The driver of the bright blue Mercedes convertible racing east on Interstate 4 honked his horn and blinked his lights and shouted at the big rig blocking his way.
"Why should I get stuck behind that truck?" Warren Sapp roared.
That morning in February 1998, with a frightened writer from Sports Illustrated sitting shotgun, the just-turned-25-year-old football star for the Tampa Bay Bucs was a month from signing a six-year contract worth $36 million and change. He was two years from being the top defensive player in the National Football League. Five years from winning the Super Bowl. Six years from signing a second deal of more than $36 million with the Oakland Raiders.
And 14 years from declaring bankruptcy.
Smiling face of the franchise. Surly shunner of fans. One of the best defensive linemen in the history of the sport. Motormouth lout. Now add to this portrait of Sapp the revealing contents of his recent 59-page Chapter 7 filing. His creditors include his ex-wife, the four other women with whom he has had children, the Internal Revenue Service, banks and attorneys all over the country, and friends who loaned him money.
He has a checking account with $826.04 in it. He has a savings account with $339.31 in it. His current debts tally up to $6.7 million. No small task for a man who signed three NFL contracts totaling $77 million and who won't turn 40 until December.
How did he do it? The filing tells the tale.
• • •
Sapp has an 18,000-square-foot mansion in the hoity-toity Orlando area neighborhood of Windermere. That's where his ex-wife lives. He also has a 33rd-floor luxury condo in Hollywood Beach. That's where he lives and where his attorney, Chad Pugatch of Fort Lauderdale, had an appraiser go make a list of his stuff.
Even the four local bankruptcy attorneys the Tampa Bay Times asked to review the filing chuckled a little at the detailed itemization of the detritus of the ex-athlete's existence. Lion statue. Lion rug. Fancy Swiss de Grisogono watch. Louis Vuitton suitcase with wheels. PlayStation video games. Xbox video games. A television with a 58-inch screen. An estimated 240 pairs of Jordan Brand sneakers and sandals, most of them still in their boxes, many of them stacked on the top of his dining room table. Architectural Digest meets Foot Locker.
But the attorneys who looked at the filing quickly focused instead on its more critical points.
Sapp filed Chapter 7, the most drastic bankruptcy alternative that requires the sale of assets to pay off debts. He did this, they say, because he's trying to say that his debts are mostly business debts, not consumer debts. If that's true, it doesn't matter that he still brings in large chunks of cash — $45,000 a month to be an analyst for the NFL Network, appearance fees, money from a publisher for a forthcoming book titled Sapp Attack. What he gets on a monthly basis fluctuates, but it's still the kind of hefty income that typically would disqualify somebody from Chapter 7 candidacy — according to the filing, an average of $115,881 a month.
"Warren filed because of business debts," said Pugatch, his attorney. "There's no question in my mind he qualifies for Chapter 7."
Sapp lists no credit card debt, for instance, a common form of consumer debt, and he also has no car debt. He shows no cars at all. He and Pugatch have labeled as a business debt the $90,685 he owes National Car Rental, the co-debtor being Nine-Nine LLC, described in the filing as an "artist management" business.
Some of the lawyers the Times talked to think he'll be able stay in Chapter 7. Some don't. He can't file Chapter 13, which allows for repayment over time, because he has too much debt. He might end up having to file Chapter 11, some of them say, and the terms of that repayment plan would probably be less advantageous.
It's ultimately up to the court to decide.
All the attorneys, though, zeroed in on the bottom of Page 41 and the top of Page 42 in the filing. Here, they said, is the reason Sapp had no choice but to file bankruptcy, and why he had to do it now.
PNC Bank took $33,333 straight out of his NFL Network paycheck in December, then again in January, then again in February, then again in March, and it would have happened again in April had he not filed on March 30. That's what's on the filing because it calls for this sort of activity over the last 90 days. Sapp says it has been going on for 11 months. The remainder of what he owes PNC Bank: $822,805.
Said St. Petersburg bankruptcy lawyer Marshall Reissman: "I can hear him screaming to his lawyer, 'Enough is enough!' "
What happened here?
The payments to PNC Bank stem from a loan he got to try to build affordable housing in Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County. Sapp had two business partners in a company called Urban Solutions Group that was formed in 2006 — South Florida developer Steve Smoke and former Florida State and NFL player Devin Bush — and their endeavor started in earnest in 2008. It was an admitted failure.
"They gave us a loan so we could purchase more lots," Bush said. "The real estate market started going into the tank."
PNC sued Urban Solutions and won a judgment in 2010 for $988,691.99. The beginning of the end. Warren Sapp's Waterloo.
"Were it not for the judgment and the other debts created by that deal," Pugatch said, "he would certainly not be facing what he's facing right now."
"This," Sapp said of bankruptcy, "was the only way I could get out."
• • •
Sapp grew up in Central Florida in a speck of a place called Plymouth in a tiny wooden yellow house on an unpaved road. The road now bears his name. As a boy, though, he was raised by a single mother who worked as an elementary school teacher's aide. He barely knew his biological father.
Every planner or adviser says the same thing. Divorces are killers for financial futures.
Sapp is divorced. He married the former Jamiko Vaughn in 1998. They split in 2003. They have two children. He owes her alimony and child support. In the 90 days before he filed, he made four payments to his ex-wife — $16,000, $25,000, $25,000 and $9,000. That left him owing $876,000. His payments to her are so high in large part because they were set at a time when he was at the apex of his gaudy NFL earnings.
