Warren Sapp Was the Beginning of a New Era for a Generation of Buccaneers Fans
As a child of the '80s, I don't remember much of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when they donned creamsicle uniforms with a winking pirate, lovably named Bucco Bruce, on the helmet.
Although as my relatives are quick to point out, there wasn't much worth remembering.
Sure, sometimes my father would have their games playing in the background, but again, it was hardly worth spending an afternoon huddled around the television for.
Looking back, it seemed all the Bucs did was finish last place year after year and waste their first-round pick on a player that never panned out the next spring. After all, from 1983 to 1994, the Bucs went a combined 51-140 (.267) and owned a Top 10 pick in nine of the corresponding drafts, including the top overall selection twice ('86 and '87).
Of all of those Top 10 picks, only T Paul Gruber (No. 4 overall, 1988) lived up to the billing. The Bucs couldn't scout or develop players to save their lives—or their franchise.
But in 1995, amidst an ownership change and on the heels of their 12th-consecutive double-digit-loss season, the Bucs' fortunes began to change for the better, because with the 12th overall pick in the 1995 draft, the Bucs selected DT Warren Sapp.
And the rest, as they say, is history—loud, boisterous, record-breaking history.
From the start, Sapp did things his way and he wasn't afraid to let it be known. Opponents always knew where he was on the field because they'd hear him jawing it up in between plays or frolicking through their pregame warm-ups. They heard him, they saw him, and in many cases, feared him.
Finally, Bucs fans had someone to root for. As cantankerous or ornery as he was off the field, he was an even bigger menace on it; he was a one-man wrecking crew along a defensive line that fans had grown accustomed to seeing pushed around.
He played angry, he played with passion and he played each snap as if it were his last.
And us? We loved every minute of it.
For too long, the Bucs, or "Yucs" as they had become to be known as, were too soft, too undisciplined and too dysfunctional to ever succeed. They lacked a clear, defined direction or purpose and each season was truly an exercise in futility.
That is, until No. 99 came to town.
Because while his career accomplishments, as great and plentiful as they are, will ultimately define who he was as a football player, it shouldn't be overlooked what he meant to an entire generation of Bucs fans off the field.
Sapp made it "cool" to parade around school or the neighborhood in Bucs shirts and jerseys, instead of saving what little apparel we may have had to wear to bed at night. Before too long, he had Bucs fans quietly thinking about the once-laughable notion of a playoff berth.
All of which leads to what I consider the defining moment of Sapp's legacy: Week 1 of the 1997 season. The Bucs hosted the heavily-favored San Francisco 49ers who were led by two future Hall of Fame players in QB Steve Young and WR Jerry Rice.
Not intimidated, the young Bucs defense racked up seven sacks and held the high-powered Niners offense to just six points. Sapp himself recorded 11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and knocked both Young and Rice out of the game on separate plays.
The Bucs went on to start the season 5-0 and finished '97 with a 10-6 record, clinching their first playoff berth since 1982.
Sure, Sapp wasn't solely responsible for the Titanic turnaround in Tampa, but the addition of his swagger—the attitude and intensity in which he played—was certainly the tipping point for when the organization, and it's long-disenfranchised fans, were unknowingly introduced to the golden era of Buccaneers football.
Sapp & Co. would go on to make the postseason in four of the next five seasons, culminating in their first (and only) championship in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002.
And while the accolades of his storied playing career begin to add up, notably his selection into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the announcement of being placed into the Buccaneers Ring of Honor, I can't help but harken back to when it all started for some of us as Bucs fans.
When Sapp came into our lives and introduced us to how football was meant to be played—with unbridled passion and enthusiasm. He not only showed us what happens when intensity meets desire, but how, sometimes, the will of a man can be broken with just a smile—albeit a calculated, raging smile hidden behind a face mask and aimed at a weary opponent.
It's only fitting the team has decided to retire his jersey. Not only because there will never be another Bucs player of his caliber or skill set, but because in a way, there will never be another player who will have meant so much to the future and direction of this franchise again.
Yes, there have been lingering issues with blackouts, and yes, there are once again a segment of disenfranchised fans, but they both pale in comparison to the days before Sapp arrived.
Think of it this way: In the 18 years since he was drafted, the Bucs have made the postseason seven times. Compare that to the three playoff berths in the 21 years prior to his arrival. Did Derrick Brooks play a vital role? Of course. As did Ronde Barber and Mike Alstott, among others.
But give me a young Warren Sapp to build a franchise around, and I like my chances.
That's all I'm saying.
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