Sapp joins fight to preserve health of ex-players

by Gary Shelton on June 21, 2017 · 1 comment

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

Warren Sapp is donating his brain to science which, by the way, should make some scientists awfully nervous.

After all, they first have to decide whether to operate or to exorcise. No one knows what's going to fly out when they cut into his head.

Yeah, you understand why the internet is so hard on Sapp today. If Warren proved anything in his Hall of Fame career, it's that he has demons walking around in his skull.

I've said it before: He is the single most complex athlete I've ever spent time around. Once or twice a year, he would sit down for an hour-long interview, just he and I, and it was like a trip through the darkness.

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He can be mean and he can be stubborn. He can be engaging and he can be a comedian. He is bright and funny and charming and cantankerous and outlandish and loyal and angry and cartoonish. He is honest and standoffish and contrary and blunt and cold and friendly and offensive and a great storyteller all wrapped into one outsized personality.

All of that was stuffed into one great brain.

And Warren believes he's losing some of his faculties.

"I’ve also started to feel the effects of the hits that I took in my career," Sapp wrote on the Players' Tribune. "My memory ain’t what it used to be. And yeah, it’s scary to think that my brain could be deteriorating, and that maybe things like forgetting a grocery list, or how to get to a friend’s house I’ve been to a thousand times are just the tip of the iceberg. So when it comes to concussions, CTE and how we can make our game safer for future generations, I wanted to put my two cents in — to help leave the game better off than it was when I started playing.

"Because you can’t stand on the sidelines if you want to affect something. You gotta make a move. You gotta do something."

I was there when Sapp was drafted. I was there when he burst through the line and accidentally hurt Jerry Rice. I was there when he became a star. I was there when Mike Sherman, someone else's boss, tried to chastise him after a game. I was there when the Bucs let him walk. I was there when he want into the Hall of Fame. I was there for his bankruptcy.

I've said it before. Sapp wasn't the greatest Buc of them all (Derrick Brooks and Lee Roy Selmon were), but he was probably the most important Buc of them all. He was loud when Tampa Bay needed to hear a little noise. He was a star when we weren't used to the sight.

Full disclosure here. For all of his flaws, I like Warren. And, because of that, I've probably heard from a lot more people whose toes he stepped on than most of us. I get it.

A lot of people don't. There were a lot of unkind things said about Sapp online Tuesday. But most of the critics were wrong. Sapp is one of the more intelligent players I've been around. That was always part of the  twofold nature of Sapp. Yes, he could be a hard guy to like.

No one who knows him, however, thinks he's dumb. And if football is taking that from us, it's a shame for everyone.

"It's the most frightening feeling, but it's also a very weakening feeling because you feel like a child," Sapp wrote in the Players' Tribune. "I need help. I need somebody to help me find something that I could've found with my eyes closed, in the dead of night, half asleep."

This has nothing to do with his dismissal from the NFL Network, nothing to do with his arrest for prostitution, nothing to do with whether he gave you an autograph when you asked. This is about pain and suffering.

"We're playing in a macho league and we're talking about Hall of Famers now who are immortalized forever, made busts and everything. Legends of the game," Sapp said. "There's no way any of us wanna really admit that we can't remember how to get home or a grocery list that the wife has given us or how to go pick up our kids from school, or whatever it may be.

"You try to [say], 'All right, I'm gonna get a little more sleep -- maybe it's something I did last night, maybe something I drank,' or whatever it is. You try to find a reason that it's not that it's my brain, that I'm not deteriorating right before my own eyes."

You should take Sapp's admissions as another frightening symbol of the toil of being a professional athlete. It is widespread beyond your comprehension. I've talked to a lot of former Bucs -- Mike Alstott, Brad Culpepper, Scot Brantley, Batman Wood -- and they talk of fading cognition, of keeping lists to remember details.

The thing that surprised me was that, after I wrote that story, one that included many of Tampa Bay's biggest heroes, I was diluted by mail from readers who, frankly, didn't care. The players got their money, their point was, they should shut up and live with it. I would respond that airline pilots took risks, too; that didn't mean that the airlines shouldn't make their jobs as safe as possible.

The same is true of defensive tackle. Sapp passed out a lot of punishment. He absorbed a lot, too.

Yes, he could be a tough morning of work for a journalist. He would sit at his locker and spread a white towel at his feet. Every time he would hear a question he thought was beneath him, he would spit his tobacco juice into the towel. He would glare at the questioner and pronounce "next!" A TV guy once said he had been watching film on him, and prepared to ask his question. Sapp squinted. "What film have you been watching?" "Huh?" the TV guy said. "What film? Game film? Highlights on TV? What film?" The questioner stammered. Sapp sat back, satisfied. "He watched film," he said.

Once, Warren and I spent the better part of an hour yelling at each other. I thought the fans of Tampa Bay wanted to love him. He thought they'd be grateful when he was gone. Looking back, he was probably closer to the truth than I was.

But Sapp was the perfect guy when you needed a quote about a teammate. Derrick Brooks? Culpepper? Trent Dilfer? Martin Gramatica? Tony Dungy? He was loyal to all of them. He would give Michael Strahan hell, and sometimes Brett Favre.

"I used to call myself an elephant in the room," Sapp said. "Never forget anything. Man, I wake up now and be like, 'OK, what are we doing?' Let me get the phone. I mean with the reminders in the phones, it really helped me get through my day with appointments and different things that I have to do because it's just, I can't remember anymore like I used to.

"And it's from the banging we did as football players. We used to tackle them by the head, used to grab facemasks. We used to allow Deacon Jones to do the head slap. All of that was something that we had to take away from the game. We used to hit quarterbacks below the knees. Now it's a strike zone. Let's keep making the game better," he said.

Maybe you don't like Warren Sapp. I get that, too. He was loud. He was obnoxious. He had a borderline hit on Chad Clifton. All of that.

But the guy had a large heart. You should acknowledge that in joining the fight to make the game safer, he's doing a good thing.

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