Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Talk makes headlines at Super Bowl

By Jim Litke
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - Oxygen will be at a premium in the trenches come Sunday. That's when Bucs defender Warren Sapp and Raiders lineman Frank Middleton, two of the NFL's biggest mouths, square off across the line of scrimmage. Considering how much trash will be flying back and forth between the former teammates and practice partners, the worry is whether there will be enough uncluttered airspace left for the rest of the players to breathe.

"He's a space-eater," Sapp said. "We went at it for four years and it won't be any different Sunday."

Middleton's retort: "We had us a nice little marriage; some days good and some days not so good. Now we're divorced and somebody is going to have to pay."

Get off a good quote at the expense of your opponents in the days before the Super Bowl and immortality - or notoriety - usually won't be far behind.

A cocky young Jets quarterback named Joe Namath guaranteed a victory over Baltimore in the run-up to the 1969 Super Bowl, then engineered it, and he hasn't had to pick up a bar tab in New York since.

Cowboys linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson barely troubled Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw during Super Bowl X, which the Steelers won 21-17, perhaps because he'd already fired his best shot. Earlier in the week, when asked if Bradshaw would find a way to solve Dallas' "Doomsday Defense" Henderson had a ready answer.

"He couldn't spell C-A-T,"' he said, "if you spotted him the C and the T."

Then there was Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, the Kansas City cornerback who parlayed his tough-guy image into a few action-movie roles. Just before the Chiefs played the Packers in Super Bowl I, Williamson promised to level a few Green Bay receivers with the forearm shiver that was his trademark.

Instead, with the game safely put away, the Packers pulled guard Gale Gillingham and ran a sweep at - and directly over - Williamson in the fourth quarter.

"Laid him out like a bear rug, too," a Packer official recalled Tuesday - 36 years later. "Some hammer."

People might ask why anybody would run their mouth at this late date. After all, the championship of the pro football world is already on the line, along with fame and a winner's check you could use for a membership to a country club.

But some guys can't help themselves. A nickname like "Hollywood" or "Neon Deion" is usually one indicator. A lineman who can draw a crowd without announcing his retirement is another.

"Actually, I'm shy," Middleton said, drawing a laugh from the knot of reporters surrounding him on media day. "Once I leave here, I won't say another word until Sunday.

"But when it comes to the game, I been a talker all my life," he said. "If I make a good block, I'll let you know. If you beat me, I'll let you know you won't be doing it again."

The knock against guys like Middleton and Sapp is that they expend so much time and wind on yapping that it steals precious energy from the rest of their performance. Sapp disagreed - loudly. By raising his voice, he's raising the ante.

"You want to be talking," he said, "because who's talking is who's winning."

But not always.

In the week leading up to Tampa Bay's visit to Philadelphia for the NFC Championship, Brian Mitchell, the Eagles' veteran kick returner - but a rookie at hurling insults - referred to Sapp as "Warren Sackless." It was a pointed dig at Sapp's declining production; after producing double-digit sack totals in three of the four previous years, the Tampa Bay tackle slipped to 6 in 2001 and 7 1/2 this season.

But apparently Middleton wasn't much impressed by the Bucs 27-10 humbling of the Eagles. Asked whether he thought Sapp, the right tackle, was losing steam as a pass rusher, Middleton, a left guard, didn't try to be clever or funny. His answer, in fact, sounded like a flat-out dare.

"He's been double-teamed a lot, but we don't do that. If you're better than one of the guys on our line, you're going to get your opportunities."

Sapp can hardly wait. Meantime, he amused himself by engaging in a battle of wits with a Don King imitator dispatched by the "Best Damn Sports Show, Period" to talk a steady stream of trash to Sapp looking for some kind of reaction.

After ignoring the joust for a moment, Sapp turned to face his would-be tormentor.

"That" he said, rolling his eyes, "is why it's not the best damn sports show, period."

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