Benny Sapp had a big smile on his face when he entered Winter Park this morning as the newest member of the Vikings. Sapp had been a key player in the Vikings secondary and, after coming to Minnesota as a free agent in 2008 on a one-year deal, he was re-signed in 2009 and appeared to have roster security.
But then the business end of football got involved. Sidney Rice had delayed surgery on his ailing hip and, when he announced he was having the surgery a day after Brett Favre returned to Minnesota, the Vikings were in scramble mode to find another wide receiver. Miami had Greg Camarillo available and Sapp was traded to bring Camarillo to an offense in need of reliable receivers.
Sapp was asked if he thought he would end up coming back to the Vikings and said he didn't think so, but he is happy that call finally came to reunite him with his teammates at Winter Park.
"It's truly a blessing," Sapp said. "It's an honor to put back on that purple uniform. It was kind of shocking (when the call from the Vikings came). Once you leave a place, you feel like you have done something wrong. You put yourself in certain situation where you never see (a return) again. For that situation to come up, it's an honor."
Sapp said the biggest thing he missed about the Vikings was the camaraderie of his teammates. He said that many lasting friendships were built during his first stint with the Vikings and said it was refreshing to come to a locker room in which he not only had familiarity, but teammates that know and love him as a player and a friend.
"It feels good when you've got guys that accept you," Sapp said. "It kind of makes you want to run through a wall for them. That's just the feeling I have now, coming and seeing some of my old friends and old teammates and the love they've showed me. I'm kind of an emotional guy, so I take that to heart. When I put on that uniform, I want to give it all that I have."
It was clear the feeling was mutual. Sapp was always one of the more outgoing Vikings players and could lift the spirits of the locker rooms during the dog days of training camp and the drudgery of the day-to-day existence of players who get more banged up as the season goes along. Safety Jamarca Sanford said that Sapp's influence on and off the field was infectious among the players and he was saddened when he learned Sapp had been traded.
"Words can't describe how happy I am to have him back," Sanford said. "He was one of my best friends before he left. It hurt me when he left, but to have him back, it really seems like a perfect time. He brings excitement, fun and energy to the team."
When Sapp was dealt to Miami, it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, much like the trade for Randy Moss would be three months later. The team scrambled to replace Rice with a weapon that Favre could utilize in the offense. Given the Vikings' question marks about the cornerback position heading into the 2010 season with Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin both coming off significant injuries, there were question marks that led to the team drafting Chris Cook and bringing in free agent Lito Sheppard. When both Winfield and Griffin came back and appeared to be good to go, the Vikings suddenly had a surplus at cornerback and Sapp was expendable to get the Camarillo trade done.
Sapp said he knew the Vikings were going to look to upgrade at wide receiver, but never envisioned that it would come at his expense.
"I didn't see that coming at all," Sapp said. "It was kind of a letdown because I worked so hard to get to that point. Coming in as a free agent, this role (wasn't) all that easy for me. I just took it in stride and tried to make the best of it. I just tried to wake up every morning and be a better man and a better football player."
Sapp's Miami career didn't pan out as hoped, but when the 2011 season began he was a starter. A day later, he was cut. He was last seen chasing behind New England's Wes Welker, who scored on an NFL record-tying 99-yard pass play – a play in which Sapp said he "tried to get a little too cute" and got burned.
Less than 24 hours after that play happened, Sapp was unemployed. He said it came so fast, he had no time to prepare for the decision. With the other 31 teams having already solidified their rosters for the regular season, he wasn't sure if he was going to get the call he so desperately wanted to receive. It was a humbling experience that has him looking appreciatively at his new lease on his NFL life.
"It happened the very next day," Sapp said of unceremonious release. "At that point, I was probably at my lowest of my career feelings-wise. I just never lost the feeling that I still can play a little bit, but that big feeling of me not being capable of coming back to the game was there. In the long run, I'm here now and I ain't got nothing to lose."
Sapp had reason to be concerned. When he got cut, he was hoping the phone would ring immediately and his agent would tell him to get on a plane and head to Destination X. Instead, the phone stayed silent … day after day and week after week. Sapp said he wasn't prepared to no longer be an NFL player and that realization was difficult.
"There was a time where I thought I wouldn't be playing football again," Sapp said. "Due to the situation I was in and what happened. No teams called after one week. Then two weeks go by and three weeks go by. I know Minnesota has seen me play and I knew I was good for a shot. A whole month goes by and you kind of turn into that couch potato. You kind of get discouraged a little bit. But I have a praying mother and she just stayed prayed-up and just kept me covered and things just work out. I could just sit back and wait on God."
Asked what he did to stay in shape, Sapp said his son (Benny III) has kept him pretty busy.
"I have an 11-year-old son who is in love with football," Sapp said. "I just try to coach him up every day and show him things. As I was doing those things, I felt like I was keeping myself (in shape) every day."
But, as much time as he spent with his son and at the gym working out, Sapp said that no level of preparation can accurately replicate what a player needs to go in game situations, much less a cornerback that has to react on the fly and one misstep can lead to seven points for the opponent. He said he kept his conditioning up, but there is no replacing the game experience that he missed.
"Honestly, you never can simulate the game," Sapp said. "You can work as a hard as you can and train as hard as you want to in the offseason, but when you put on those pads and you've got to come back and play out the play and every movement that you make is explosive, it's totally different."
Sapp said the easiest part of his transition to a return to the NFL is based on his familiarity with the Vikings defense, which hasn't changed demonstrably since he was traded to Miami. He said it is a defense he is very comfortable with and can rejoin on the fly without a learning curve to contend with in terms of scheme and terminology.
"I love this defense," Sapp said. "It's my style of play. It kind of fits my ability, and when it fits your ability it gives of you the way to play however you want to play sort of within the scheme because it fits you. I've been here before, so I get it."
Sapp said it has been the answer to his prayers to come back to the Vikings, which he hopes will be a long-term second run. He said the best thing he has going for him is that not only does he love Minnesota, so does his family. A holiday reunion has him looking forward to his second time around and said that having his family 100 percent on board is the ultimate selling point.
"My family always loved Minnesota," Sapp said. "Purple is my mom's favorite color. My kids, they love it here. They we so happy when they found out the news. Hopefully I can make this the finish of my career."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Benny Sapp: ‘I love this defense'
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