TAMPA — Warren Sapp sat in a booth at the Village Inn Pancake House on Dale Mabry, ordered a large hot chocolate with extra whipped cream and fanned three cell phones in front of him like a deck of cards.
Less than a week earlier, he had received a call on one of them that interrupted his vacation in Anguilla. Blair Buswell, who sculpts the busts of players memorialized at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was headed to south Florida for a sitting with Cris Carter and planned to meet Sapp at his Hollywood, Fl., home the next day.
So Sapp boarded a plane to Puerto Rico, made the connection to Miami and prepared to come face-to-face with his own immortality.
"He comes in, we have to move the tables around, and sets the little tripod up," Sapp said. "Mind you, the bust is sitting right there. But it's wrapped in plastic. Black plastic. I can see it. It's a head right there but I can't really see it yet. He pulls if off and lifts it up. Mind you, he's lifting it up and it's coming to my face. I looked at it and said, "Oh, s---, he's got me. He's got me.
"You look at the lips and the nose. And then, it's dead like that until he cuts the eyes, then it changes on you. Then it has the shadows. I watched this damn thing grow a gullet and I said, 'Take the gullet down a little bit.' I watched it grow a goatee. Look at this."
Sapp pulls one of the phones off the table and flips trough his pictures until he comes to one of his bust and hands it across the table.
"It...has...braids!" Sapp said proudly before laughing hysterically.
On this day, Sapp is in Tampa to play poker in an event for Bucs suite holders, organized by the Glazer family, which owns the team.
He had been in town about 45 minutes and already there were a few people at a rental car counter at Tampa International Aiport that had felt his wrath.
First, the female clerk had not recognized the confirmation number of Sapp's reservation. Sapp reminded her that it was the corporate account of the Buccaneers, likely one of the firm's biggest clients. Given the questionable service, he vowed he would do his part to make sure that relationship ended today.
Then there was the manager, who recognized Sapp and took him to his black SUV. While checking for scratches, he bent so close to one on the vehicle that Sapp barked, "Why don't you lick it?'
Now 40, Sapp can still be self-centered, a bully and crude. The brashness and bravado that served him well as a player was fully developed by college when he became part of the Miami Sound Machine with the great Hurricanes teams of the '90s. It served him well as one of the most dominant defensive tackles in NFL history, one of only 12 players to be named to two All-Decade teams.
But like the Death Valley clay being scraped and molded by Buswell — deep red and equal parts dirt and sand — Sapp still seems to be changing shape, not quite a finished product.
"Can you imagine walking into my house and you see two of me?" Sapp said. "One is already made. One is being made"
Never in his wildest dream
Since being elected to the the HOF Class of 2013 Aug. 3, on the eve of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans where he was working for the NFL Network, Sapp says his feet have not touched the ground. Cloud 99 is how he referred to it.
"The whole thing about it is, from that day, it just keeps getting better," Sapp said. "I mean it doesn't stop. I've cried every day since I've gotten into the Hall. I cried this morning."
Sapp's accomplishments screamed first ballot when members of the Pro Football HOF committee gathered in New Orleans last January. Along with players like Derrick Brooks and John Lynch, Sapp helped transform a Buccaneers franchise from unlovable losers to Super Bowl XXXVII champions during the prime of his 13 NFL seasons (which included the final four years with the Oakland Raiders).
He was a member of the league's All-Decade team for the 1990s and 2000s; Defensive Player of the Year in '99; Super Bowl champion; seven-time Pro Bowl selection; and his 96 1/2 sacks are second in Bucs history (behind the team's only other Hall of Famer, Lee Roy Selmon) and the second-highest career total for a defensive tackle.
But while he was doing all that, he never really thought about the Hall of Fame.
"I believe in the theory if somebody asks for your dream and you tell them and they don't bust out laughing at you, then you're not dreaming big enough," Sapp said. "I remember telling my sister that I would one day play in the NFL. I never one time in my life, in my conscious, unconscious thinking, can ever remember saying, 'I'm going into the Hall of Fame.' There's just some things you don't see as a human being or as an athlete and the Hall of Fame is one of them. You don't talk in those terms.
"You had a sense that I'm playing this game at a pretty good level and the one thing you never wanted to say was, 'I got it.' It's the worst three words in football."
