As Warren Sapp says, No. 55 and No. 99 go together forever. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that they were joined at the hip after Derrick Brooks' interception return for a touchdown sealed the Buccaneers' 48-21 victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO
TAMPA - The first time was more than 20 years ago, when they were Florida high school all-stars getting ready for a game against Georgia. Warren Sapp was a heralded tight end, waiting to challenge Derrick Brooks, a star linebacker. First time out, Sapp faked Brooks and caught the ball - only to have Brooks catch up and zoom past Sapp's face to send a message: I'm with you.
"That sort of symbolizes our relationship," Brooks said.
"I guess it's full circle, because I'm waiting on him again," Sapp said.
Sapp is going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Next time around, Brooks is up for election.
"I'm sure they'll put him right in there," Sapp said. "C'mon, 55 and 99 go together forever."
No names in Bucs history, very few in all of football history, go together forever like Sapp and Brooks.
They were drafted by the Bucs on the same day 18 years ago. For nine seasons, Brooks behind Sapp, they chased greatness and helped turn a franchise that was once a running joke into Super Bowl champions.
"He and I have shared so many moments," Sapp said. "And we'll be sharing them the rest of our lives."
They're opposites in so many ways. Sapp is the rogue, always on the edge, loving it. Brooks is the high school valedictorian, the guy who always brought his notebook to class. Sapp is the talker, Brooks the listener.
"Personality wise, I'm the regular meal, Sapp is super-sized," Brooks said with a grin.
They're more than friends. They understand each other. They have a towering respect for each other. And, as odd a couple as they seemed off the field, they were the same guy when they reported for work: incredibly driven, loving football, leading the way - and chasing greatness.
"He's like my little brother," Sapp said.
"They are like brothers - brothers who grew up in the same room, bunk beds," recently retired Bucs great Ronde Barber said.
They roomed together on Bucs road trips. They sat across from each other on the team plane and on bus rides.
"We'd yell and haggle over nothing," Sapp said, laughing. "We'd haggle over the damn TV remote at the hotel or the movie we'd watch or what restaurant we'd go to on the road. We'd still be arguing even after we were there, but come away laughing, like an old couple that knows they can't stay away from each other."
Their games were magic, a symphony: Sapp seeing something, passing it on to Brooks . a signal, a look . or Brooks spotting a hole in an offense, relaying it to Sapp, a word, a touch, a tap.
"It was a world within a world, and it was ours," Sapp said.
About a month ago, Sapp visited Brooks in Tampa. They swapped stories, Sapp always getting the first word in, Brooks letting him. At the end, Sapp asked Brooks to walk him to his car, in the rain. Outside, Sapp gave Brooks a small gift: a Hall of Fame key ring.
"In his own little way, this is a thank you," Brooks said.
He added, "As much as we did together, this moment is his alone."
Sapp will have none of that:
"I can't speak for 55, but 99 without 55 . I could never have had the career, played like I played, without him."
Sapp is waiting on Brooks - again.
"His bus should be coming," Sapp said.
When it arrived for Sapp, when he was elected to the Hall of Fame in February, Brooks was there after the announcement.
"For him to be standing there at that moment, it was perfect," Sapp said.