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Sapp a riddle wrapped in a mystery

He was one of the best players ever to walk onto a field around here. Also, he was one of the worst citizens ever to walk off.

Which one will you remember?

He was a comedian, a cartoon, a character. Also, he was vicious, vulgar, villainous.

Which one do you expect to see?

After two games away, the sweet-and-sour career of Warren Sapp comes roaring back into Tampa Bay's existence on Sunday night. Ladies and gentlemen, start your memories.

Do you remember the destructive athlete or the discourteous celebrity? Do you remember his charisma or his cruelty? Do you remember the glory of play or the glare you invited by telling him how you admired it? Do you remember the way he mistreated quarterbacks, or the way he mistreated fans?

With Sapp, everyone has a story, and all of them fit. Every anecdote, every point of view, every compliment and every complaint fit together like pieces of the puzzle that is Sapp. If you want the true picture, if you want to be fair, you have to remember them all.

He is the most complicated, contradictory athlete ever to slide shoulder pads over his head. I have argued with him, amused him, prodded him, provoked him. I have spent hours interviewing him, often just he and I in a room with our voices getting louder, and I have been banished to silence and stares like a lot of other reporters. After covering him for a decade, I feel I know him almost as well as anyone in our business, and yet, I do not know him at all.

For all the stories, for all the deadlines, the hardest question I have ever been asked is this one: What is Warren Sapp really like?

What is he really like? He is Jekyll, and he is Hyde. He is funny, and he is infuriating. He is equal parts blessing, bully and blowhard. He is a thousand psychiatrists working overtime. What's the old line by Kris Kristofferson? "He's a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction."

Now, he is gone.

And what do you remember?

It is odd. Sapp should have owned this town. He wasn't Tampa Bay's first great player, but he was its first true celebrity.

There are sitcoms that will never be as funny as Sapp when he is in storyteller mode. Yet, rudeness came easily to Sapp. There are a thousand stories of unshaken hands and unanswered questions. You have never seen a bigger bad mood.

On the field, he loved to play to the crowd. He would dance and cup his hand over his ear, and he would give off the impression that he was this big, goofy guy the fans would love to hang with. Yet, when the crowd was broken into individuals, he had no tolerance for being approached. Even saying hello could be a climb up a volcano; you knew the eruption was inevitable.

He was wary of compliments, suspicious of motives. For all the kids dressed in his jersey, he doubted his popularity and his legacy, once saying that "80 percent" of fans wanted him to fail. He didn't want opinions, he didn't want approval. Who knows? Perhaps he thought the rest of us were offensive guards, too.

If Sapp had been a little nicer, a little more approachable, he could have owned this town. Ah, but the hardest thing in the world is to be nice when you aren't.

And so, in a noisy offseason, Sapp left.

By the end, there were those who were willing to hold open the door.

Over the years, Sapp had meant so much to the success of the Bucs. His team followed his footsteps to stardom, and across the nation, his face might as well have been the team emblem. Yet, when he left, the protests were much louder for John Lynch.

Why? Perhaps it is because Sapp was a free agent, Lynch was cut. Perhaps it was because Lynch's injury was easier to forgive than Sapp's declining sack totals. Perhaps it was because what you do off the field does matter. And perhaps it was because Sapp always was a large target.

It was Sapp vs. Chidi. Sapp vs. the Commissioner. Sapp vs. Chad Clifton and Mike Sherman and the pylons and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Strahan and Les Steckel and LaVar Arrington and Keyshawn Johnson and the TV guy he didn't like and the woman who wrote the letter to the newspaper and the fans who called the general manager to complain and a long list of quarterbacks.

Which guy will you remember?

If you are fair, you will remember all of them. You will remember the way he thrilled you on Sunday, the way he would burst through the offensive line and chase down a quarterback like a predator on the run. You will remember uncanny strength and uncommon standards. You will remember the good times and the bad. And you wonder what Sapp, as a young man, could have done against the Bucs offensive line then.

This time, he is on the other sideline.

Maybe from there, he'll be easier to figure out.

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