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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sapp had vision of success far from hometown

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Published:   |   Updated: August 1, 2013 at 11:00 PM

PLYMOUTH - He grew up on a dirt road in a two-stoplight town known for its giant oak trees and working-class values. His yellow, three-bedroom, wood-frame home was some 45 minutes northwest of Orlando, a little farther to Disney World, but it might as well have been a million miles away.

It's an easy spot to miss, this unincorporated Central Florida community of 3,000, situated along U.S. 441 between Apopka and Zellwood. It can be a difficult place to escape. If you're born in Plymouth, the locals say, odds are strong you'll die there, too.

Warren Sapp always saw something more.

Maybe he couldn't visualize All-America status in college and a 13-year NFL career, including nine seasons as a defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, seven as a Pro Bowler. Maybe he couldn't imagine being immortalized and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But Sapp knew there was a big, wide world out there, far from the citrus groves that surrounded him. And he was determined to find it.

"I remember hearing that song, 'I Wanna Be Rich,' . those lyrics . 'I wanna be rich for a little love, peace and happiness,' " said Sapp's older sister, Melissa. "Well, he looks at us one day and says, 'You know, I'm gonna be rich!'

"Now, some people would say, 'Yeah, right!' But we didn't. I remember saying, 'You're gonna be rich? How are you gonna be rich?' He looked at me so serious. 'I'm gonna be a big rich man some day.' I just thought it was so real. There was such truth. As crazy as it seemed, he knew. And we knew."

If you're searching for the forces that shaped Sapp, you start at that house on the corner of Barrett Street and Monk Avenue. A few things have changed. The dirt road has been paved. Barrett Street has been renamed - "Warren Sapp Drive'' - in honor of Plymouth's most famous product.

You meet the mother who worked four jobs and raised six children, largely on her own, and sense the tough-love environment that Sapp didn't challenge. You learn about the father who was in and out for a while before leaving for good, never really there for his youngest son.

You see the fields where Sapp played, dawn to dusk, where he sometimes had to beg for his chance, where the constant challenge was to keep up with his three older brothers. You hear about the ebullient personality, the nonstop chatter, the photographic memory and attention to detail, his love for facts, his disdain for perceptions. You experience his array of outgoing, trash-talking siblings and quickly realize that being passive and soft-spoken never was an acceptable option.

So, how did it all come together to produce No. 99, Tampa Bay's all-time antihero? His contradictions, the chip-on-the-shoulder defiance that kept his fans at arm's length, the endearing qualities of laughter, loyalty and love for those in his inner circle?

It's complicated.

Or, as Sapp suggests, it's simple.

"You're looking for that one piece that explains everything," Sapp said. "Here's the whole thing. I've been nothing but a straightforward guy, but everybody wants to play me like I've hidden something all these years. I'm like, 'Really?'

"Go dig. Go to Plymouth. You want to know who I am? Sit with my mother for 20 minutes. You'll find out."

Annie Roberts, Sapp's mother, somehow made it work for all those years. Now she wants for nothing. She lives in Windermere, an opulent Central Florida development where the likes of Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Shaquille O'Neal, Ken Griffey Jr. and Wesley Snipes have owned homes.

But don't be mistaken. Since Sapp turned professional, allowing her to leave behind a juggling act of jobs as a teacher's assistant, nursery worker, maid and late-night waitress, Roberts may have picked up the pace. She's a relentless volunteer, including daily duties as a school crossing guard, and enthusiastic traveler with a senior citizen group.

Ask Roberts a question and you'll get an answer.

"Warren is like me somewhat," she said. "Sometimes, he'll speak out of turn, then he'll catch himself. You have to get to know him. That's what it is.

"I'll listen to him. Sometimes, I laugh. Sometimes, I cringe. He's got a mouth on him, now. I like the fact that he speaks his mind - to a certain extent. But he can be a little harsh sometimes. Yeah, that's me, too."

Roberts remembers "those big eyes looking up at me" on the first view of her sixth child. "He came into the world wide-eyed and ready to go," she said.

When family and neighbors gathered to see the 9-pound, 14-ounce baby, everyone was amazed at his ability to lift up his head, straining to study the surroundings. By nine months, he was walking.

"I don't remember when he started talking, but he talked a lot," she said. "Lots and lots of words. He was sharp."

He was Warren Carlos Sapp - although his mother and siblings almost always called him Carlos. Warren? At the hospital, the first name was suggested by his father, Hershel Sapp. It's about the only thing he ever gave his son.

In his 2012 book, "Sapp Attack!" Sapp referred to his father as "a once-in-a-while shadow that cast darkness over our lives." By the time Sapp was growing up and into sports, the father was gone.

Sapp's sister, Melissa, remembers when the father left. He stood in the living room, saying he'd be back. She believed him. Sapp, about 11, glared out the window. He knew. He broke the news to his sister: "He ain't coming back."

"I think from that point, that was the end of the trust," Melissa Sapp said. "Coming up, my brother would play with just about anybody. But trust anybody? He's not a very trusting guy.

