"A lot of people root against Notre Dame," Sapp said about when he views games with his pro teammates. "It seems like every Saturday when we're in the hotel, people were rooting against Notre Dame. It's fun, though, especially lately with the Irish winning. Everybody loves to hate Notre Dame. I know that's real cliché but that's really true. People love to watch Notre Dame but love to root against them. It's a funny situation. The Irish always have different breeds of guys in the NFL and everyone knows that. I'm still blessed to be in that select group."
Sapp has had a busy off-season. After spending the last two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts primarily as a special teams performer, the strong safety was traded on June 19th back to the team that originally drafted him, the Baltimore Ravens. Sapp is coming off his best season as a pro with 37 tackles in 13 games. The team change kind of caught him off-guard.
"Actually, it was a surprise," Sapp said. "When I left, it was bittersweet. I had a wonderful time here in Indianapolis. When I got the news that I was headed back to Baltimore, it was definitely a shock. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking how ironic it is. But it's a real good opportunity in Baltimore."
He spent 2003 with the Ravens, totaling 10 tackles in 14 games. In 2004, he was battling for a roster spot before being waived in September. Sapp's training camp ordeal is detailed in John Feinstein's book, Next Man Up. Feinstein followed the Baltimore team around during the entire 2004 season and retells the scene when Sapp was informed by Raven general manager Ozzie Newsome after practice that he was being waived. Although Sapp does not agree with Feinstein's assertion on why he was cut, he realized it's all part of the profession.
"In terms of the business side, that's the biggest difference between college and pro," Sapp said. "There's a huge business aspect to it. It's the necessary evil. You get paid so you have to deal with the contracts and the numbers situation. It was hard at first because all my good friends were there. You have to put aside the emotional aspect of it and step up and do well in the NFL. It was real hard. But I had to make the transition."
The NFL grind does not allow Sapp many opportunities to come back to Notre Dame for games. He's in his fourth year in the NFL and has yet to see a contest in person since he's graduated. With practices, meetings, travel time and hotel check-ins to worry about on Saturday, it's understandable. Sapp did try to get back to last year's USC game from Indianapolis but things did not go as planned.
"I had tickets to the USC game," Sapp said. "Coach (Tony) Dungy let us out of practice a little late. I was heading up and there was an accident on US 31. It was backed up and I didn't want to miss the game. I turned around and watched it on TV. That was the only game I was tempted to go to because the scheduling is bad in the NFL. We have things to do like practice in the morning. We have to check into the hotels on Saturday night. The only time I can get is a bye weekend to come into town, which I plan on doing this year."
Sapp was a highly recruited strong safety player coming out of a Houston high school and signed to play with Notre Dame. His freshman year did not allow him much playing time as he tallied 17 tackles in 12 games. Another whammy: Notre Dame went 5-7 in 1999. But that year was crucial in his development as a high-level player.
"I understood why I wasn't playing that much," Sapp said. "The guys in front of me were really good. I was real young and still had to learn a lot about the game. In high school, I could rely on my athleticism but in college, that alone can't get you by. I had to learn the game of football and it took a year or two for me to do that. It was disheartening but at the same time I learned a lot."
The next season saw the Irish get to the Fiesta Bowl. But 2000 might be more well known to Notre Dame fans for two bruising losses in opposite fashions. Top-ranked Nebraska beat the Irish in overtime in the season opener to ruin the upset hopes. After rebounding, Notre Dame won nine of it's next ten games to earn a BCS appearance against a speedy Oregon State team. Sapp and his teammates were overwhelmed as they lost to the Beavers 41-9. Sapp finished the year with 37 tackles in 11 games played but those two contests stick out.
"The Fiesta Bowl doesn't even count on the crushing defeat scale because it wasn't even close," Sapp said. "We knew midway through the third quarter that the game was over. Those games don't even hurt you a lot because you were never close at any point. But the Nebraska game was a heartbreaker and we were all bent out of shape for a couple of days after that contest."
2001 was Bob Davie's last as Notre Dame plummeted to 5-6 and the head coach was fired. Sapp totaled 36 tackles to go along with 2 forced fumbles. The George O'Leary fiasco made the Irish the laughing stock of college football and Sapp and his teammates knew it.
"It was tough," Sapp said. "The whole country was laughing at Notre Dame. They were making a mockery of the university for hiring George O'Leary and then letting him go. The whole point for us was to tell those people laugh now but we'll make you cry later. We were all fed up."
That frustration combined with Tyrone Willingham being named the head coach allowed the team to take it out on the opponents. Notre Dame started out 8-0 and the defense was the main catalyst behind the effort. But then came the Boston College debacle, which the Irish lost 14-7. The pain in Sapp's voice to this day is evident over the result of the contest.
"The BC game my senior year was the hardest game to lose out of my whole Notre Dame career," Sapp said. "We had just come off beating Florida State at their place and we came in with everything riding on the game. It felt like a Twilight Zone for us. Our offense turned the ball over seven times and gave them seven points off of one of those turnovers. As a defensive player, when you only give up seven points, that's pretty hard."
Sapp's senior year, which saw him accumulate 65 tackles and four interceptions, did produce two of his most memorable moments while at Notre Dame.
"I was voted captain of the team my senior year," Sapp said. "At that point, I would always be a team captain of Notre Dame. There are a select group of guys that are given that honor. That was my most proud moment.
"Another moment came in the Michigan State game in 2002. We had never beat them. The game was going back and forth. Michigan State scored with about a minute and a half to go. Then we scored in the last minute and we held them. It was such an emotional moment. We finally beat them for the first time in my career."
He also got to be great friends with two of his teammates: nose tackle Cedric Hilliard and linebacker Courtney Watson. Sapp actually had a chuckle when mentioning the fact that Watson ended up in cold Buffalo instead of warm, sunny Miami after a proposed trade with the Dolphins fell through. With so much time spent of the gridiron, it's easy to see the football players forging friendships that extend past their playing days. Sapp, who this weekend is back in South Bend along with Watson for Hilliard's wedding, still keeps in constant contact with his old buddies.
"Those are my two closest friends," Sapp said. "Cedric is from Texas and we actually met before we got to Notre Dame. He lived in my dorm and we started hanging out. Actually, we didn't have a lot in common but the things we did were so special that we became close. When I first met Courtney, I didn't think we'd ever be friends. Us three just started hanging out and there became a bond between us. We got each other through Notre Dame and the hard times."
The 2006 campaign for the Irish already has Notre Dame fans at a fevered pitch. Multiple magazines have pegged them inside the top-5. Head coach Charlie Weis generated this buzz by turning around the team in 2005 with a 9-3 record and a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. Sapp was impressed by the opening act from Weis but wants to see what the Irish head coach can accomplish in the next few years.
"Obviously, he has done an amazing job there," Sapp said of Weis. "But a lot of coaches have done a great job in their first year, like Coach Willingham. We'll just see how he does. I'm assuming he'll do a great job. He has wonderful guys around him. I hear that his assistants are real good, too. Obviously, the players spend the majority of the time with their assistants. That's kind of what drives the team. We'll have to see what he does in his second, third, fourth and fifth seasons there."