TAMPA — Warren Sapp spent 13 seasons in the NFL, battling 300-pounders in the trenches each week. He played through injury and illness, fearless in the pursuit of an opposing quarterback or ballcarrier.
But Sapp was never more scared than when he was making a routine drive down sun-kissed Biscayne Boulevard a couple years ago. He planned to visit a friend of 25 years at his Miami office, a drive he had made dozens of times.
No matter how hard he tried, Sapp couldn’t remember where his friend’s office was. When he called someone else to help with directions, the person thought he was joking.
“I wish you could’ve been there and looked into my eyes because it was the scariest thing,” Sapp said in a phone interview Friday. “I can rip and run on every road in this city and do whatever I want to do. I’m telling you, it was the scariest moment of my life.
“Scared me so much, I turned around and went home. I turned that car around, got home on my couch, turned the TV on and just sat there. I didn’t know what that was, but I didn’t feel good. I sat there the rest of the day almost in tears.”
Since then, Sapp has written down everything he can remember to help him tackle a normal day.
“Now I fill up my phone with notes and say it out loud,” Sapp said. “You know what I’m saying? You’ve got to. You’ve got to prepare yourself for the possibility you’re going to forget.”
Sapp, 49, is convinced he has chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease linked to repetitive head trauma.
CTE currently can only be diagnosed after death through forensic brain tissue analysis. The focus of recent studies has been on the brains of football and hockey players, and those in the military.
Sapp volunteered in 2017 to donate his brain after death to Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center.
But each day, Sapp faces an uncertain reality that is depicted in the documentary, Life with CTE, which is scheduled to screen at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival today. The documentary was directed by Mike Mentor, a former college football player turned filmmaker. He met Sapp in 2018 when he was in graduate school and began working on Sapp’s podcasts.
Sapp, who spent nine seasons at defensive tackle with the Bucs and four with the Raiders, wants to make football safer for future generations by sharing his story.
The film begins with a sobering fact: In 2017, 111 NFL brains were studied by Boston University and CTE was found in 110.
“This is the thing. We can’t diagnose it. But I got 19 years (from high school to pros of playing football),” Sapp said. “If you’re telling me they did 111 brains and 110 of them had CTE? Come on. I’m not that one who is going to walk around and say I avoided all of that.”
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When Sapp walks among the living legends of the game on his annual trips back to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he is confronted with his own mortality.
“I watched Chris Doleman go from being a guy that was on the golf course, yelling and screaming and talking trash, to his wife pushing him around (in a wheelchair),” Sapp said of Doleman, who died of brain cancer in 2020 at age 58. “I watched Tony Dorsett, oh my God, he’s a shell of himself right now. I mean, I watched Earl Campbell, one of the most powerful running backs in the history of our lives, and he was needing a walker. In a wheelchair.
“We just passed the 20th anniversary of the (Bucs’) Super Bowl win and 10 or more of us might die out before we come back in five years. Next year will be my 10th year in the Hall. I turn 50 next September.
“Time waits for nobody.”
CTE has been connected to the suicides of several players, including the Chargers’ Junior Seau. Former Buc Vincent Jackson, who was found dead in a Hillsborough County hotel room in 2021, was found to have had Stage 2 CTE, the Concussion Legacy Foundation announced last year.
Sapp says his biggest motivation is to convince parents not to allow their sons to play tackle football before high school, reducing the number of hits to their heads.
“I’m talking to my brothers. I’m talking to all the ladies that loved me on Dancing With the Stars that got a little boy, please don’t put him in no damn football before high school,” Sapp said. “They’re doing Oklahoma drills with Pop Warner players.
“Let’s delay the banging of the heads. You’ve got plenty of time after you get to high school. I played two years in high school. That was it. I’m a first-ballot (Hall of Fame) defensive tackle.’’
Sapp said he puts himself in the company of Hall of Fame defensive tackles such as Bob Lilly, John Randle, Mean Joe Greene, Merlin Olsen and Randy White.
For all his accomplishments on the field, Sapp hopes to add to his legacy.
“That’s how we make the game better. We leave a legacy and that’s going to be my legacy,” Sapp said at the end of the film. “A bust, a brain and a tape.”
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