Recalling old scars
January 09, 2003
By Dennis Georgatos
Jerry Rice went down in a crumpled heap. Steve Young was left dazed by a blow to the head.
``I was a Niners fan then and I was like, `Damn, all my favorite players are getting hurt,' '' center Jeremy Newberry said, recalling the 49ers' disastrous 1997 season-opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in which they suffered losses much greater than 13-6 on the scoreboard.
The teams meet Sunday for the first time since, in a second-round playoff game in Tampa, Fla. And the 49ers will run headlong into Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a central character in the '97 game.
Five plays in, Sapp had sacked Young when teammate Hardy Nickerson slid into the quarterback, kneeing him in the head. Young left the field but returned in the third quarter to finish the game. However, he missed the 49ers' next contest because of a concussion, foreshadowing the end of his career two years later.
If that wasn't enough, five minutes from halftime, Sapp dragged Rice down by the face mask on an end around and the receiver's knee buckled. Rice suffered torn ligaments that sidelined him for virtually the rest of the season.
``It was unbelievable when they happened like that, so close together and in the first game, and it happened to be with Warren Sapp,'' said 49ers Coach Steve Mariucci, downplaying the notion of any malicious intent on Sapp's part. ``He's just an aggressive football player that plays hard.''
Those memories are reason enough for the 49ers to go to great lengths containing Sapp. Still a force on the league's top-ranked defense, he sometimes is a controversial competitor. Earlier this season, he and Green Bay Coach Mike Sherman got into a heated postgame exchange after Sapp's blindside hit during an interception return left the Packers' Chad Clifton with a season-ending pelvis injury.
``He changes how games are played and how you prepare for a defensive tackle,'' 49ers tackle Scott Gragg said. ``Certainly, we are keeping an eye on him.''
Sapp alternates sides on the line, meaning he will go against right guard Ron Stone and rookie left guard Eric Heitmann on Sunday.
``They're going to get lots of that, my friend. Both guards will see plenty of me,'' said Sapp, second on the Bucs with 7 1/2 sacks.
Sapp might also see plenty of Newberry, who probably will slide toward Sapp's side of the line either protecting quarterback Jeff Garcia or opening up running holes for Garrison Hearst and Kevan Barlow.
``It's going to require some double teams on occasion, but you can't do it all the time,'' Mariucci said. ``You can also help with backs or tight ends on defensive linemen, but you can't make a steady habit of it.''
Though the 49ers are aware of Sapp's history, they're not preoccupied with it.
``It's something I'm going to allow my offensive line to control and take care of,'' Garcia said. ``I can't consume myself with worrying about Warren Sapp in front of me, even as much as he's going to try to make me think about him. There's too much responsibility within me to be concerned with one guy.''
Stone said he's bracing himself for both the physical and mental battles with Sapp, who is known to do a lot of trash talking.
``That's his thing, and he's going to go with it,'' Stone said. ``You've just got to go with the flow and do what you can to try to keep him quiet.''
San Francisco receivers coach George Stewart, who was a Tampa Bay assistant when Sapp joined the Bucs in 1995, said Sapp never meant to hurt Rice.
``Regardless of what you think about him, sometimes you have to read the book to understand what is behind that cover,'' Stewart said. ``Warren Sapp is a well-read guy, an outstanding human being. I respect him a lot.
``Is he dirty? No. He made a tackle. It was unfortunate he grabbed the face mask.''
Tackle Derrick Deese said that 1997 game is not an issue. Besides, the stakes are too high Sunday to lose focus.
``That's years ago,'' Deese said. ``We don't think about that anymore. We're just thinking about winning this game and that's it.''
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