Slipping And Tripping In Warren Sapp's Hometown

You're familiar with Dark Side of the Locker Room. Consider this the THX Edition of Dark Side. Our storyteller is Padgett Powell, author of Edisto, The Interrogative Mood, and the following dispatch from Plymouth, Fla., which was spiked by ESPN.

In 1995, on assignment for ESPN's Total Sports magazine, Powell spent a few days in Plymouth, hometown of Warren Sapp. Sapp was then an NFL prospect approaching Draft Day under a cloud of assorted drug insinuations. The Saturday that Powell was in town, Sapp was selected 12th by Tampa Bay. Powell's story never ran. Here it is in full, followed by a postscript in which the author explains the story behind the story — and the perils of smoking powerful weed with your sources.

* * *

At the north end of Plymouth, Fla., under trees on the corner of the U.S. 441 and Hermit Smith Road, Warren Sapp's cousin Thomas McCrary sells barbecue from three handmade iron cookers. One of them he had made for $35; he supplied everything (tank, wheels, pipe) except the expanded metal for the grill. The other two larger ones cost just over $100. If you order a rib sandwich, Wonza McCrary will get out a polystyrene tray and put a sheaf of wax paper on it and a piece of bread and Thomas McCrary will put a generous pile of ribs on the bread and paint the ribs with a 3-inch paint brush and his private sauce and Wonza will put another piece of bread on the painted ribs and fold over the wax-paper sheaf and wrap it all in foil and add napkins and slip the package into a paper sack and crimp the mouth shut for $5.

"You make that sauce yourself?"

"Oh yeah."

"What's in it?"

"A little of this, a little of that."

You and Thomas McCrary chuckle. "Are you open after dark?" This, unlike the sauce question, is not deliberately naive: you want to buy dinner later.

"No," Thomas McCrary says, with a wave of his arm at the tree branches overhead, "my lights are out." In the branches no lights are strung; there is no source of power on this public right-of-way corner if there were. You both laugh.

Plymouth calls itself "The Foliage Capital of the World." In twenty-four hours, Warren Sapp—one of its denizens—will make millions of dollars in the NFL draft. Many of his friends work in ornamental plant nurseries for between $150 and $200 a week. Many of them like the jobs because they can walk to them and they cannot afford a car.

"When did you know Warren Sapp was going to be a world-class football player?"

"Well, he played dirt-road football around here," Thomas McCrary says, "but I still didn't know he's gone do that."

I suggest that Warren Sapp can buy him a barbecue restaurant after tomorrow.

"Don't you say that," Wonza says. "We don't want to intimidate him."

"I don't want a restaurant," Thomas says. "They got lights. I like to pack up and go. " Indeed, his is already beginning to load up the cookers and their cooler into a flatbed trailer. "No overhead," Thomas McCrary says. "Done with it."

* * *

Jim Kraemer, the coach at Apopka High School, was the new offensive coordinator for Sapp's last year. To look at him you see a good athlete who wants to be the best coach he can be and make other good athletes. He is a man who can use words like pride and next level and excellence in creditable ways. We are in a small chalkboard room adjacent the team weight room. On the walls are schemes and play names and rudimentary plays; new audibles are being introduced—Outlaw, Motown, Boot, Cadillac— and some things that may not be audibles called Arc and Quake and Ted.

Warren Sapp was a tight end in Kraemer's offense, but on occasional defensive plays coaches saw him do things "not necessarily coachable. Headsy things. He threw his weight around and was unblockable. He is a super-smart football player." As we speak, Sapp's drug-test celebrity is mushrooming: the seven Miami positives are being released. But we are at this moment aware only of the initial report from the combine.

Coach Kraemer doesn't like that report, and he really doesn't like the sloppiness of retracting the initial combine cocaine report. Local damage has been done. "And marijuana," he says, "is not right." He gestures toward the weight room—not dissimilar from Thomas McCrary's wave at imaginary lights in the trees—where even on the uncustomary no-practice Friday afternoon a few players are clanging around, the oddly soothing clanging of olympic plates: "They see one of their heroes . . . . It's a dead fight to keep that stuff out of here."

I tell Coach Kraemer I'm headed out to Plymouth to see if it's asleep or abuzz about Warren Sapp. "Oh"—he pauses, I think to question this word I've come up with—"it's abuzz all right. We take—this whole area—great pride in our players going to the next level." From Apopka High are pros James McKnight, Derek Clark, Sammy Smith, Aaron Jones. Apopka is 36-3 in the last three years under Jim Kraemer.

"Let's see," he says. "It's Friday night. Out there under the tree there'll be some alcohol, and some other things."

"Yes, sir."

Coach Kraemer is a man who is in a personal professional dead fight with other things, and they are on his mind.

* * *

The tree is at the south end of Plymouth, about a 220-yard dash from Thomas and Wonza McCrary's barbecue cookers at the north end. The trip is like going from Ray Charles to Snoop Dogg. I get a case of beer. A white man in this situation is a geek unless he is a cop, and I elect to be a geek. I carry this case of beer as a kind of public-relations armor plate.

