TAMPA - Robert Smith was on the loose. After taking the ball deep in his own backfield, the Vikings running back cut outside, turned upfield and ran free down the sideline - one of the NFL's fastest runners. Some on the Buccaneers' sideline already were counting the play as a touchdown on that early October afternoon in 1996. But then, as if out of nowhere, 302-pound Warren Sapp caught Smith from behind and hauled him down. "Pound for pound, Warren was one of the top five athletes on our team back then," former Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "What he could do with his quick feet, his hand-eye coordination, his speed, he was amazing." How amazing? A two-sport star at Apopka High School, Sapp set school records for sacks, tackles for loss and longest field goal as a football player and for most home runs in a season as the third baseman on the baseball team.
He could chase down a speedy back such as Smith and, when the season was over, win the bench press contest in a made-for-TV battle of NFL stars without even training for it. He could chase down and sack quarterbacks such as Brett Favre and Michael Vick and, after he retired from the game, make it to the finals of another made-for-TV battle - "Dancing With The Stars," with partner Kym Johnson. "Dancing is all footwork, and I knew Warren had some of the greatest feet alive," teammate and fellow defensive tackle Booger McFarland said. "I knew he'd take down names on 'Dancing With The Stars.' "People are amazed when a man of that size can be nimble and quick on his feet. As a matter of fact, when we were playing, we sometimes called him 'Dancing Bear' instead of just plain 'The Bear' because his feet were so damn quick." ESPN Sports Science guru John Brenkus agrees. "He has that really unique combination of size, strength and agility that is just a one-in-a-million case," Brenkus said. "He's just super, super rare." Here's how rare. The 40-yard dash time of 4.69 seconds Sapp recorded at the 1995 NFL Scouting Combine was two tenths of a second faster than the fastest defensive tackle in the 2013 draft. Also at the combine, Sapp registered a vertical leap of 31 inches. That's three inches higher than the current NBA average. So, it should come as no surprise that the 6-foot-2 Sapp also can dunk a basketball. Sapp's athleticism even stands out among Hall of Famers. At more than 300 pounds, he will be the heaviest defensive lineman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while his 40 makes him the second fastest of all the Hall's defensive tackles, according to Brenkus. "Warren doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves for his athleticism," said Rich McKay, the former Bucs general manager who drafted him in the first round (12th overall) in 1995. "Warren Sapp was a deluxe athlete. And what really made him special as a football player was his ability to change direction quickly, beat the offensive lineman to the spot and finish the play.'' An elite athlete to the end, Sapp made a play late in his career, during a Bucs-Raiders game at the Oakland Coliseum in 2004, similar to the one he made early in his career against Smith. After joining the Raiders as a free agent that season, Sapp chased down and caught Bucs back Charlie Garner at the 23-yard line after Garner turned a short Brad Johnson throw into a 31-yard gain. Sapp, whose Raiders won 30-20, couldn't help but gloat about his achievement immediately after the game. Now, that play has become one of great fish tales of his career. "To hear (Derrick) Brooks and them tell it, I jumped on old Charlie's back and rode him down,'' Sapp said. "That story just gets bigger and bigger. I'm like, 'Whoa, this fish is 20-feet-long right now. A big monster.'" Had Sapp still been with the Bucs, coach Jon Gruden might have considered using him as a replacement for Garner. After all, Gruden once used Sapp as a pass-catching tight end. Early in 2003, with two minutes to play in the first half at Atlanta, the Bucs faced first-and-goal from the Falcons 6 when Gruden put Sapp into the game. As his defensive teammates moved to the edge of the sideline for a better look, Sapp pushed off a block at the line, rumbled into the end zone and caught quarterback Brad Johnson's touchdown pass. "When I looked over to the sideline as I was spinning (off the block), I could see the guys were all kind of peeking around one another," Sapp said. "They knew I was going to do something special." No matter the athletic endeavor, Sapp usually did. [email protected] (813) 259-7979 Twitter: @RCummingsTBO