TAMPA — Warren Sapp spent 13 seasons in the NFL wrestling 300 pounds every week. Despite being injured and ill, he is not afraid to chase down fielders or bowlers.
But Sapp was no more afraid than he was a few years ago, driving down Biscayne Boulevard in an ordinary car. He plans to visit his 25-year-old girlfriend at the Miami office, and has done so dozens of times.
Try as he might, Sapp couldn't remember where his friend's office was. When he asked for instructions to help others, the man thought he was joking.
"I wish he could have been there and looked me in the eye because it was the scariest thing," Sapp said in a phone interview Friday. "I can tear up the whole city and run and do whatever I want. I say it was the scariest moment of my life.
“It scared me so much, I turned around and went home. I turned the car around, went back to my sofa, turned on the TV and sat there. I don't know what it is, but I don't feel well. I sat all day and almost cried."
Since then, Sapp has written down everything he can remember to help him get through a normal day.
"Now I fill my phone with notes and say it out loud," says Sapp. "You know what I'm talking about? You have to. You have to prepare for an opportunity you'll never forget."
Sapp, 49, is believed to be suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disorder associated with repeated head injuries.
Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed by forensic examination of brain tissue after death. Recent studies have focused on the brains of football and hockey players and the military.
Sapp donated his brain posthumously to Boston University's Center for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in 2017.
But every day, Sapp faces the questionable realities outlined in the documentary Life with CTE, which premiered today at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. This documentary is directed by Mike Mentor, a former college football player turned filmmaker. He met Sapp in 2018 while in grad school and started working on the Sapp podcast.
Sapp, who has spent nine seasons at defensive tackle with the Bucs and four with the Raiders, wants to make football safer for future generations by sharing his story.
This movie starts with serious events. In 2017, Boston University analyzed 111 NFL players' brains and found CTE in 110.
"It is. We can't diagnose it. But I'm 19 (from high school to pro football)," Sapp said. "If you told me they've done 111 brains and 110 of them have CTE … Well … he'd turn around and say I ran away."
As Sapp walked among living football legends in the annual march to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he faced his doom.
"I saw Chris Dolman on the golf course from a man (in a wheelchair) pushing his wife and talking nonsense," Sapp said of Dolman, who died of brain cancer in 2020. 58 years old "I saw Tony Dorsett, god, he's a shell of himself. I mean, I'm looking at Earl Campbell, one of the greatest runners in our lifetime, and I need a walker. In a wheelchair.
"We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Bucs' Super Bowl victory, and when we come back in five years, ten or more could be dead. Next year is my tenth year in the Hall. I'll be 50 in September.
"Time waits for no one."
CTE has been linked to several suicidal players, including the Junior Marine Chargers. Former Buck Vincent Jackson, who was found dead in a Hillsborough County hotel room in 2021, had stage 2 CTE, the Concussion Legacy Foundation announced last year.
Sapp said his biggest motivation was convincing parents to ban their kids from playing football before high school to reduce head injuries.
"I talk to my brothers. I talked to all the women who loved me on 'Dancing With the Stars' and had a son, please don't take him to football before high school," Sapp said. "They trained with actors from Pop Warner in Oklahoma.
"We'll stop the head-butting. Once you're in high school, you have a lot of time. He played two years in high school. That's it. I was the fifth First Vote (Hall of Fame) defensive end. Bob Lilley, John Randle, Maine Joe Greene, Marilyn Olsen and Randy White Aaron Donald are sixth behind us.
Despite all his success on the field, Sapp hopes to extend his legacy.
"This is how we improve the game. We left a legacy and it will be mine,” says Sapp at the end of the film. "Bust, brain and ribbon."
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