The first two fellows I come to I tell my business: "ESPN wants to know what y'all think about Warren Sapp tomorrow. You want to talk about that?"

"I don't mind," one of them, Spence, says.

"Good. ESPN sent a case of beer."

"Did ESPN send Olde English?"

"I'm afraid ESPN sent Busch."

We laugh. I explain that I saw people at the tree drinking Busch earlier in the day, when I got the barbecue from Sapp's cousin.

"Yeah," Spence concedes, "they some of them drink that."

"How about Warren Sapp tomorrow?"

"Well, he's slipped some around here."

"Around here?"

"Yeah."

It is 6:30, and there are about 50 people drinking beer under the tree.

"Up or down?"

"Down." This still baffles me, but I will see things that make some sense of it.

"What do you all do out here?"

"Just drinkin and chillin and conversatin," Spence says. "If you don't see someone under that tree after work, something's wrong."

"Warren has slipped because of this drug stuff?"

"Mmm hmm."

I explain to Spence that I think the NFL knows about drugs—it is not the Ladies' Aid—and they will know what to make of Sapp's problem if he has one. Spence accedes to this. "You ought to talk to Eugene, his cousin," Spence says. "If he's in his right mind. But he may have already had a couple." He accepts a Busch and I move on.

I offer a beer to Warren Sapp's cousin Eugene, who wants to be a farmer so badly that he is called Farmer Gene and sometimes just Farmer. He won't take one.

"I don't have anything to say."

"You don't have anything to say?"

"No."

"Hey, I'm not talking about anything but Warren's being at the top of the draft tomorrow."

Nothing.

"I was told you're very proud of him."

Nothing. The beer is getting heavy.

"Maybe I have bad information—"

"Maybe you do. I am not releasing any of that information until the family returns from New York."

"What information?"

Farmer Gene has walked off. I hold 23 beers in the bag. I offer them to some women sitting on a picnic table. No thanks.

"Hey! Hey!" It's a man about 30 yards away leaning on a car.

"What!"

"You trying sell that beer?"

"No! I'm trying to give it away."

"Well put it on the hood of this car."

This I do. This is more like it. This is Wilfred Neal. He is a very gracious host. We talk football, Warren. We talk white guys, being the police, they come through here prowling in a car, but maybe not they come out with a case of beer. Maybe.

I empty my wallet to show lack of badge, which we have heard means you can't be a cop, legally. Then, Wilfred points out, how could you identify yourself to other cops something went wrong? Then again how could you have i.d. on you if you under cover? We finally don't know what any of it means, but emptying my wallet has been a nice gesture, and some beers finally get taken. It is hoped that Sapp, whom they call Carlos, will do something for the community—Wilfred leaves this vague: "Something for the young people." Another fellow hopes Carlos will help with their flag-football program.

"You mean," I ask, "buy a field?"

"No. Line it out." He is hoping merely for chalk.

I offer a beer to a young man who comes up and leans on the car as if he wants one but he won't take one. He has a little of Mike Tyson's early diffidence and an incipient Herschel Walker trapezius and neck. To my offer, he smiles.

"No no," Wilfred Neal explains. "He's young."

"Young?"

"Seventeen." Looking at him, 210 or so, the neck, a little gold in his mouth, I missed it. This is a football hopeful, a prospect, and he will not have a beer on Friday night. Warren Sapp has slipped some around here. This is what Spence may have meant.

Two acres of foliage-nursery workers conversatin and chillin and drinkin and some other things on Friday night stand as chaperone to the 17-year-old prospect among them who can bench 300 pounds and who, if he acts right, can maybe get out of this mess. That is how serious they are about it: a boy among them—not a son but a prospect—will not be allowed one beer that has fallen from the sky onto a car hood on a wild Friday night. And he will not protest. He is not going to slip some around here.

There is nothing wrong with what is loftily called, by those who do not need it after a day of work, substance abuse, but there is plenty wrong with it if it cuts off your escape from that live-long day of work.

The following day, at noon, as the draft begins, Wilfred Neal is half-in, half-out of his girlfriend's car trying to fix her radio so he can go fishing. It's a new used car and he has discovered in it some kind of keypad on a cable wired into the dash which he cannot determine the purpose of. He decides to leave it alone.

Wilfred Neal goes fishing, Thomas and Wonza McCrary are unpacked and selling barbecue on the corner, Farmer Gene is not releasing any information, and as far as I know there is not a large party watching the draft on ESPN anywhere in Plymouth. As far as I know, and as far as one can tell, there isn't ESPN in Plymouth, Fla., home of Carlos Sapp.

When Warren Sapp goes No. 12 to the local and lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the public expressions of disappointment are only on the faces of the Jets fans who were chanting "We want Sapp!" until the Jets too passed on him. In Plymouth people are congregating for some chillin and conversatin under the tree and do not seem aware of what has befallen Carlos.

