Jake Steinberg, theJetsBlog.com
In a day and age of self absorbed, arrogant, “me first players,” one man defies those odds. In fact, he shatters them. Most people just know him as a player that I often hype up, sometimes too much, and to the extreme.
But there’s a reason for the hype. While one might hear more than 100 stories a year of inspirations on and off the field, this one trumps them all—a story of commitment, determination, and struggle—one of heartbreak and heartache—and one of overcoming the unthinkable.
Ricky Sapp’s high school career started out with a bang. The Bamberg-Ehrhardt High School phenom was a three-sport athlete, a standout in track, and an amazing basketball player. But football was where he truly excelled. Sapp recorded 70 tackles (27 for a loss) and 11 sacks in an all-state junior year, and 82 tackles with 11 sacks in an All-American senior campaign. He earned a 5-star ranking from Rivals and was ranked the #1 weakside defensive end in the country. He was one of the most sought after players in the nation and had almost every big name school courting him. However, Sapp decided to ultimately attend Clemson University.
From day one, Sapp’s job was clear: get after the passer. Coaches labeled him the “bandit” defensive end, which is a designated stand-up pass rusher. He backed up Gaines Adams, who would be the fourth overall pick in the following NFL Draft. Adams and Sapp became extremely close. Adams tutored Sapp and instilled in him knowledge that would prove to be invaluable. At the time, Sapp could have never known how special their time together truly was.
Sapp did not start any of the 13 games he appeared in, but still managed to finish second on the team with four sacks. With Adams now in the NFL, Sapp was ready to claim the starting position his sophomore year. He bulked to 240 pounds after playing at 220 the previous season.
Sophomore year Sapp sacked the quarterback six times, while making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He collected five pressures, three causing interceptions. He also delivered 44 total tackles (24 solo) while starting all 13 games.
Scouts were projecting Sapp to be a high first round pick. The sky was the limit.
But that’s where the fairytale ends. Just as Sapp was really starting to emerge as a junior, recording 9.5 stops for loss through the first 10 games of 2008, he suffered a right knee anterior cruciate tear, in a game vs. Virginia that ended his season two games short of its conclusion. He underwent surgery, finishing with 25 tackles (12 solos) and 2.5 sacks.
He was never the same. While in hindsight he should have sat out his senior year because his knee was not fully healed, Sapp did the opposite. Instead, he played at about 60 percent his full potential, which ultimately hurt his draft stock, but he wanted to be there for his team.
His senior season, Sapp played through pain and emerged into a linebacker role. He often dropped into zone coverage and started playing outside linebacker, a position in which scouts envisioned him playing at the next level.
After the season, Sapp was invited to the prestigious Senior Bowl, but declined. While that game is usually a good way for an elite talent to further boost his draft stock, Sapp felt he needed to spend the time further rehabbing his knee and preparing for the Combine.
With his draft stock plummeting, one man Sapp relied on to help him through the process was Gaines Adams. Adams, a former first round pick and Sapp’s mentor, was there for him whenever Sapp needed him. So, on January 17, 2010, when Sapp got a call that Gaines had suddenly died of cardiac arrest, his life was forever altered. After the tragedy, Sapp commented, “He was an amazing football player but not only that, he was an amazing friend. That hit me kind of hard, but I know Gaines is watching down on me and that just motivates me to work even harder to keep his legacy living through me. After hearing such traumatic news on Sunday, I went to work (meaning workouts) on Monday with a completely different mindset.”
With a new outlook on life, Sapp was poised to prove his doubters wrong, get healthy, and get drafted. After appearing at the Combine in February and having several pre-draft workouts, Sapp was ready and determined to start fresh. Ultimately, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 5th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He signed a 4-year deal and was excited for this new opportunity. Draft experts labeled the pick the steal of the draft.
Little did people know he would never actually see the field for the Eagles.
Finally healthy and ready to make an impact, Sapp was having an amazing camp as a rookie. However, in his first preseason game, he injured his knee. His right knee. The same knee. Again. The knee that gave him so much trouble before. The knee that took over a year to heal.
And just like that, he was placed on IR and missed the entire season. Sapp underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in September. Shortly after, he got back to work and was determined to get healthy and get back on the field.
“People really don’t have any idea what it’s been like. It’s been tough. I was down and out,” he said.
The following season, Sapp was released in August after continuing to have problems with his knee. The same man who once forfeited an insane amount of money to play at 60% for his brothers was now being accused of quitting on his teammates. Rumors were swirling that Sapp left training camp and was done with football. “I would never in my life just quit,” he told BleedingGreenNation.com, an Eagles blog. “I’ve just been dealing with this knee for a long time and I bust my behind to get it back right and it just gives me more problems.”
Sapp was now out of football, wondering if he’d ever get a shot again. In the grand scheme of things, Sapp wanted to get back. He just needed to get that right knee healthy. So, again, the recovery process continued.
Finally, after months of preparation, Sapp got his chance. The Jets called and wanted him to come in for a workout. Of course, he was on the first flight out to NY, and when he arrived, he had no plans of leaving. In his words, he “killed” the workout, and the Jets signed him to the practice squad directly after.
He had been be cut and re-signed before eventually making the active roster on December 29, 2011.
Now 100 percent healthy, Sapp came into training camp in 2012 as the main backup to Calvin Pace. In fact, Sapp often got first team reps when Calvin was absent during OTA’s. It seemed the comeback story had been complete. Sapp was having the camp of his life, showing extreme athleticism, earning praise from Rex Ryan, and causing havoc in the backfield on almost every play. Unfortunately, as luck would have it, after sacking the QB during the Green and White scrimmage in August, Sapp came up with a sprained ankle. That ankle never fully recovered. He missed the entire preseason and was among the final cuts. Immediately signed to the practice squad, he was released in early September to give his ankle more time to heal. When it did recover, he was brought back in late September. He was determined this time to stay for good.
He remained on the practice squad until November, going all-out, every single practice. With Aaron Maybin not producing at the outside linebacker position, it was finally Sapp’s time. On November 8, 2012, he was promoted to the active roster from the practice squad. The wait was over.
“He has been a handful for us to block,” Ryan said. “The young man’s a guy who keeps going like this.” When he said “like this,” Ryan’s hand swooped up like a plane taking off. “He’s worked so well that it’s, ‘Let’s see what he can do,’ ” Ryan said. “And we will. We’ll find out. He’s going to be active for us and we’ll watch him chase the passer.”
Interestingly, Ryan was not exactly telling the truth. After seeing Sapp get after the quarterback that weekend in Seattle, the Jets barley played him again. Why? According to people close to the situation, the Jets were hiding Sapp for the 2013 season. They did not want teams to get tape on him.
With the reputation of being one of the most well-liked and friendliest players on the team, Sapp is just happy to be in a locker room again.
So that begs the question, what does the future hold for Sapp in NY? Well, with Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas gone coupled with Garrett McIntyre, proving he’s not an every down linebacker, it’s a safe bet that Ricky Sapp will be the starting outside linebacker Week 1 of the 2013 Season.
“You think about being in a storm and coming out of it,” Sapp said. “That’s how I feel. I feel like now, like now is my time.”
I decided I wanted to help Ricky out. To give him something that would inspire him to continue fighting for his goal. As such, I reached out to his idol, hip hop preacher Eric Thomas. I wanted to see if “ET” could record a surprise video for Ricky. ET got back to me right away and the rest was history.
With the help out the great Bob Anthony, the following video was born.
Enjoy, the Ricky Sapp Story.