On a perfect Ohio evening, in a perfect setting, immortality came to an imperfect man.
The night was his, and the stage, and the entire city with it. Warren Sapp, the King of Canton, had taken over the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He had a microphone in his hand, and a catch in his voice, and around him were the greatest players the game has seen.
This was Sapp's moment, raw and bare. For a normally boisterous man, he spoke softly, fighting his emotions, his voice finally turning into a squeak near the end. He took the crowd from his beginnings on a dirt road in Plymouth through the University of Miami, to the Bucs, to the Raiders, to a gold jacket in Canton.
There for a moment, you wondered if this was really Sapp who had been elected to the Hall. Caligula in cleats? Hah. This wasn't the snarling, snapping villain you remember from the football field. This was a teddy bear, lost in all the moments that led him here. This was a humbled Sapp — a little bit, at least — exposing his soul to the world.
Funny, because as a player, Sapp was the loudest Buc of them all. Whether you like Sapp or not, whether he made you shout his name or shake your head, there is no doubt about the size of his personality.
He was the player performing for the crowd, cupping his hand over his ear, widening his eyes, dancing through the other team's warmups, trash-talking as if it was an art form, twisting, gyrating, clapping. He had a thousand facial expressions, including some that weren't even scowling.
With all of that, do not forget what a dynamic player he was. You don't get to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection without it. He played defensive tackle, a demolition derby of a position where a man can get hit from every direction possible. He was fierce.
Was he his team's best player? Probably not. Even Sapp has always insisted that linebacker Derrick Brooks was the best those Bucs had.
But at a critical time in the franchise's history, Sapp may have been the most important Buc of them all. His was the voice, and the face, and the passion as Tampa Bay climbed out of the ooze and became a team that mattered.
As orange turned to red, and as Houlihan's turned to Raymond James Stadium, and as losing turned into winning, Sapp was in the middle of it all. At a time there was talk of the franchise leaving town, at a time this team was trying to prove there was something different about to happen, at the dawn of the greatest era of football that Tampa Bay has seen, Sapp was a key player.
"I think he was critical," said team co-chairman Joel Glazer Saturday afternoon. "Not only for his play on the field, but in the way he did it. He had attitude. He had swagger. He had everything to help transform the franchise. He was not only a great player, but he entertained on the field."
Sapp took time to thank the Glazers, as well as two former Bucs teammates.
"(The Glazers) took me and they said, 'We're going to change this organization, and Derrick Brooks, he was with me that day," Sapp said in his induction speech, finding the former lineback in the crowd. "Without you, dude, ain't no way we turn it around. And I see right beside him, (John) Lynch. You were the back end. The front, the back and the middle, my rocks that made it possible. I want to thank you, fellas."
The thing to remember about Sapp is that he was too complex to fit into one personality. He could be funny and insightful, and he could be cold and distant. He could be vicious, and he could be the class clown. He could be loyal, and he could be dismissive.
So here we are again, discussing his personality, because Sapp remains such a polarizing figure. Even now, there are those who suggest that Sapp's off-the-field issues could keep him out of Canton. But the Hall of Fame is not a gentleman's club. O.J. Simpson still has a bust here, and Lawrence Taylor. Paul Hornung was suspended from the league for gambling. There are drug users and spousal abusers. Here, only what happens between the sidelines counts.
The truth of it is that Sapp is a hard man, and a hard man for many to like. That is part of his fame, too. He stepped on toes, and not all of them were those of opposing quarterbacks. He could be stubborn and aloof and distant, and he didn't apologize for any of it. Still, ask yourself this: Would you have preferred for him to have played elsewhere? Of course not.
After all, the same sort of orneriness turned Sapp into a monster on the football field. He defined the under-tackle position with his athleticism and his power and his drive. Even now, every defensive tackle who is drafted is compared with Sapp sooner or later.
Now, they can look to Canton to make the comparison. That's where you can find the bust that he kissed gently Saturday night.
It was all too short. His speech. His career. That era when the Bucs were something to see.
At the Hall of Fame, the suggestion is that, late at night, the busts speak to each other. Sapp was asked the other day what his bust might say and to who.
"I'll put tape over the mouth of my bust," he said. "I've said enough."
Maybe. And maybe, late at night, his bust will find the quarterback's bust, and it will crow a little bit. Maybe it will shout. Maybe it will talk a little trash. Maybe it will take the bust back to 2002, when the Bucs were champions and Sapp was a marauding force.
And maybe, just maybe, it will speak softly and directly, the way Sapp did on Saturday night.
Either way, it will have the final word.
With Sapp, what else would you expect?