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For Sapp, road to Hall of Fame starts in Plymouth

PLYMOUTH

While Warren Sapp became a first-round NFL draft pick, a Super Bowl champion and (soon) a Hall of Famer, the star with a larger-than-life personality says he's still just a small-town country boy from this unincorporated community outside of Apopka. • The former Bucs legendary defensive tackle was driven by his humble beginnings. He grew up on a dirt road, with him and his older siblings squeezing into a one-bedroom, yellow-and-white wooden frame home on what's now called Warren Sapp Drive.

So it was only fitting that as Sapp prepared for Saturday's induction into football immortality, he made a trip back to his hometown this summer, celebrating with those who knew him before he was anything, and still called him by his middle name, Carlos.

Sapp, joined by Annie Roberts, the single mother who raised him, walked around his old neighborhood one balmy June afternoon, passing out Hall of Fame commemorative hats with his name on the side, saying he had "18-20 years of my life flash before me in an hour."

"I learned that you don't forget where you came from, and I came from dirt," Sapp said. "And in every walk of my life, I remember 26 Barrett Drive. I remember 3319 Barrett Drive, when they changed the number, and we still had a P.O. Box. There was no mailman coming to my door, no cable, no air conditioning. That's the foundation which I woke up everyday, and that's not something that leaves you."

Wil Carlton, a former Apopka High assistant football coach, said there were more talented players than Sapp to come out of the area, but nobody had his drive, his determination. And that was how, despite many obstacles — a few self-inflicted — Sapp took the unlikely path to Saturday night's induction ceremonies in Canton.

"I can't tell you how many people said, 'This guy is not going to make it,' " said Chip Gierke, Sapp's coach at Apopka. "I had one guy, coaching at a big-time college and ended up being a general manager, told me Sapp would never make it. I've learned this: Never is a long time."

With Sapp's father out of the picture, his mother worked four jobs to make ends meet, from cleaning houses to working at a local nursery and restaurant. The family never had much, but Sapp — the youngest of six kids — spent his childhood making the most of it. He'd play marbles, gig for bullfrogs and catch catfish.

And, of course, there was football, where he'd battle with brothers Parnell and Arnell, in the backyard, or a nearby dirt field they called the "Dust Bowl."

The kids would also snag oranges from the surrounding citrus groves, peppering each other with the agricultural town's chief commodity.

"Trust me, if you go and pick enough oranges, buddy, you want out," Sapp said. "You want out, I promise you. And I wanted out."

Sapp, not surprisingly, was never short on confidence, running around the house and telling his family he'd be a millionaire one day. At age 7, he made a prescient prediction to his uncle Asper Dawson that he'd be a professional football player, and one of the best. But the Hall of Fame?

"I never would have imagined it," Roberts said. "It looks like we should have known he'd be a great football player, because that's all he ever did. That's all he ever wanted to do. Football, football, football."

•••

Sapp's first organized football experience came in junior high. Teammate James McKnight said they both were bench-warmers who would pour out the Gatorade bucket and roll around in the mud after games to look like they played. But Sapp rarely sat on the sidelines at Apopka High, which has churned out its share of professional athletes, including Cy Young winner Zack Grienke (Dodgers), former Dolphins running back Sammie Smith and current Redskins safety Brandon Meriweather.

John Peery, long-time editor at the Apopka Chief newspaper, said Sapp's athleticism was special. Sapp could dunk a basketball and lead fast breaks on dazzling dribbles, with Peery comparing him to Charles Barkley.

In football, Sapp was the star tight end with some of the softest hands Peery has ever seen in the area, making a one-handed grab "you would be excited when you saw an NFL wide receiver like Randy Moss" do.

"People don't realize, Warren Sapp was an All-American tight end," said long-time major leaguer Johnny Damon, who played high school football against Sapp while at Orlando Dr. Phillips. "He was a beast."

Sapp never came off the field, playing linebacker on defense and also serving as punter. While the physical talent was there, Carlton said it was his drive that stood out. "In his years at Apopka, he never lost a sprint," Carlton said. "Never."