Sapp came very close to saying just that after he burst onto the NFL radar during the '97 season, leading the Bucs to a 4-0 start, including an opening day 13-6 upset of the San Francisco 49ers in which he helped take out two future Hall of Famers in the same game.
A sack knocked Steve Young from the game with a concussion on the game's fifth play. And snuffing out a reverse in the second quarter, his tackle on Jerry Rice resulted in a season-ending torn ACL by the 49ers receiver.
That season culminated with a loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional championship, a game in which Sapp had three sacks of quarterback Brett Favre. Sapp was named to his first Pro Bowl, and got married on the trip to Hawaii.
Then he enjoyed the fruits of his labor. That offseason he put on 15 pounds — or, as he puts it, nearly dug his "own grave in the game with a fork."
"You never want to think 'I've got it.' Because once I went to my first Pro Bowl, got married, got up in Avilla, was sleeping good in a gated community, I said, 'Yeah!" Sapp said. "... Found every excuse not to go to the job and work on my craft."
The next season, Sapp saw his sack total shrink from 10.5 in '97 to only seven.
"The thing you realize is getting there ain't the key, it's staying there," Sapp said. "That's what Tony Dungy was talking about. That's when it hit me. ... That's when I got it. ... That's when I came back and went '99, 2000, 2001. That ignited me."
Timing couldn't be better
Sapp's election to the Hall of Fame came at a good time in his life. He needed a lift. Now divorced, the past two years have been pretty tough on his fame, family and friends.
In April of 2012, he filed for bankruptcy. What forced the Chapter 7 filing was a bad investment in low income housing and lien of nearly $1-million awarded to PNC Bank. The court documents were filled of unflattering details, including revelations that he owed more than $850,000 in back taxes and another $876,000 in alimony and child support to his ex-wife, as well as claims for child support from four other women.
"The two years before this were pretty rough, just from a perception level," Sapp said. "Because perception vs. reality is the thing you fight. It was time to kick Warren. And there wasn't nobody going to stop it. And wasn't nobody who wasn't going to kick the s--- out of me. And your mother and your family feel it more than you do."
Sapp has always been close to his mother, Annie Roberts. She was not in New Orleans when Sapp was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Sapp will never forget the phone call he made to her later that night.
"She says to me, 'I just want to tell you this,'" Sapp said. "'I'm one proud (expletive).' And she said it. And my mother does not swear. Raised me in the church. Beat me to Sunday School. Not meet me, beat me to Sunday School and then there's church after Sunday School. It was one of those deals when I heard her say that ..."
Sapp's voice trails off and his voice begins to crack with emotion.
"No, it moved me in a whole different way because me and her never really had conversations like that," he said.
Sapp has thought about the speech he will make during his enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, Saturday night. He's even taken a few swipes at putting it down on paper, but he can't read his own handwriting because the ink keeps running from the tears. "I can't write two pages without crying," Sapp said.
To make the floodgates open even more, Sapp's 15-year-old daughter, Mercedes, is going to present him. As for his speech, he plans to put his thoughts on a tape recorder and send them to David Fisher, who helped him write his autobiography, Sapp Attack.
"I've got my opening," Sapp said. "But you know I won't be able to get through it."
Players come and go in professional sports. Even the good to very great see their accomplishments begin to flicker and burn out over time, no longer illuminated by the glow of television highlight shows.
But for the greatest of all time? There is an avenue few can travel, but it can preserve the memories and keep the images forever young. The Hall of Fame. Immortality.
Sapp spent a few days in Canton earlier this year, walking among the busts in the enshrinement gallery. Not one wore their hair in braids, the way Sapp did early in his career. Buswell accepted the challenge.
"So when he got finished with the face, he said, 'Ok, let's see if we can try these braids before it gets too dark," Sapp said. "So we had to go outside and he had a little more light. He was asking me how many braids and it was nine. Four and four and the one down the middle.
"That's crazy, right? He was working on that thing, sprinkling it, bringing it down. ... I was running around the room like a little kid. 'He's got braids!' He probably looked at me like I'm crazy. I can't tell you what it was like to watch a 40-year old dude grow braids."
Twice during the Village Inn breakfast, Sapp is interrupted by elderly women who just want to say hello.
"I'm so happy to see you," said one. "I've got goosebumps. We miss you," says the other.
Sapp smiles and thanks them both.
The rough edges are starting to chip away.
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]