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Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie DT Gerald McCoy living his dream at a nightmare position

“I want to be great,” Bucs rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy says. “You’ll never hear me say I want to be good. It’s what I love. It’s what I’m best at. It’s what I want to do with my life. And if I want to spend my life doing it, why not be great?”

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

“I want to be great,” Bucs rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy says. “You’ll never hear me say I want to be good. It’s what I love. It’s what I’m best at. It’s what I want to do with my life. And if I want to spend my life doing it, why not be great?”

As football fantasies go, the one about playing quarterback is easy.

Without any trouble, you can imagine the fame and the fortune of playing football's rock-star position. You can imagine standing in the pocket and throwing a ball. Imagine waving to the cheerleaders afterward.

For that matter, it isn't hard to think about what it would be like to play wide receiver, either. You are racing downfield, and the ball is arcing through the sky.

You can imagine the crowd, and you can imagine the cameras. You can imagine crossing the goal line and breaking into the electric boogaloo.

But defensive tackle?

The more you think about playing that position, the more likely you are to wake up screaming in the night.

"For the average person," said Gerald McCoy, the Bucs' Next Big Thing, "it would be terrifying."

It is a brutal way to make a living, if you want to know the truth. It is play after play of getting hit by giant men with bad attitudes. You are grabbed, you are cut, you are double-teamed. The opponents all seem to weigh 340 pounds, and they all have bad attitudes, and they all have eight hands and use them as if they have studied Bruce Lee movies instead of game film. It is like you are playing in traffic on an interstate.

"It's hand-to-hand combat," said Warren Sapp, a former Bucs tackle. "It's trench warfare. It's getting hit play after play after play."

"It's violent," said Brad Culpepper, who played next to Sapp. "You're getting hit in all directions from fullbacks, tailbacks, guards, centers, tackles. I'm talking about violent, car-crash, jaw-jolting hits every time the ball is snapped. As far as being physically demanding, I think it's the hardest job in sports."

Yeah, that sounds like a fun way to make a living, doesn't it?

McCoy grins. He sits in an interview room wearing his black-rimmed glasses with an iPad on his lap, and he comes across as the friendliest kid in science camp. He shows you pictures of his parents and of his daughter. Then he talks about how much fun it is to play in the middle of the mayhem.

"Think about going through all of that and you make a big play," McCoy said. "Or watching yourself on film and the coach is praising you and your teammates are clapping it up for you because you make a play to help the team out. There is no better feeling than that."

For the Bucs to succeed, and for McCoy to do so, they need a lot of those moments this year. When the Bucs took McCoy third in the draft in April, they did it with the notion that he would grow into a force in the middle. They thought of him as a way to plug a run defense that was last in the NFL. And, fair or not, they thought of him as a player who can remind people of Sapp. The sooner the better.

"That doesn't bother me," McCoy said. "If they brought me in to be that guy, that's who I will work to be. That's what they want, and they expect it right away. No one is patient. They've been patient too long. Warren Sapp has been out of here for a long time. Tampa deserves that guy who Warren Sapp was."

That's a lot to ask, of course. Sapp was the dominant defensive tackle of his era, a quick, athletic force who could spoil an offensive lineman's afternoon. In the past 15 drafts since his, there have been a lot of defensive tackles compared to Sapp. None has measured up.

"All defensive tackles have to live down three names," Sapp said. "Johnny Randle, Keith Millard and myself. For 14-15 years, it's been, 'Here comes the next one.' They're asking these kids to climb Mount Everest."

Sapp knows. His rookie season wasn't a lot of fun. Santana Dotson, the player he would replace, wouldn't speak to him. Other defensive linemen referred to him as "Super Rookie." Sapp finished that season with three sacks.

"I would tell them, 'If y'all were so good, I wouldn't be here,' " Sapp said. "I'm looking at these guys, and they won't help me. That's the biggest thing you have to get used to. It's a business now."

Also, McCoy has to learn to get offensive linemen's hands off him. He has to learn a dominant move. And a secondary move. He has to keep his motor going when things aren't going well. He has to learn while opposing linemen are trying to beat him senseless.

