TAMPA — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks was involved in a game of word association not long ago when he was asked to say the first word that came to mind when he thought of a situation in which Warren Sapp was approached by a stranger.
His answer: “Beware.''
As the Bucs prepare to honor Sapp on Monday night by officially retiring his number and making him the fifth member of their Ring of Honor, I stand witness to how sound a warning that is.
The year was 1999. It was the first day of training camp at the University of Tampa's Pepin Rood Stadium and as the new Bucs beat writer for the Tribune, I thought it might be wise to introduce myself to Sapp.
I waited until the morning workout was over and Sapp was alone, but I quickly realized that by approaching Sapp, announcing my name and reaching out my hand to him, I had made a grievous error.
Sapp jumped back away from me, threw his hands in the air and said in a scolding tone as he began walking backward away from me: “First day on the job, first mistake.''
It was only later that I learned that Sapp didn't shake hands. And as much as I'd like to say that my working relationship with Sapp improved from that point on, it didn't. It only got worse.
Dealing with Sapp was like dealing with a caged lion. One false move and he would eat you alive. And for reasons I still have not discovered, he seemed to have a unquenchable appetite for reporters.
Sapp always has and still does crave the coverage the media provides, but long before he became an NFL Network analyst and therefore a member of the media, he was confrontational with reporters.
I once saw him seize upon a wary local television sports anchor who briefly contemplated but quickly decided against approaching Sapp in the locker room by saying: “That's right, just keep on walking.''
But who could walk away? Sapp was the E.F. Hutton of the locker room. When he spoke, reporters listened — or they suffered the consequences because Sapp always had something to say. Problem was, he only said it on his terms.
If Sapp didn't like your question, he wouldn't hesitate to ridicule you for it. At best he would simply dismiss you by saying “next question,'' which is the response I got from Sapp from the bye week on the year the Bucs won the Super Bowl.
I had written a story the weekend of the bye week about a scathing personal critique that then-national radio host Phil Hendry levied against Sapp during his Friday evening show, which was then carried locally by 970 AM. For months, Sapp next question-ed me before practices and after games. He even did it after the Super Bowl victory over the Raiders and during the team's preseason trip to Japan the following preseason.
Sapp eventually started answering my questions again when the 2003 season began. But Sapp was forced to leave for Oakland after that season and I have to admit I wasn't disappointed to see him go. It probably added years to my life.
The next time I ran into Sapp was a couple years later at the Super Bowl. Sapp was just beginning his own media career and, during the media day lunch break, he eyed an empty seat next to me. To my surprise, Sapp not only walked up and asked if the seat was available, but he also sat down, said hello to everyone at the table and reached out and, yes, shook my hand.
Sapp will shake a lot of hands come Monday night. He has softened a bit since his playing days. Make no mistake, though, he still has an edge about him. He hasn't lost his bite or his roar.
So, if you're a stranger who simply wants to reach out your hand to congratulate him and thank him for all the pleasure he gave you as a Bucs fan, just remember what Brooks said: