TAMPA - Every big-game hunter needs a singular focus, and Warren Sapp was no different. With former Bucs coach Tony Dungy supplying the target specifications, Sapp pursued Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre relentlessly from Lambeau Field to Tampa during a nine-year pursuit that saw Sapp register 11 sacks in 17 games against the Packers, including one memorable playoff encounter. "When a new coach comes into your organization after you've had Sam Wyche and a three-ring circus and he brings structure, you listen to the man," Sapp said of Dungy. "Then that man tells you that the Green Bay Packers are our target as a team because they're in our division (NFC Central) and they're the world champs . but Favre is yours. I didn't need anything else. "And when I got close to him, he's a country bumpkin like me."
The Sapp-Favre rivalry played out as the entertaining game within the game when the Packers and Bucs met twice a season from 1995 through 2001. "Playing 20 years, you're going to form relationships, but there was none like the one I had with Sapp," Favre said from his Mississippi home. "I look at it like there was part of me in him and part of him in me. Each time I faced Warren Sapp, the time clock in my head became shorter and shorter." Favre's reputation as a gunslinger caught Sapp's attention early, so he circled the Green Bay matchups on his calendar once the NFL schedule was released. Then he took a direct path toward the most durable quarterback in league history. "They respected each other," former Bucs middle linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "There was quite a bit of chatter between them, but it was fun to listen to. "Favre's going to fight you as hard as you could fight him and Sapp's a guy who isn't going to back down from a challenge. He respects people more for giving something back, rather than just taking it. If Sapp gives it to you and you just take it, he thinks you're soft and he's going to move on." When Dungy arrived in Tampa in 1996, he wasted little time pushing Sapp's buttons. Favre's name drew an immediate response. "It was becoming a passing game, where quarterbacks made the victories and defensive linemen made their reputation getting after the quarterback,'' Dungy said. "That's how Warren felt he would win games and get recognition. Warren's always been a big-game player, and anytime we played Favre, those were the highlight games." Everything changed on the afternoon of Jan. 4, 1998, when the Bucs visited Lambeau Field coming off their first playoff win in 18 years. Green Bay won 21-7, but Sapp posted three sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his first postseason road game. According to Dungy, that bravura performance also marked "the last time any team tried to block Warren with one guy." Sapp and Favre kept up a running dialog that day that turned comical at times. At the end of the third quarter, with Green Bay clinging to a 13-7 advantage, Packers coach Mike Holmgren summoned Favre to the sideline only to see his distracted star quarterback jawing with Sapp once again. "He snatched loose from Holmgren and that's when I knew he was like me," Sapp recalled. "He walked up to me and said, 'What you want to do, fat boy?' I said, 'I ain't going nowhere. One more quarter. Me and you. We're going to find out who the baddest man today is.' "He said, 'I'm with you.' We slapped hands and he went back to Holmgren. It was one of those nice cold days in Green Bay and two country boys went at it. It was high theater. We got caught up in the moment, me and him." Although Favre was 11-6 against the Bucs during the Sapp era, he could often be seen badgering his offensive linemen to slow down that No. 99 express. "During my time in Green Bay, different guys were always trying to make their name in the league by mixing it up with Brett,'' said former Packers guard Mike Wahle, who usually lined up across from Sapp. "It was no surprise to see a rivalry between them, with Sapp playing the villain to Favre's hero character." Standing behind Sapp's right shoulder during those memorable duels, former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks relished every moment. "Their relationship was that Sapp was kicking the butt of the guy in front of him, and Favre was talking to that guy, telling him to keep Sapp off (him)," Brooks said. "That was the team we were chasing and we had to see Favre twice a year. "I think Warren appreciated Favre's brashness. Favre didn't back down, kind of a bully in his own way, a risk-taker, and Warren appreciated that. Favre always said he had a defensive player's attitude at quarterback, so Warren respected him." Once Sapp learned he was joining the Hall of Fame Class of 2013, he invited his former adversary to the induction ceremony. "That's a first for me," Favre said. "I don't think I can go because I'm coaching high school football, but I've always considered it an honor to play against the man." [email protected] (813) 259-7833 Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO