Sept. 22, 2002
By Greg Ladky
Being a blue-chip recruit is every football player’s dream.
Only a handful of high school football players in the country are tagged with this label. Few high school athletes could ever dream of going to the National Football League, but most blue-chip recruits survive college and make it to the pros.
Irish senior strong safety Gerome Sapp was a blue-chip recruit coming out of Lamar High School in Houston, Texas. He was a USA Today first-team All-American. ESPN and The Sporting News rated him the sixth-best player nationally. College football expert Phil Steele had Sapp as the number-one defensive back recruit in the country.
But you won’t hear Sapp talk about the League. Then again, he shouldn’t. A short conversation with Sapp or even a quick peak at his web site will reveal he is much more than a college football player.
He has the rare combination of an all-business persona with a friendly attitude. His male classmates will tell you he is a hard worker and a fun person. Women will add he is a nice dresser. There is a reason for these traits. Sapp puts a lot of effort into being the best person he can be.
Despite the tight schedule of a student athlete, Sapp has expended as much energy pursuing a career off the field as he has on the field.
“Looking at life, there are so many people who make it and don’t make it,” says Sapp.
“I always told myself I would never use football as a crutch. I would only use it as a stepping stone. I think of football as a glorified hobby. I live life the way God leads me.”
Sapp earned the defensive MVP award in the 2002 Blue-Gold game with five tackles and an interception, coupled with pre-season honors such as being rated fifth nationally among strong safeties by The Sporting News. He hopes to have a great senior year which would likely land him in the NFL. Despite this, Sapp took the time this summer to work on his career off the field.
Sapp interned with Merrill Lynch in Houston for five weeks before summer classes started. He worked in research and mutual funds. While in South Bend for summer school, he interned at American Express in financial advising.
“The great thing is I didn’t sit around and do anything,” says Sapp. “I did a lot of hands on work.”
“I researched, prepared packets for potential clients, sold financial packets and talked to presidents from other companies. I met a lot of people and learned a lot. It was a great experience. Whether I go to the NFL or not, I’ll be ready to go out and succeed.”
Summer is an important time for every college football team. Players can devote two months on gaining speed, strength and endurance. With most students back at home for summer break, teams build chemistry during captain’s workouts or over a barbeque.
But Sapp missed out on some of the fun of summer bonding. While building his career off the field and attending classes, Sapp had to find time to train for the season.
He worked out at 6:30 a.m., and then attended classes. While his teammates would enjoy some free time after classes and workouts, Sapp went to work at his local internship. With a full day’s work under his belt, Sapp then finished his workout from the morning.
“I often wasn’t around when the guys were hanging out. Thankfully, that still doesn’t affect the way I view them or they view me. They know I’ll be there when they need me.”
“As we go through college, we become more mature and look at other aspects of our lives. My friends and teammates understand that.”
“He is a great all around guy,” says free safety and classmate Glenn Earl.
“People love him, and people respect him. He is a great player too. He is a student of the game, always in his note book.”
The closest people to Sapp preached focusing on other things in life than just football. The youngest of three children, Sapp was raised by his mother, Angie Sapp. His sister, Aisha, works in Atlanta. His brother Charles is a former Colorado State running back and is now a professional model in New York. Sapp credits all three for providing an example to him on how to pursue a career.
Angie wanted to involve her children in a lot of different activities, not just football. Gerome followed in his brother’s footsteps by participating in karate, Boy Scouts for seven years and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes for eight years.
Angie also stressed academics to her children.
“It is very important to get a diploma because it’s the only thing guaranteed,” says Angie Sapp.
“A football career is not promising because it can end in a second. The family did not discuss the NFL while Gerome attended high school, and we seldom talk about it now.
“Gerome depends on his big brother for guidance. Charles provided spiritual guidance to keep him focused during high school. They continue speak often on the phone.”
Gerome and Charles were the starting safeties together at Lamar High School for two years. Gerome humbly admits his brother should have gotten a scholarship before him. While he was tagged with the blue-chip label, Charles failed to earn a scholarship to play football and walked on at Colorado State as a running back.
“That made me realize that there is a thin line between making it and not making it,” says Sapp.
“He always told me not to believe the hype. I really didn’t think I deserved it. People held me to a level I hadn’t achieved yet. A lot of people may have been disappointed because I didn’t play early.”
Injuries have plagued much of Sapp’s career. He played as a reserve free safety his freshmen year and made 164 special-team appearances. He kept his reputation as a future star. The next season, he played in 11 games and saw increased action in the defensive backfield. He made his first career start versus Boston College, posting eight tackles including one for a loss. Two weeks later, he would miss the USC game due to an ankle sprain.