Sapp's trademark stubbornness, however nearly derailed his promising football career. During one game at Apopka, Sapp was so upset about the amount of run plays called, he took his pads off on the sideline, went into the locker room to grab his stuff and left the stadium.

Gierke, having coached Sapp's older brothers, and knowing his family well, gave Sapp a second chance. Carlton said Sapp apologized to the team the next day, and never looked back.

"He outworked all his problems," Carlton said. "There's nobody that I know that doesn't have problems, but he overcame every impediment that was in his way."

Nearly everyone recruited Sapp, with Florida State and Miami taking an epic battle down to the morning of signing day, when he picked the Hurricanes. But Sapp struggled to qualify academically for the scholarship, needing to retake the ACT his senior year and improve his score by a few points.

Carlton's wife, Janice, a tutor, said Sapp would come by her house two or three times a week for cram sessions until he cracked the test.

"Warren was one of those few people that I've tutored, and I've been tutoring for the ACT for a number of years, that was there every single day we were set to tutor," Janice Carlton said. "He was on time and he worked hard. He wasn't iffy, or playing around, he wanted to pass that test."

Sapp left Plymouth to become an All-American at Miami, and play 14 NFL seasons, but he made sure to give back to his hometown.

Peery, the newspaper editor, said Sapp has done a number of charitable things quietly over the years, including helping youths in similar situations get a better chance. There were more public displays, such as Sapp donating an undisclosed amount for a new scoreboard at the school, which now bears his name.

But Sapp's surprise appearance during the Blue Darters' state championship run in 2001 stole the show. Coach Rick Darlington noticed Sapp on the sideline during warmups of their first-round game against Orlando Boone, and invited him to give a pregame speech.

"He gave a really good talk, he got teared up and emotional, how much he loved playing for Apopka," Darlington said. "By halftime, we were up 57-0. So I thought, 'This guy is a lucky guy.' "

Sapp was at every playoff game until the championship, which he had to miss because it was in Tallahassee on a Saturday night before a Sunday Bucs game. But Sapp made it back for the pep rally celebration that Monday night, and offered to pay for the team to get championship rings.

"He said, 'The rings are on me as long as I get a size 14,' " Darlington said. Darlington estimated the 80 gold rings cost about $24,000, and each had Proverbs 22:1 on them, a fitting inscription. "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold."

When Apopka High won the title again this past year, it was Meriweather — who was on the 2001 team — who bought the rings, following the lead of Sapp.

"With the kids, to have a championship ring to begin with is unbelievable," Darlington said. "But to have one that was purchased by a Hall of Fame NFL player, an alum of your school, it just made it that much better to be able to say, 'Hey, Warren Sapp bought these rings.' ''

When Sapp found out he was going into the Hall of Fame, he said his second favorite call might have been to Gierke, who was a big reason why he went from the orange groves to Miami's Orange Bowl.

Gierke reminded him about Vinny Cerrato, Redskins general manager, one of many who doubted Sapp. Gierke had sent Cerrato, then the recruiting coordinator for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame, a highlight tape of Sapp during his high school days.

"Cerrato called him back and said, 'He's not good enough to play at Notre Dame,' " Sapp said. "So (Gierke) called him back after I got in the Hall of Fame and said, 'That guy can play some football, can't he?' "

Sapp laughs as he tells the story. He beams with pride as he recalled his recent trip to Plymouth, bumping into former childhood friends such as Micheal Washington, who believes Sapp is an inspiration. "No one can replace him," Washington said. "He showed you don't have to be from a major city to be an NFL star."

Sapp marveled at how the magnolia tree he planted as a kid was now "monstrous. It's as old as me — it's 40," Sapp said. "I raised that tree from nothing to that something."

Sounds a lot like Sapp. The name of his street is different, and a lot of the groves are gone, but there's still a familiar feeling for Plymouth's most famous former son.

"I'm just a small-town country boy going back home. That'll never change," Sapp said. "There's a couple little pieces missing here and there, but it is basically still the same."

Sapp smiles, and cracks up, "But the road is paved now."

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

For Sapp, road to Hall of Fame starts in Plymouth 07/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 10:48am]

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