TAMPA - By now, it's become an NFL draft cliché. A player lasts longer on the board than expected and when he is finally chosen, he vows to make the rest of the league pay for their errant judgment. When it happened to Warren Sapp in 1995, he demanded payback. Then he took it out on every organization in his ferocious path. "The way it came out, it scarred me for life," Sapp said after the Bucs selected him with the 12th overall pick. "No matter what I do, it'll always be there."
After a dominant junior season at the University of Miami, Sapp saw his draft stock plummet on the basis of an unsubstantiated report that he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana at the NFL scouting combine. The next day, the NFL released a statement that the cocaine allegation was inaccurate. Still, the damage was done. "The first time I saw Warren was at the combine," former Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy said. "I was defensive coordinator of the Vikings and I was sure hoping we get this guy because he'd be perfect for our defense. When he went to Tampa, it was like, 'Not only did we not get him, but I'm going to have to play against him twice a year for the rest of my life.'" After Minnesota passed at No. 11, Rich McKay, in his first official season as Bucs general manager, went with his gut. "This was a critical draft to keep the ship going in the right direction and we had done more work on Warren than you can imagine," McKay said. "As a franchise, we had no national reputation until that '95 draft. The Glazer family was fully supportive of the pick and once Warren was ours, we felt this is an opportunity to turn around this franchise." Behind the scenes, director of college scouting Tim Ruskell kept pushing for Sapp, who firmly denied the cocaine rumors. "Warren Sapp was probably one of the biggest 'wow' players at the position I've ever seen," Ruskell said. "I was an advocate, no question. What he could do athletically was different from everyone else and he was easy to get excited about. Unbelievable speed, production, he was nasty and he loved playing. "But he was also a guy who could rub you the wrong way. He was going to be the loudest guy in the room and you were either with him or against him. There was no middle ground." When the big day arrived, Sapp and his family were in New York at NFL draft headquarters for an anticipated celebration. "That was the worst day of my life - almost,'' Sapp's mother, Annie Roberts, recalled. "Everything worked out in the end, but it was a long day. I was just praying to get through it. I was more disappointed than anything else. "Warren said, 'Mama, I never in my life did no cocaine. Because cocaine makes you steal from your mother and I would never steal from you.' And I believe him." By the time the Bucs turned in their pick at No. 12, Sapp had learned a few lessons about life in the NFL. "Here I was, the most decorated Cane in school history," Sapp said. "I dominated college football . took it over. I was the best player in college and went No. 12. From that point on, I knew there was going to be a whole bunch of stuff said about Warren that wasn't true. "It got so out of line, the NFL had to make a comment for the first time in like 75 years - no cocaine on Sapp. Everyone smoked weed in college. Then they said I was too small and my arms are too short. ... And it's more rogue now than it was then. Just imagine if those rumors would come out now, with all the social media going on." While Sapp was being humbled, an interested observer in Pensacola kept tabs on the first round. "I felt terrible for him because I knew everything they were saying was lies," said Derrick Brooks, who was selected with the 28th pick of the opening round. "And as he continued to slip, it just bothered me. 'Why are they doing this to him?' They were showing him and his mom, who I knew. Me and my mom felt terrible for Miss Ann. "So I was thinking, 'Is this what this league is? He's not what they say he is, he's not this guy that's on all these drugs.'" While Sapp was devastated, Dungy was equally distraught. Minnesota, spooked by the drug allegations, selected defensive end Derrick Alexander instead. Alexander posted 20 sacks in his five-year career. "God worked it out and protected me,'' said Dungy, who arrived in Tampa in 1996. "Warren got in town a year before me, so it was perfect.'' email@example.com (813) 259-7833 Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO