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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Sapp set to take place among game's greats

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Published:   |   Updated: August 3, 2013 at 09:37 AM

CANTON, Ohio - Growing up in the tiny central Florida town of Plymouth, Warren Sapp dreamed big.

Not this big.

The Hall of Fame defensive tackle of the Buccaneers struggled to keep his composure Friday as a conga line of NFL immortals made their way toward No. 99 at the Hall's annual Ray Nitschke Memorial Luncheon.

This gathering was particularly special because the Hall is celebrating its 50th anniversary and a record number of enshrinees turned out to share in the weekend activities.

"It's more than anything I could imagine,'' Sapp said as he was surrounded by a horde of reporters that stretched five-deep. "This is all I've ever wanted, to be around the giants of the game. They stamp me official because they are the best of the best.''

Tonight, Sapp will formally take his place among the giants as his bust is unveiled during a ceremony destined to generate tears from Sapp and the dozens of supporters sharing his emotional moment at Fawcett Stadium.

The seven members of the Class of 2013 have been advised to limit their remarks to 12 minutes. Look for Sapp to treat that threshold with the same disdain he showed offensive linemen during a remarkable 13-year career.

"I'm standing here representing so many people from a bunch of little towns that gave me a little helping hand,'' he said. "I know I'll miss mentioning somebody Saturday when I'm at that podium, but they know I didn't forget them in my heart.''

Long before Sapp wore Buccaneer orange, he worshipped the Dallas Cowboys. After posing for a group photo with the new inductees and a huge turnout of returning Hall members, Sapp and his 15-year-old daughter, Mercedes, entered a large tent to mingle with the greats of the game before the luncheon.

"Your whole life flashes in front of you,'' Sapp said.

Sapp's football career was filled with highlights, but he had no hesitation when asked to describe his most memorable moment.

"Jan. 26, 2003,'' he said, citing the day Tampa Bay deafeated the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. "We brought a world championship back to One Buc Place. It was just a woodshed. Nobody gave us a snowball's chance in hell. We were the Yucks, remember? I watch that (parade) video all the time because there was no greater moment for me.''

A two-time All-Decade selection, Sapp made the Hall in his first year of eligibility, a rare distinction for a defensive tackle. As Sapp spoke, a few feet away stood wide receiver Cris Carter, a fellow member of the Class of 2013 who was bypassed five times as a finalist despite scoring 130 career touchdowns.

"I'm proud of Big Daddy,'' Carter said, referring to Sapp. "I love him to death.''

In his moment of triumph, Sapp took time to reflect on the late Lee Roy Selmon, who was inducted into the Hall in 1995.

Selmon's bust has been waiting 18 years for company.

"The greatest Buc is already in here,'' Sapp said. "Our first pick, Lee Roy Selmon. Before him, Doug (Williams) and the boys, there was nothing in Tampa. His was the first bust I stopped at.''

But not the last.

Sapp is a historian of the NFL. He can talk for hours about the techniques and pursuit angles used by Hall of Fame defensive tackles Bob Lilly and Merlin Olsen in the 1960s.

Lilly is too ill to attend this week's festivities and Olsen died in 2010, but Sapp found himself basking in the presence of the men who came before him.

"Michael Irvin said it best - this is the bible of the NFL because every Sunday, you go to church and they're talking about a 2,000-year-old book that's giving you strength,'' he said. "Walking into that room inspires me to be better every day.''

When Sapp steps to the podium this evening, he'll look out in the crowd and see vivid reminders of his Buccaneers past, from co-chairmen Bryan and Joel Glazer to former coach Tony Dungy and former teammates Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber.

And he'll think of the distance traveled to the steps of Canton.

"There were some lean years when we had no superstars,'' he said. "We were just working. That was the one thing we did. We knew nothing was coming our way ... we were the Bucs. We were in icicle orange and we built that thing from scratch.''

When asked to name a current NFL defensive tackle that reminds him of No. 99, Sapp experienced a rare moment of silence.

Outstanding physical skills alone aren't enough to land a player in the Hall, he said, unless they are accompanied by a keen football intellect and dedication to the sport.

"Work,'' Sapp said, his tone suddenly growing serious. "It's a disease. Not everybody can catch it and, for damned sure, it isn't contagious. This is a wonderful game that's been played 90-plus years before me and will be played 90 years after me. Make it a little better.

"Enjoy it, but see if you can make it a little better.''

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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