TAMPA — Since being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot four years ago, Warren Sapp has traveled each August to Canton, Ohio, to join the game's greats returning for induction ceremonies.
But with each passing year, it seemed too many of his fellow NFL players were in failing health and slipping further into a fog as a result of head injuries sustained during their careers.
"I said, 'I can't do this. I can't stay on the sideline and watch Tony Dorsett and Willie Brown and all the great ones deteriorate before my eyes,' " Sapp told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday.
That why the 44-year-old former defensive tackle, one of the most successful players in Bucs history, announced Tuesday that he is pledging his brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and is advocating to eliminate youth tackle football until players are in high school.
In a first-person story and three-minute video at the Players' Tribune, Sapp detailed some of his own problems with memory loss and says he needs to set reminders on his phone for everyday activities because he can't remember things the way he used to.
Sapp said he was motivated to speak out after reading quotes from NFL owners denying a connection between football and concussions, CTE and suicide.
"When I got that information that shared all the quotes from the NFL owners, it was almost like big tobacco," Sapp said Tuesday. "Like cigarettes. Then they come out with Football is Family? When you're a family, you protect the baby, the weakest link. I read quotes from owners like (Patriots owner) Robert Kraft and the ones that own Fantasy Football leagues.
"With the information I had from doctors, I said, 'Man, you've got to be kidding me.' I had a rheumatologist in charge of this stuff for the NFL during my 13 years in the league. He wrote this in a medical journal."
Dr. Elliot Pellman, a rheumatologist who served as the personal physician for NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, for years wielded authority over the league's concussion program. His name appears 26 times in a lawsuit that contends the NFL concealed a link between football and brain damage.
The NFL's concussion problem has strong ties to Tampa Bay. Former Bucs lineman Tom McHale was found dead in a Wesley Chapel apartment in 2008, and former Eagles safety and USF assistant coach Andre Waters killed himself in Tampa in 2006.
Sapp, the centerpiece of the Bucs' Super Bowl XXXVII championship team, estimates he had at least three —and possibly many more — concussions during his 13-year NFL playing career.
"You know what, that's the whole thing. You know about the bell ringing and you can't quantify it," Sapp said. "I know I had three or four concussions without a doubt. The worse one I got was when I tried to jump and swat away a ball like J.J. Watt is famous for. I went to go get a ball in Minnesota. Randall Cunningham was the quarterback and I get ready and I jumped. Robert Smith took my legs out from under me and I get that hard turf with my head. My stomach, knees, everything went into my face mask. I got up and the room was spinning. I know I got concussed then.
"I got hit on the side of the head. You get dinged a lot. With Tony (Dungy, the former Bucs coach), we had pads on every day."
Sapp said he once thought of himself as the "elephant" of the Bucs' defensive tackles, unable to forget details, but now struggles to remember basic things in his day, needing reminders on his cellphone to keep track of them.
"There's no way any of us want to admit that we can't remember how to get home, or a grocery list the wife has given us, or how to go pick up our kids (at) school, or whatever it may be," Sapp said. "You try to (think) 'All right, I'm going to try to get a little more sleep, maybe it's something I did last night, maybe something I drank.' . . . You try to find a reason that it's not 'It's my brain,' that I'm not deteriorating right before my own eyes."
Sapp said the threat of concussion-related health problems is serious enough to reduce the game's most physical, feared players to feeling helpless against what they're battling.
"It's the most frightening feeling, but it's also a very weakening feeling, because you feel like a child," he said. "I need help. I need somebody to help me find something that I could have found with my eyes closed, in the dead of night, half asleep."
Sapp said he plans to encourage more former NFL players to pledge to donate their brains upon death for examination by the Concussion Legacy Foundation.
"We can do something we can never do in life. We can be in two places at one time," Sapp said. "Our busts are in Canton and our brains are in Boston. You're not going to need it."