He was floating in sleep when the word came, drifting through one of those sweet naps when the humidity and the hum of traffic drag you under and you don't want to wake.... Then someone was calling his name. Then Warren Sapp mumbled, surfaced and opened his eyes, and the real world he had left was not the same anymore. "Somebody called," a friend visiting his apartment told him. "Somebody said you tested positive for cocaine."
This was Monday evening, March 13, 40 days before the 1995 NFL college draft, and suddenly here sat one of the jewels of that draft, conceivably a top-five pick overall, in front of a television in Miami, desperately punching the remote with his thumb. CNN. ESPN. Local news. Nothing. He called his agent. What did it mean? Where did it come from? He flew through the channels again, waiting for the words. How would they sound? Then, on the late news, there was former Miami Dolphin receiver Jimmy Cefalo, now a sportscaster, suitably grave, saying that The New York Times was reporting that Sapp, the Miami Hurricanes' 1994 Lombardi Award winner and college football's defensive player of the year, had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. Sapp punched to another station. That guy was saying it, too. Then another. They all were saying it now.
"It was killing me," Sapp says. "Killing me.... You just didn't know where they were going next. It started and then it escalated, and it was all on radio and in the papers. It just exploded on me."
But unlike most jock-drug revelations, this one quickly assumed an erratic trajectory. On Tuesday the NFL issued a statement saying that the Times's report, which cited unnamed sources and listed Sapp and five other college players who had supposedly tested positive for drugs, was inaccurate. The NFL said that Sapp did not test positive for cocaine, conspicuously omitting any mention of marijuana, and that former Miami running back James Stewart, who, according to the Times, had tested positive for marijuana, "did not test positive for any illegal substance." In response, the Times stood by its story, saying in Wednesday's editions that four unnamed NFL team officials had told the newspaper they had seen reports indicating that Sapp had tested positive for cocaine and marijuana and that Stewart had done so for marijuana.
With nothing resolved, the story has hung in the air like a dark cloud ever since, leaving Sapp's reputation dangling in a strange limbo, somewhat redeemed and somewhat damned. For his part, Sapp flatly denies having ever used cocaine. "That's not something I would involve myself in," he says. "Definitely not. Anybody who's ever been remotely close to me can attest to that. It's not me."
Five NFL team officials told SI that they had seen a single-page list of players who tested positive for drugs at the combine and that only a single word was listed next to Sapp's name: marijuana. When asked about this, Sapp is less emphatic. "It's a matter between me and the NFL," he says. Pressed on whether he smokes pot, Sapp says, "That's not me."
If Sapp tested positive only for marijuana, he would be guilty of, at the very least, bad judgment. It would mean that, even though he knew a drug test was mandatory at the combine, he cither had used marijuana or was in the company of people who had. He risks losing as much as $4 million this season if, as seems possible, he slips from being one of the top-five picks in the April 22 draft to being taken later in the first round.
Few NFL observers imagined him going any lower than fifth. But now few figure him to go higher. Carolina and Jacksonville, the expansion teams with the first two picks in the draft, are wary of a potential public-relations debacle should either make a player with a positive drug test the first selection in franchise history. And Houston, Washington and Cincinnati, with the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 picks, are aiming to fill different needs.
NFL front-office types vary greatly in their reaction to a positive marijuana test. One NFC general manager says, "As long as the guy can stop and test clean consistently, I don't view it as a huge problem. Two of my own children admitted they smoked pot in college, and I know how great they turned out. So I don't view it with the fear that some other people in the league might."
Others—most notably Carolina general manager Bill Polian—don't see any difference between pot and cocaine. Polian says the Panthers give each draft prospect a grade for "football temperament," which takes into account drug use. brushes with the law and the like. "We don't make any distinction between [marijuana and cocaine] when we determine a player's grade," Polian says. "And the football-temperament grade weighs very, very heavily in where we draft players—or if we draft them at all."