So what is fair to expect of McCoy as a rookie? Hustle, certainly. Growth. Flashes of talent. But, no, he won't be a finished product. It takes time. You don't get a finished defense tackle out of the microwave.

"He's going to take some lumps," said Culpepper, who was teammates with Randle and Millard. "I'm pulling for these guys (McCoy and second-round draft choice Brian Price). But they're going to be beaten a majority of times this year. I think both of them are going to struggle early in their careers. They don't know that they don't know."

The difficulty of the position, and the quality of the opposition, makes it hard for defensive tackles to excel immediately.

Ask Sapp.

"Playing defensive tackle as a rookie is like taking a graduate course at Harvard when you're a freshman," Sapp said. "I didn't know how to rush the passer when I got to the NFL. In college, you only meet three guys who are close to your level. In the NFL, they allow you to be grabbed, held. And you can't complain to the umpire, because he's busy watching the quarterback like everybody else."

Perhaps the lack of advice Sapp received as a rookie is the reason he has been so willing to give his to McCoy. From the night McCoy was drafted, Sapp has taken an interest in him.

"He has to find out what works," Sapp said. "One thing I told him was to take that swim move and save it for the summer when you're at the beach with a girl. I want to see ripping and lifting with power. A swim move lifts you up in the air."

Anything else?

"Be violent," Sapp said. "I love it. You're a nice guy. You've got that great smile. You're approachable. Lovable. But when you put that helmet on, you have to be an SOB. There are only three undertackles ever to play the game, me and Randle and Millard. And what we have in common is that we're three absolute madmen."

No argument there. Sapp was loud and brash and in your face, and it didn't matter if you were a player (Brett Favre) or a coach (Mike Sherman) or a commissioner (Paul Tagliabue). Randle used to paint his face like a pro wrestler and study opposing media guides so he could yell sharper insults at his opponents. Millard would work himself into a rage and yell at his teammates and coaches during games. "I look like a monster," Millard once said, "and I feel like a dog with rabies."

Can McCoy be that guy?

"I can," he said. "I'm not mean, but I play mean. If I have a chance to dump a player or do whatever a mean player does, I do it. It doesn't mean I have to be a mean player in general.

"I wouldn't call what those players (Sapp and company) had rage. I'd call it passion. I have that same passion. People show passion in different ways. Think about Lee Roy Selmon and Reggie White, who played some inside. They were the nicest guys off the field, but they were passionate on it."

McCoy will tell you he is the same. He will tell you he wants to be a star in this game. Sooner sounds better than later to him, too.

And so the education has begun. His first preseason game, he played against Richie Incognito of the Dolphins, named last year as the NFL's dirtiest player. On one play, McCoy came in hard and low across the sloppy baseball infield, and Incognito put his hands on the back of McCoy's helmet and drove his face into the mud. In McCoy's second preseason game, he played against Kansas City's Brian Waters, a four-time Pro Bowl player. There were lessons to be learned there, too.

Then there are his teammates. In a recent practice, McCoy was supposed to stunt from his position across the line, past the center and into the opposite A gap.

"Next thing I know, my face is in the grass, and I'm back where I started. I feel this massive hand on the back of my head. I look up, and it's Davin Joseph. He says to me, 'It's getting real physical today. Don't take it personally.'

"When he did that, it was like, 'Okay, rookie. I just had to let you know. You're a rookie.' "

And so it goes, hard lesson after hard lesson. Stardom is a long way to go for a rookie, and in this case, the team cannot wait.

"I want to be great," McCoy said. "You'll never hear me say I want to be good. It's what I love. It's what I'm best at. It's what I want to do with my life. And if I want to spend my life doing it, why not be great?"

Why not?

And why not quickly?

"All defensive tackles have to live down three names. Johnny Randle, Keith Millard and myself. For 14-15 years, it's been, 'Here comes the next one.' They're asking these kids to climb Mount Everest."

Warren Sapp, former Bucs defensive tackle

Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie DT Gerald McCoy living his dream at a nightmare position 09/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 10, 2010 6:28pm]

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