"If he gets to know you and feels your vibe and likes you, he likes you. If he doesn't, there's a wall as long as 441 from Plymouth to Miami. You can't go around it. You can't go over it."

Roberts knew how to fill the dual role of mother and father.

"We made it without him (the father),'' she said. "I don't expect we needed him. Warren might've needed him."

Shortly into Sapp's NFL career, the father briefly returned. Roberts was encouraged, thinking maybe a relationship could happen. "Where have you been?" Sapp said. The father said he never left Florida.

Sapp's mother remembers her son's response: "Neither did I. Where were you when I played high school football in Apopka? Where were you when I went to Miami for college? That's Florida. I never saw anybody except her proud face in the stands."

Roberts always was there.

"You go from being let down by one parent and then uplifted and held together by another," Melissa Sapp said. "Still, it's very hard. The hurt never leaves. Once that feeling is there, it's there. Time heals, but I don't know if that will ever heal.

"My mom took care of everything. We didn't have much, but she gave us everything we needed. She gave us love. She could toughen you up, too."

Roberts doesn't necessarily have warm feelings when she returns to Plymouth.

"I get done what I need to get done, then I get out of there," she said. "It's a long way from there to where Warren got to. There's not a lot to do in Plymouth."

Somehow, the children made it work.

"Plymouth was our playground," Melissa Sapp said.

The family couldn't afford much. Other kids had purchased games such as Twister or Candy Land. Sometimes, Sapp and his siblings made up their own games.

"Some days, we'd maybe want to play with the ball, but we didn't have a ball," said Sapp's older brother, Hershel. "We'd chase around an old tire. We had to make the best out of what we had."

They grabbed inner-tubes and floated down a freshwater stream, then raced to the starting point and did it all over again. They played in the woods, swinging from vines "like Tarzan." They ran barefoot through fields of sandspurs. They played together and got bored together.

At some point, though, mostly due to the influence of his older brothers, Sapp gravitated toward football. They thought the baby brother was just a little fat kid. In time, he proved to be something more.

"You'd see Warren running into the orange groves, racing with all these kids who were bigger and skinnier," Hershel Sapp said. "By the end of the race, Warren would be the first one out. He was fast."

He was also indefatigable.

Once chores were finished, Sapp was gone to his outdoor adventures. If no one else was around, he played football by himself, hiking it to himself, concocting imaginary game-winning scenarios, complete with his own commentary.

He wanted to stay out past sundown like some other kids, but once he heard the mother's call - CARLOS! - he sped home.

The highlights were games with his brothers, Hershel, plus Parnell and Arnell Lykes.

"For me to even get out of the yard to go with them, I had to be special," Sapp said. "They'd throw the football at my head. I'm trying to figure out how to catch it without it knocking me out. Once I got to play with somebody my own age, it was like taking candy from a baby. It was a joke, an absolute joke."

Sapp and his friends competed in all sports against Plymouth's neighborhoods - the Quarter, the Blacktop, Across the Tracks and the Hill. But he didn't play organized football until Apopka High School, mostly because his mother wouldn't permit it.

"I was scared that he would get hurt," she said.

But when he finally got clearance, Sapp quickly established himself as an elite athlete. Football, potentially, could become his ticket to a different life.

"When you're from Plymouth, you learn how to strive," said Arnell Lykes, his older brother. "And he strived."

"He always wanted to be the best at everything," Roberts said. "I remember the third-grade teacher giving them a problem that none of the students could solve, but Warren stayed there until he was satisfied he could conquer it. He was the type of son who wouldn't give up on anything - academically or athletically."

Sapp mostly played tight end at Apopka.

"He got so many mismatches," former Apopka quarterback Brett King said. "Nobody could cover him. He was too big, too much of an athlete."

Chip Gierke, who was Sapp's coach at Apopka, remembers a supreme talent who sometimes drifted by on natural ability. But as a senior, Gierke said, Sapp hit a new level.

"It was like the light came on,'' Gierke said. "I think he saw how his mom was working her butt off. I told him, 'You've got to fight your way out of there (Plymouth). Nobody will give you anything for free.' He earned it. And now he's a great example."

Gierke, who now coaches at Orlando Evans, invited Sapp to speak to his players a few years ago. Sure enough, Sapp had a calculated message.

"Fellas, what word has all five vowels?"

Blank stares, all around.

"Education."

Gierke: "Talk about getting your attention. My jaw just dropped. What he has accomplished, nobody can take it away. He's a pretty interesting guy. I love him, but I know he gets taken a lot of ways."

By strangers. By fans. Even by teammates.

"I appreciate the mystery of Sapp," former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

So how do you figure him out?

"Why try?" Brooks said.

Loud and proud. Irreverent and hilarious. Enigmatic, to be sure.

It's complicated. But to the people who know Sapp best, it's simple.

"He's still that little kid from Plymouth," Roberts said. "He's just in a different package."

jjohnston@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7353

Twitter: @JJohnstonTBO

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