Many professional athletes argue in divorce hearings for lower payments because their salaries are outsized but also fleeting. Sapp tried to make this argument almost 10 years ago. His "income is front-loaded," his attorney wrote in 2003. "During the relatively brief time he is able to play professional sports, he will make an income disproportionate to the income he is capable of earning for the rest of his life."
Sapp also has four other children with four other women. He has a 14-year-old son. He has a 14-year-old daughter. He has a 12-year-old daughter. He has an 11-year-old son. He has a 10-year-old daughter. He has a 3-year-old son.
The filing outlines his resulting obligations.
He owes Akilah Akins of Los Angeles $4,000 a month.
He owes Angela Sanders of Wichita, Kan., $2,500 a month.
He owes Sarah Matt Lamothe-Kindred of Hiram, Ga., $2,500 a month.
He also owes the New Jersey Family Support Center $6,495 a month. That's an intermediary for payments for a child he fathered with former Temple basketball player Chantel Adkins.
Before the bankruptcy, Pugatch said, he was up to date with at least these four payments. According to the filing, his combined monthly alimony and support payments, to his ex-wife and the other women who care for his children, are $75,495.
"The purpose of the filing is to enable him to meet his obligations," Pugatch said. "He did not do this to avoid support obligations. He did this so he could be in position to pay."
He has no choice.
A good number of Sapp's debts are almost certainly going to go away because of this bankruptcy — more on that in a bit — but these dollar amounts are listed in the filing as unsecured priority claims. In plain English? No wiggle room. He could go to court later and try to adjust what he owes due to changes in what he makes. What he owes already, though, he won't get out of.
"Those debts will not be discharged," St. Petersburg bankruptcy lawyer Ian Leavengood said. "They don't go away."
• • •
He owes $68,738 in property taxes on the Windermere mansion. Unsecured priority claim. It'll stick.
He owes $89,775 from his 2010 income taxes. Ditto.
But the huge tax number in the filing, an IRS bill for $853,003 from 2006, two years after he signed that second $36 million contact? That's listed differently, as an unsecured nonpriority claim, and Sapp and his attorney also checked the amount as "contingent," "unliquidated" and "disputed."
They're fighting it. And they have a chance.
The amount is "ripe for discharge," Leavengood said. Taxes are one of Tampa bankruptcy attorney Darrin Mish's specialties, and his prediction? "He won't have to pay a dollar to the IRS for that $853,000."
"It might look like he simply didn't pay his taxes," Pugatch said. "But those taxes are disputed."
He thinks he can make them go away.
"Certain taxes if they're old enough qualify," he said. "From the information we have, we think there's an opportunity to do that."
• • •
It's not the only thing Sapp's probably going to be able to get out of.
More unsecured nonpriority claims? The money he owes attorneys in North Carolina, Alabama, New York and Florida. The money he owes a speech therapy practice in Orlando. The money he owes people listed as friends, including $28,000 to George Chien, a senior vice president at Sony.
All these people are most likely out of luck. Could Sapp pay them back? Yes. Will he be forced to? No.
Also exempt, and this is important, are his considerable annuities. He has an NFL annuity. He has an NFL pension. They're worth almost $1 million. He has life insurance policies worth approximately $3 million. He has a prepaid college fund, too, although it has in it only $103,861, relatively meager given his six kids. All of this is untouchable.
"Those are protected from creditors," said Helen Huntley, a former Times business writer who's now a financial adviser in St. Petersburg. "He basically has his retirement income." And will keep it.
"His exemptions are very strong," Tampa bankruptcy lawyer Stan Galewski said.
Questions remain. Will he get to stay in Chapter 7? Will he get to free himself of that '06 tax bill? Will there be an auction of his stuff? "Who wouldn't want a decanter that belonged to Warren Sapp?" Huntley said. Could the court make him autograph some of the items on the appraisal report to try to boost what they might fetch? Will the court take any money he makes off his book? And what's the status of his gig with the NFL Network? His contract is up in August and reportedly won't be renewed.
The so-called meeting of creditors — a court hearing pretty much — is scheduled for May 8 in Fort Lauderdale. The bankruptcy could take as little as two months. It could take the better part of a year.
In the meantime, he'll live on what could be the remainder of his NFL Network earnings and maybe additional appearance fees, Pugatch said. "He'll do whatever he can to make a living." The process should be finished by early 2013. Just in time for him to be eligible for pro football's hall of fame.
"I don't know who's going to pay what and when," said Reissman, the St. Petersburg bankruptcy lawyer. "Nobody has that kind of crystal ball. It's like asking what the final score of the Super Bowl is going to be 30 seconds after the kickoff. This is just the kickoff."
But of this much Reissman is certain: "He's not going to miss any meals."
The other attorneys who talked to the Times agree.
"I think he comes out smelling like a rose except he's still got really high support payments," Mish said.
"He'll walk out of this very strong, I'd suspect," Galewski said.
Added Leavengood: "I think there's going to be minimal cost consequence to him."
Sounds like Sapp knows this. The other day on Twitter, where he has more than 800,000 followers, one person chided him for his bankruptcy and his lion-skin rug. Sapp was unrepentant in his response. He called himself "a king."
News researcher Natalie Watson and sports columnist Gary Shelton contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkruse.