BY IRA KAUFMAN AND MARTIN FENNELLY
With Warren Sapp setting the tone up front, the Buccaneers defense had been outstanding for a long stretch. But on Super Bowl Sunday in 2003, Tampa Bay added a signature performance in a 48-21 victory against the Oakland Raiders, limiting the AFC champions to only 19 rushing yards, posting five sacks and returning three of five interceptions for touchdowns.
"We had to have that championship before we could say anything," Sapp said after the NFL's top-rated defense capped a majestic postseason run. "Now, you can put us in the same sentence as the (2000) Ravens and the Steel Curtain. But none of them went to the Super Bowl and played the No. 1 offense. We put a stranglehold on them. We had an inferno going and once we dig that hole, we drag you in and pour dirt on you."
During Tampa Bay's championship season, a 21-7 home victory against Green Bay was marred by an ugly postgame confrontation between Sapp and Packers coach Mike Sherman, who labeled Sapp's hit on left tackle Chad Clifton a cheap shot.
Sapp leveled Clifton during Brian Kelly's interception return, sidelining Clifton for the rest of the season with a pelvic injury that left him unable to walk unaided for six weeks. Although no penalty was called on the play, Sapp was criticized by some for an unnecessary hit against a defenseless player.
During the confrontation with Sherman, microphones picked up the exchange in which Sapp challenged Sherman: "You're so tough, put a jersey on."
"Warren was not a dirty player," former Packers quarterback Brett Favre said. "And I don't think his reputation is tarnished by that one play. It was an unfortunate play for Chad Clifton and for Warren Sapp. I thought Warren was a great player before that hit - and after that hit.
"It was a legal hit, but he didn't have to do it. Chad wasn't going to make the play. The old saying is that Chad's head should have been on a swivel after an interception because you never know. I know enough about Warren to know he wasn't trying to hurt Chad."
Sapp was singled out for the Clifton hit in part because he had already built a reputation for violating NFL protocol. In 2003, the NFL warned Sapp not to run through an opponent's formation during pregame stretching, a tactic he had displayed routinely. A few days later, Sapp lashed back on "The NFL Today," referencing himself in the third person.
"I knew the league was going to do what they did," he said, "because they've been notoriously against Sapp. Like I said before, it's a slave system."
A decade later, former teammate Shelton Quarles wonders what all the excitement was about.
"Some of Warren's antics weren't my style, but everybody does things his own way," Quarles said. "I kind of liked it to a certain extent, especially if it got our opponent riled up and took them out of their game so we could take care of business.
"Warren had another move where he'd put his foot under his helmet that was on the ground and kick it up to himself before running out to the field. It was an image he portrayed and he lived it."
Three months after the Glazer family purchased the franchise, the Bucs selected Sapp with the No. 12 pick in the 1995 draft, ushering in a new era.
"With Warren, our defense was able to overwhelm our opponents," Bucs co-chairman Joel Glazer said. "Warren was the complete package - leadership, dominating play and an on-field attitude that was contagious."
In the old days, when the Bucs scrimmaged in the preseason with the Miami Dolphins, the Dolphins shoved the Bucs around. Respect was at a minimum. Miami didn't even take the preseason sessions very seriously. After all, it was the Bucs.
Along came Warren Sapp.
As a rookie in the 1995 preseason, he was in the Dolphins' faces, beating them down after down, dancing as he did, telling them they hadn't done squat since he was alive, pushing, pulling.
"I remember, because it seemed like we were going to have about a hundred fights," said Rich McKay, the Bucs' general manager at the time. "It was Warren and the others trying to draw a line in the sand, and naturally Warren drew the biggest one, the loudest one. He was sending a message. He was trying to reset the franchise. We weren't going to be pushed around anymore."
Tony Dungy was a year away from becoming Bucs head coach. He was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings. But Dungy remembers getting a call from a former Steelers teammate, Hall of Fame defensive tackle and all-around tough guy "Mean Joe" Greene, who was an assistant coach for the Dolphins at the time.
Dungy said, "When I talked to Joe, he said, 'I saw an awful lot of myself in Warren Sapp that day.'"
Despite all of his bombast, Sapp also had a profound respect for football tradition and the men who played the game before him.
Former Bucs tight end Dave Moore remembers a moment that revealed Sapp's dedication.
"One year, we were out in minicamp and there were a couple of our younger players laying on the football field, waiting for practice to start," Moore said. "Warren immediately rushed over and said to them, 'Do not disrespect the game of football and do not lay on this football field.' That leadership was an aspect of Warren's career that didn't get nearly enough attention.''
Sapp was quick to anger if he perceived someone invading his private space. Former Bucs safety Dwight Smith saw the results for himself as a rookie when legendary Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen made the mistake of sitting at Sapp's locker after practice.
"Warren looks at this man and says, 'Is your name Sapp?' Mr. McEwen's like, 'You know my name's not Sapp.' I thought Warren was going to send him to a heart attack or something," Smith said. "Mr. McEwen gets up and walks away and Sapp is cussing him out the whole time. I'm thinking, 'This is somebody's granddad.' I learned from that moment on, stay out of his space."
Larry Allen, the former Dallas Cowboys offensive guard, is also a member of the incoming class of the Hall of Fame. Allen and Sapp joked the night they were named to the Class of 2013.
Sapp's teammates used to love when Allen, big as a mountain, quiet as a meadow, would be matched up with Sapp, who grew up idolizing the Cowboys. They'd have one eye on their assignment and one eye on those two.
"Don't be bringing in any help, Larry, it's me and you on an island today," Sapp would say.
Allen would say nothing.
"C'mon, Larry, stop asking for help."
Allen just stared at Sapp.
One time, after a sack, and a change of possession, Sapp began following Allen to the Cowboys' sideline.
"Larry, you better ask for that help, maybe get that help."
Larry, without looking back at Sapp: "You better shut up."
Cowboys stood in awe . He's following Larry to our sideline.
"Larry, better get that help."
Just a day at the park with Sapp.
Anthony "Booger'' McFarland won't soon forget his introduction to his new Bucs teammate."I first met Sapp in 1999, after I got drafted and came to rookie minicamp,'' said the former Bucs defensive tackle, now a local radio personality. "I'm getting off the van from the hotel at 7 in the morning, walking to the door at old One Buc Place and I hear loud music. Then I see a car turn the corner on two wheels, top down, convertible Mercedes. That's how I met Warren Sapp. You know what it spoke to me? It's 7 a.m., in the offseason, but he's coming to work, wired ... ready to go. That's the energy he brought every day."
Sapp's body language often told the tale, right from the start.
"When you really needed one, when you had to have a game, you could just feel him,'' said one of Sapp's mentors, former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. "The first two, three plays of the game, his head would be shaking, he'd be moving around and I'd turn to who was next to me and I'd say, 'It's over - we got this one.' "