Injuries kept Sapp from consistently appearing in the starting lineup during his junior year. He started the year as a reserve until gaining his first start of the season against Pittsburgh. But he would miss the next game versus West Virginia due to a shoulder injury. He returned to the staring lineup the following week versus USC and earned a career-high eight tackles against seventh-ranked Tennessee. He recovered two fumbles against Navy, retuning one 39 yards for a touchdown. Once again, the injury bug bit, and Sapp missed then Purdue game with a shoulder injury.
Each time Sapp had appeared ready to take his game to the next level, injuries set him back. Despite the ups and downs, he feels he has progressed well over the years. In the face of a busy summer, Sapp managed to work himself into the best shape of his life. Now, he is ready to help the team as the starter at strong safety for an experienced and talented defensive back group.
“We have been waiting for this as long as we have been here,” says Earl.
“We are good friends and classmates. Injuries have plagued us, but now it is our time to have a great season.”
“The injuries may have prevented me from helping the team as a starter,” says Sapp.
“But that was a learning experience. In life, you’ve got to grow. And when you grow, you’ve have to learn from the mistakes you’ve made.”
Sapp spent his first three years playing behind good veteran athletes at the safety spots. As a freshman, Sapp learned the system playing behind Deke Cooper and A’Jani Sanders. He spent most of the last two seasons backing up Tony Driver and Ron Israel.
However, Sapp waited patiently without complaint. He took advantage of the chance to learn from the veteran players over his first three years.
As a senior, it is Sapp’s turn to teach the younger players. Sapp’s up-and-down career serves as a lesson for several highly touted incoming freshmen on the Irish squad. Sapp would be the first to tell them to be cautious of all the hype coming out of high school.
“Everything accomplished in high school football is nothing once you get to college,” says Sapp.
“Here you start six feet under the ground, and you have to dig yourself out. Once you dig yourself out, you have to excel.”
“I played my role on the team. I always told myself when the time came, I would step up. Now is the time.”
No other position group on the team deserves to have a standout season more than the defensive backs. They ranked 10th nationally in 2001 in pass defense (172.64 yards per game), despite facing a slew of NFL talented wide receivers including Charles Rogers (Michigan State), Kelly Washington and Dont? Stallworth (both of Tennessee), Teyo Johnson (Stanford) and Antonio Bryant (Pittsburgh). However, the defensive backs have heard an unfairly high amount of criticism over the past couple of years.
This year, Vontez Duff and Shane Walton form what is probably the best cornerback combination Notre Dame has seen since the Holtz glory days. Earl and Sapp form a physical and athletic safety combination. Pre-season practices have shown this year’s defensive backs will be different. While the defensive back groups from programs such as Oklahoma and Arkansas are receiving the pre-season hype, Sapp is confident that the Irish defensive backs can be in that group.
But the Irish defensive backs want a little more than respect.
“Our mentality this year is to dominate,” says Sapp.
“We want to go out with a bang. But there are a lot of things that go into having a great defensive backfield. The defensive line, the linebackers must make their drops. Everyone on the defense must be on the same page.”
“Our goal is to be the best defensive back group in the in the country. If we are not, we sold ourselves short. We definitely have the talent, we definitely have the drive. We have the coaches too.”
Sapp likes the way defensive back coach Trent Walters operates. Walters is in his first year at Notre Dame after serving eight years as a defensive assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings. He uses those NFL standards in critiquing Sapp and his teammates.
Walters worked with first-year Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham for the Minnesota Vikings in 1994. Sapp relishes in the discipline and high standards both coaches hold their players too. “Coach Willingham would apologize for being 15 seconds late for a meeting,” says Sapp with a smile.
Sounds like a joke. But he quickly pointed out that level of discipline is exactly what the team needs. The players are expected to follow the rules and objectives Willingham established on day one.
“He is very wise. We joke around and call him prophet Ty. If you sit with him for five minutes, you’ll learn something.”
Sapp calls Willingham a perfect fit at Notre Dame.
“He is exactly what this program needed. He told us that practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice make perfect. That is how he prepares us. That will be our mentality this year.”
But despite his first impression as a disciplinarian, Sapp considers Willingham to be an expert motivator as well.
“He challenges you. He’ll pull you aside anywhere, in practice, in the hall outside a meeting and tell you something that gets you going. He has his ways of motivating you. Those ways definitely bring out the best in his players.”
Sapp’s challenge this year is to help anchor the most talented defensive backfield Notre Dame has had in several years.
Even Sapp’s mother, the first person who would tell him that there is more to life than football, can’t hide her enthusiasm.
“We are both really excited. He has had a lot of injuries. He is way overdue to be a starter. I am real confident this season will be a great season.”
Irish fans are hoping one old adage remains true in this case.
A mother always knows best.
Greg Ladky, of Mequon, Wis. is a senior at the University of Notre Dame and is the sports director for WVFI Radio on campus.