* * *

AN ADDENDUM TO THE ABOVE

This piece was commissioned by a then-new magazine, I believe called Total Sports, under the auspices of ESPN, when it was known only that Warren Sapp had had a troubling drug result at the NFL combine. As I recall, cocaine use had been alleged, and there was some general poohpoohing of that in a kind of accession that Sapp might have used some marijuana but that the cocaine report was bogus, and the NFL was in a backpedaling mode of some sort, or Sapp and his agent wanted them to be, and so forth. In this weather it was being alleged that Sapp might fall from No. 1 in the draft to 2 or 3–-some rather insignificant slippage.

While I was actually on the ground in Plymouth being regarded suspiciously it was coming out that Sapp had tested positive for something like five drug tests at Miami over the years and that the coach there had buried the tests, and the story was becoming much larger, involving not a "mistake" by a player at the combine but big trouble at Miami and perhaps large-scale corruption in college football and in the NCAA and–-and, well, the story was suddenly much vaster than what did Carlos Sapp's homeboys think about his hitting the Big Time tomorrow, which is what I had gone to Plymouth to unearth, that and only that.

The piece was written in this stillborn moment between the two stories, one small and one not, and the editor at ESPN I was dealing with rejected the piece as no longer relevant in view of the new landscape. I could not disagree and was more or less happy that I was not asked to go get Dennis Erickson and write about so much more than I had agreed to write about. As I recall, the editor generously paid me a full fee for the piece, not just a kill fee, since these developments were not my fault. I of course have no real idea what was objected to in the piece, or by whom, but suspect the explanation, while perfectly sensible, was not all there was to it. Anyone who has done work with magazines will know what I mean: no one knows what runs, or how much runs, or why.

Now, the real center of the story takes place off page. After I got people accepting the beer ESPN sent, it was perceived that I was not partaking myself, and this re-upped the suspicion that I was some kind of NFL narc or spy or possibly a real narc, somehow. Each time I refused my own beer this pressure increased, until finally my host offered me some weed. I felt I could not refuse this and maintain my integrity. (My abstinence is from booze, not lesser drugs.) I assented and my host went home and got some doobie and came back and he had a hit and I had a hit and he one and I one–-and suddenly I was going to have trouble even walking. I took stock. I had my motel room already and thought if I set out right away I would still be able to find it; it was two blocks away. I said to Wilfred, "Man, I got to go." He said, without smirk, "I heard that."

I clopped across the drinkin and chillin yard, taking very high awkward careful steps like a stringed mannequin, past all these brothers and sisters who were not sure how honest I was or what I was, to my car, got in it, got it running, and ran it slowly to that motel, and got all my change and went to the drink machines and bought as many sodas as I could with the change at hand, and got back in the room and locked it and turned on the TV for company, and flipping through channels discovered nearly all of them at that moment showing preachers or Pat Robertson or Charlton Heston as Moses, and found that if I lay diagonal on the bed and face-down and pointed the soles of my feet at the TV I could get a relieving kind of energy from the TV, a soothing kind of balm wave that calmed me down, and started in on the sodas, and a Randall knife I had bought earlier in the day (before I had talked to Kraemer the high school coach or been to the barbecue stand to scope the Plymouth tree), for which I had paid $250 and of which I had been most proud, a thing of real beauty, with its solid tool steel and leather aura inviting you to heft it and thumb the edge and give the sheath a snifferoo and admire the work and the Randall family and just feel good about things, all things—suddenly this knife, without actually moving, levitated from the table and pointed at me and made this accusation: You have spent $250 on this, a knife, when you have two daughters to put through school, you are not presenting a very good picture of a very good responsible adult person, and the phone rang and it was a woman I had called earlier whom I had gone out with one night about five years before and did not know very well and she told me she had gotten married and that my seeing her back then five years ago had been useful in her breaking out of the funk she had been in because of her divorce and there was Pat Robertson or Moses and the knife, the hives, I had to get diagonal and couldn't get off the phone or remember from one sentence to the next what I had said to the woman, and somehow it all passed, and I survived.

The next day when Wilfred Neal is perplexed by the strange keypad device resembling a computer mouse and wired into his girlfriend's car, I am standing in the sun beside the car shaking a little in the bright light and more or less seeing in that weird keypad a symbol for all of our not knowing, his, mine, everyone's, and am reduced to the point that it would be a relief were I a cop, and Neal is, I think, ahead of me in this surrender; it is okay with him too whatever I am, whatever he is, there are forces beyond us, let's do the best we can, have a girlfriend if we can, go fishing, be cool my brother. Let's let Carlos play football or do dope we do not care, we can not care, hallelujah. I think I called into the house to the girlfriend that the pot made me lose my mind last night and she laughed inside the house. Out there in the hot yard, we heard her laugh.

Padgett Powell has published five novels and two collections of short stories, his latest the novel The Interrogative Mood. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper's, Paris Review, Grand Street, Esquire, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, and elsewhere. His work appears in the Best American Short Stories and Best American Sports Writing anthologies. He has won the Prix de Rome and a Whiting Writers Award. He teaches writing at the University of Florida. He has taught also at the Sewanee Writers Conference and at the Summer Literary Seminars in Russia and Kenya.

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