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Fennelly: Ms. Annie is the rock behind Warren Sapp

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Published:   |   Updated: August 1, 2013 at 04:53 PM

Saturday night in Canton, Ohio, even on that big stage, he'll look for her, like he did before all his games, all the games that led to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Warren Sapp will find her, too. His mother will make sure.

"Oh, he'll hear my voice now," Annie Roberts said.

Warren grew up on a dirt road in Plymouth, northwest of Orlando. There was a Plymouth Rock, too.

"I'm a mama's boy," Sapp said. "That's my universe. I always tell people, if you want to know who I am and why I am, just sit with her a while - and enjoy."

Ms. Annie is in her late 60s, but she remains a fireball, sharp as ever, on the go, always something to do. This Saturday is another kind of something for her son.

"It's going to be nonstop crying, all of us," Annie said.

They made this journey together. See the son and you see the mother. See the mother and you see the son.

"His mom is everything," said Bucs great Derrick Brooks, who knows them both. "She's his rock."

Brooks smiled.

"Ms. Annie has some armor herself now, just like Sapp. But you get underneath it and you get a heart of gold."

Annie Roberts is in her Central Florida home, in an airy room that serves as a museum to her son 99, whom she calls "Carlos," for his middle name. The walls are covered with jerseys: Apopka High, Miami, Bucs, Raiders, Pro Bowl. There's a life-size Sapp cardboard cut-out. Annie stands next to it as she lets you know something.

"Carlos, he worked hard to get what he got."

And that goes back to Annie.

"My mama worked herself to the bone," Warren Sapp said.

His father was hardly around, but Annie was everywhere, sometimes working four jobs while raising six children. She was an assistant teacher at an elementary school, and in the cafeteria, too. Then she'd pot plants at a local nursey, a penny a pot, or clean houses, or work at a local restaurant. Everyone in tiny Plymouth knew Ms. Annie, her fierce pride, that love for her family. She told you like it was. Sounds familiar.

"When you see a mom that strong, how can you not be strong?" said Sapp's sister, Melissa.

Annie, she had some armor now. There she was, walking right onto the practice field at high school, coming to get her son, because she'd found the bad school progress report he'd tried to hide. She wanted him to get an education, and he was going to get it, one way or another.

"She'd hit me with anything within reach," Sapp said with a laugh.

She even picked up her Bible once and waved it.

"Boy, I will beat you with The Word!"

Nobody like Annie.

When her son became a a star, and it was time to choose a college, Florida's Big Three wooed Warren Sapp. But Annie was the word. Like that recruiting trip to Florida ...

"Steve Spurrier and my craw just did not get along," Annie said. "I just didn't feel right. Where's my (gas mileage) check? Let's go, boy."

Bobby Bowden visited Annie at the school where she worked.

"He didn't even have the decency to come into our house," Annie said.

Warren Sapp wrote in his autobiography that the proudest day of his life was after he signed his first NFL contract, and he drove his mother, in her new car, to her new home. Annie wore a 99 jersey to Bucs games. She sat near the field, which was good.

"I never felt right at a football game until I saw my mom, until I spotted her," Sapp said. "And she was always there."

She arrived early, she once told her son, because, "I like to get my mouth all ready for football."

"I felt like I was part of it. I was riding right along with him," Annie said. "Over the years, as he went down, tackling somebody, I was tackling them, too."

There was the night in Philadelphia, at Veterans Stadium, when the Bucs beat the Eagles for the NFC title on the way to the Super Bowl. Annie was ready that night, helped make her own sign, in fact. She held it aloft.

How Can An Eagle Fly With A Sapp On Its Back?

It was too much for one beast Eagles fan, who yanked the sign from Annie. Police led him away. Annie reached for another sign. She'd brought a spare.

"One monkey don't stop the show," she shouted.

Nobody like Annie.

Later, on the field, her friend Charlene McNabb - Donovan's mom - told her, "Annie, you crazy."

It was Annie Roberts who led the charge to get the Plymouth street that her son grew up on renamed Warren Sapp Drive. Annie is still charging. She can't sit still.

"I work as a crossing guard," she said. "I volunteer at the elementary schools. I go to church. I visit the sick at the hospital. ... They call me 'G.G.' (for great grandma). I don't take any guff. ... I love being around the kids. They energize me. They make me think. I help them with stuff, read to them, make funny noises."

The day Warren Sapp was elected to the Hall of Fame, Annie's phone rang.

"Mama, I made it."

"Woooooo!"

"I said 'Thank you, Jesus,' then went on with the crying and praising God," Annie said.

"She's always been loud," Warren Sapp said. "We've always been loud. That's just what it is."

Annie softly told her son she was proud.

"I had taken her to 31 of 32 NFL stadiums," Sapp said, voice breaking. "I had taken her all the way to Japan, the Tokyo Bowl. I had taken my mother to The Great Wall of China. I had taken my mother everywhere you could buy a plane ticket for."

Now they're going to Canton, together.

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