody like him.’’
“It was exciting to see the energy in the house for him,’’ former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said. “I think he was overwhelmed. He felt it. We were saying that this stadium tonight, it was like when we played, when Warren was standing in front of the huddle, leading the cheers. It was awesome. I felt great for Warren to get something like this.’’
In his speech at midfield, Sapp thanked his family, teammates and the Glazer family that owns the Buccaneers. But he saved his greatest tribute for Tampa Bay’s fans.
“My bust might be in Canton,’’ Sapp said, raising his arms in a salute, “but my heart and soul is in Tampa Bay.’’
All around Raymond James Stadium, fans wore their No. 99 Sapp jerseys, some in red, some in orange.
“I just loved his style of play,’’ said Amy Osborn of St. Petersburg. “He played with such a passion. There wasn’t anyone else like him.’’
Sapp, the 12th overall pick in 1995 from the University of Miami, said the franchise’s dismal state upon his arrival made his accomplishments even sweeter.
“I walked into this thing with everything that went on in the draft,’’ Sapp said. “I talked about winning a championship and ya’ll were laughing at me. ‘This kid has no idea where he is.’ We dug in and had a lot of hard-working brothers around here.
“It was Tony (Dungy) showing us the light and the path and (Jon) Gruden driving right through it. Everybody had a hand in it. Without everybody around here, I’m just another loudmouth from Miami who didn’t win (anything). We all got to share in it together.’’
But on Monday, it was Sapp’s night.
“He deserves it,’’ Brooks said. “He’s one of the greatest players ever.’’