In the moment before it all begins, before all the colors and the noise, before the game itself, a man will stand alone.
He will hesitate in the cold, gray tunnel of the aging stadium, his silhouette eerie in its familiarity. For that moment, his moment, he will remember.
And then Warren Sapp will kiss his fingers, and he will run onto the field, and he will point to the sky.
And believe, somehow, Jerome Brown is looking back at him.
This is a story of two men who cast the same shadow, a story of yesterday's defensive tackle and today's. They are lost brothers who have been separated by death, but to those who knew them both, Sapp and Brown will be linked forever.
They were as close to being the same person as men in different bodies can be. They came from similar backgrounds to the same position at the same college. They wore the same number. Both had about a thousand pounds of personality in 300-pound bodies. They looked alike, played alike, laughed alike, swaggered alike, provoked alike. What? Death was supposed to separate all that?
"I think about him all the time," Sapp said, his voice quieter than usual. "I'll pay homage to him as I walk onto the field. No doubt about it. (Veteran's Stadium) was his house."
Sapp was little more than a kid when he first met Brown. He was a redshirt freshman, a converted tight end at the University of Miami. But already people had noticed that he looked a lot like Brown, and he sounded a lot like him. In particular, the similarities struck Cortez Kennedy, who vowed to get the two together.
So, one day when Sapp was sitting in his dorm room, playing Sega with teammate Ryan Collins, a limo pulled up front. Sapp wasn't impressed. He kept playing.
"Then there was a "boom,' " Sapp said, "and the door just blasted open. I jumped up, and there was this massive 300-pound guy standing in my living room. I knew who he was, but I was like, "Do we fight now, or do we have more to talk about?' And Jerome just loved it that I didn't cower from him. He said, "You looked like you were ready to do something.' And we just clicked."
They stayed out until 3:30 the next morning, talking too much and laughing too loud, telling stories and having fun. By the time the night was through, Sapp had found his standard-bearer.
Sapp is 28 now, one birthday older than Brown was when he crashed what Sapp calls "that damn Corvette" and died in Brooksville, his hometown, in June 1992. But the echoes remain. Talk to Reggie White and he will tell you how much Sapp reminds him of the other. Talk to other Eagles players and they will say the same.
"I've always said that Warren Sapp is pretty much the reincarnation of Jerome Brown," said Mike Golic, who played alongside Brown with the Eagles and was a close friend, and who knows Sapp through his work as an ESPN analyst. "It's amazing how similar they are.
"It's scary. They're alike in every aspect, from their body type to their quickness to their strength to their personalities. It's weird. It's in their stance, in the way they hit the gap, the way they talk. Jerome always put a smile on my face, and whenever I see Warren, I'm smiling again. It's like some of Jerome is there."
Brown often described himself as "a kid in a man's body." He was boisterous, brash, bigger than life. Once, he ripped into his team's offense. He was serious about the game but seemed amused by the rest of life.
Gee, Warren. Remind you of anyone you know?
"Sometimes," Sapp said, laughing. "Sometimes."
At Miami, they tell the story about Brown chasing Florida's Kerwin Bell to the sideline and being obviously winded by the effort. The way they tell it in Coral Gables, then-Gators coach Galen Hall looked at Brown and said, "You're getting tired, Fat Boy." And Brown, without pause, answered, "Yeah, but we're still kicking your a--."
Can't you picture Sapp saying the same thing? Can't you picture Sapp leading the Hurricanes out of the steak dinner to be shared with Penn State? Can't you picture him vexing Reggie White endlessly?
"(Brown) was bolder than I am," Sapp said. "When he played, there was nobody like him. He was the first of his time to be that brash, that confrontational. Now you find talk in people who can play, who can't play, medium players who are in and out of the league. It's like they're trying to mouth their way through."
Then came the summer day Sapp heard Brown had died. It devastated him.
"I was lost for two days," he said. "We had a great relationship, but it was long distance. I wanted it to be closer. I was going to work to make it closer because I wanted to steal some part of him. The way he taped his hands, anything. Something about him was going to make me a better player. But it was all taken away."
Three years later, when Sapp came to the Bucs, it came time for him to pick a jersey number. Scott Dill, a journeyman tackle, had 76, Sapp's college number. But he wanted $25,000 for it. Sapp laughed and asked what other numbers were available.
Seventy-eight, he was told. Not bad, Sapp thought. Bruce Smith wears 78, and Sapp admired his play. Then the equipment manager said 99, Brown's old number, and something clicked. "That's my number," Sapp said.
"If he had lived, we'd be close," Sapp said. "I don't have any doubt about that. He would have been there for my first game (which was in Philadelphia). That would have been special beyond words."
Instead, Sapp said, he is sure Jerome is watching. And, if Jerome could speak to Sapp one more time about the way his career has gone, Sapp knows what his old friend would say.
"He'd say "Not bad, kid. Not bad.' "