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Thursday, July 10
Former NFL guard finds sporting success in Japan

By Len Pasquarelli

Maybe it was when his stock in the 1997 draft plummeted to the third round that former offensive guard Bob Sapp first understood the road to stardom might include a few unscheduled detours.

Perhaps reality arrived when he was suspended by the league for alleged steroid abuse and subsequently released by four NFL teams despite a college career in which he twice earned All-America honors. Or when the tendinitis in his joints became so pronounced that Sapp probably could not have continued playing football even if some team offered him a guaranteed roster spot.

Former NFL guard Bob Sapp lifts cheerleaders during a party in Tokyo.
No matter when the epiphany came, there is no way the former University of Washington star, not even in his most bizarre dreams, could have conjured up a scenario in which the route to athletic celebrity would include an off-ramp that carried him thousands of miles, and one very large ocean, away from the professional career he had planned.

"You know," said Sapp recently, discussing his incredible ascent from NFL washout to Japanese sports icon, "I could write a book."

Uh, actually, Bob, you already have. Three of them, in fact, all runaway best-sellers in Japan, where the reincarnation of Sapp's once-foundering sports career has now arguably transformed him into the country's best known athletic personality.

Back at home, Sapp -- chosen by Chicago in the 1997 draft and then summarily pink-slipped by the Bears (in '97), Minnesota Vikings (1998), Baltimore Ravens (1999) and Oakland Raiders (2000) -- is pretty much recalled as a certified bust. Across the Pacific Ocean, on the other hand, they are considering forging bronze busts of their hero.

In the fairly brutal and relatively new-age martial arts pursuit known as K-1, Sapp has hammered out a high profile in Japan, mostly by hammering opponents. It is difficult to describe the sport, a hybrid of karate, tae kwon do, kickboxing and wrestling. Think about all those "tough guy" competitions you've seen on late-night television, throw in a dash of semi-civility, and the resultant brew might best capture the K-1 essence.

Sapp, 29, kind of stumbled into K-1 after his failed forays in football and pro wrestling and a brief stint as a personal trainer in the Seattle area. But in just over a year, and with only six months of training, he hasn't experienced many missteps in his new career. It's hard to imagine that Sapp, so depressed and financially strapped less than two years ago that he covered the windows of his home in black sheets, has enjoyed such a turnaround.

So hard to imagine, in fact, Sapp didn't even tell family members about his new venture. In their minds, he was in Seattle, eking out a subsistence as a personal trainer and trying to decide on his life's direction. In truth, he was already on the cusp of cult hero status in Japan, where his alter ego is known as The Beast, the same handle he had adopted during his brief United States wrestling fling.

"Even now, when you tell people who he is and who he used to be, they don't believe it," said promoter Scott Coker, who is attempting to book K-1 fights in this country. "Then again, I guess you can't blame them, huh?"

Well, no, you really can't.

With the four different NFL teams, Sapp participated in a total of one game, and three franchises released him before the season even began. He never earned more than the league minimum salary. Sapp's biggest NFL paycheck was his original signing bonus, $340,000, from the Bears in July of 1997.

Given all the roadblocks that I experienced (in football), this is all pretty amazing, isn't it? I mean, life really is crazy, you know?.
Bob Sapp

That signing bonus is chump change compared to the $3 million-plus that Sapp figures to earn from K-1 and, more significantly, from endorsements in 2003. Because the fans in Japan have been so enamored of his gentle giant nature, maybe the fact that he pulverizes opponents and then rushes to their side to check on their physical well-being, Sapp has been able to cash in big-time.

Heck, the guy is bigger than Pokemon now and more amazing than King Midas, and marketing mavens can't get to Sapp fast enough to hustle their clients' products.

His fame is unlike that of the baseball stars exported to America, outfielders Suzuki and Ishiro, because they were excellent players before coming here. Part of the popularity of Sapp, opined one Japanese journalist, is that he had few recognizable skills when he came onto the sports scene there, and built himself from unknown into unforgettable.

Just how big is Sapp? When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, some of the Japanese journalists covering the game in January queried defensive tackle Warren Sapp about whether the two were related. They are not, but that mattered little to the writers, who still managed to interject Bob Sapp into their Super Bowl commentaries.

There is a Bob Sapp compact disc, "Sapp Time," which is among the top sellers in the Japanese record stores. He hawks pizza, alarm clocks, all manner of electronic products. Despite his size (6-feet-4 and 350 pounds, although he is often introduced as being 6-7 and 370), Sapp must be flanked by a legion of bodyguards when he ventures out into the public and the Japanese paparazzi swarm all over themselves for any camera angle. It is not uncommon for fathers to phone Sapp, offering up their daughters in marriage, and jealous husbands often chide their wives for swooning over him.

His recent K-1 matches have drawn crowds of 70,000 or more. There are plans being drawn up for an animated television series. And back at home, Hollywood producers have considered casting Sapp as an action hero, and he already has a few scripts in hand.

For an NFL reject who only 18 months ago was fretting over how to play his bills, life is suddenly good, and the Sapp mother lode shows no signs of ebbing.

"Given all the roadblocks that I experienced (in football), this is all pretty amazing, isn't it?" Sapp said rhetorically. "I mean, life really is crazy, you know?"

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.

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