The Epicenter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' locker room is precisely 13 paces across from the entrance. In a cramped wooden stall with a BIG DADDY sticker and FEAR THIS scribbled in marker, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the self-proclaimed quarterback hunter, is in the geographic and figurative middle of everything. His dreadlock-framed face is the first one the other Bucs see, and his rumbling baritone is the first voice they hear when they arrive for practice.
To Sapp's right is Simeon Rice, another pass rusher. To Sapp's left is the entrance to the showers, but despite the heavy traffic, Sapp's space is prime real estate. "That's our focal point, where 99 sits," says All-Pro safety John Lynch, referring to Sapp by his number. "That's the loudest voice in the room, the place where the media always go for a quote. He's like the guy on his front porch who has a comment for everybody who walks by."
Sapp may occupy a strategic position in the Bucs' locker room, but don't ask him to analyze the geopolitics of the place. In fact, a question about the layout of the room struck him as so ludicrous, it might as well have been about crop circles in Iowa. "A locker room should have lockers, a place for helmets and shoulder pads and cleats," Sapp says, overstating the obvious. "Where anybody sits, I could care less."
Sapp invades backfields, not the preserves of the interior decorators of locker rooms, men like Bucs equipment manager Darin Kerns. In its practice facility at One Buccaneer Place, Tampa Bay offers what passes in the NFL for open seating—"Too many guys are attached to their lockers for us to start moving them around," coach Tony Dungy says—but when the Bucs travel two miles to Raymond James Stadium on game day or go on the road, Kerns assigns Sapp the locker closest to the field. "I put him there," Kerns says, "because I have never seen a player who wants to get out there so badly."
Kerns and the other men who manage clubhouses in baseball, locker rooms in football and basketball and dressing rooms in hockey—the differences in nomenclature are significant—are invisible hands who, often in conjunction with the team's coach and general manager, strive to create a space of Martha Stewart-like perfection. The locker room is like a gated community, subject to the zoning laws of sport. (The media are allowed in for an hour or two, depending on the sport.) Sometimes a player will be assigned to a locker because it happens to be available, but little is random. Generally, the rooms are as scripted as Bill Walsh's first 15 plays were, organized around a grab bag of principles as diverse as seniority and stardom, pragmatism and privilege, osmosis and personal choice, language and race, tradition and superstition.
"The locker room is a place where, if you want to be honest, 50 or 60 men are linked by their fear of failure, whether that means our next opponent, our next practice, our next play," says Tennessee Titans guard Bruce Matthews, 40, an All-Pro at two positions in his 19-year career. "That's the common feeling among us in here. We don't want to show weakness even though we're all weak, we're all scared to death."
"The clubhouse mirrors society—society inside a prison," Toronto Blue Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher says. "Like Alcatraz, where guys wanted the better cells so they could hear noise from across the bay in San Francisco, where they could sense a world beyond the Rock. The clubhouse isn't for the faint of heart. You've got a bunch of alpha males trying to establish a pecking order. The young guys are like freshmen in high school who want to be seniors. You do your time. You get your perks."
In the cloistered locker room rank does have its privilege, which means the clubhouse mirrors society even outside the Big House. From the two extrawide lockers in the Florida Marlins' clubhouse that are reserved for a big fish like slugger Cliff Floyd to the Velcro strip in Randy Myers's stall that made the veteran reliever the guardian of the remote control in Toronto in 1998, there is a star system based on service time and status. Barry Bonds, who has done for camaraderie what strip mining has done for the environment, invoked his privilege by landscaping his three stalls in the northwest corner of the San Francisco Giants' clubhouse with a leather recliner and a 27-inch television set—ostentatious and even offensive personal touches given his teammates' apparent willingness to muddle through with padded folding chairs and the six TVs that are suspended throughout the clubhouse.
For a survivor like Matthews, the privileges are less showy if no less rewarding: He gets to change the music in the weight room and devise the locker room games played by the Tennessee offensive linemen, who dress in the stalls nearest the entrance. " Matthews has the ability to take two trash cans and a ball of tape and turn it into an event," kicker Joe Nedney says of such contrivances as Bucketmaster, a game involving a football and two laundry hampers, and other raucous, Matthews-inspired competitions that spice the room. The Denver Broncos have a Pop-a-Shot in the middle of the locker room at their practice facility, but it can't beat the Titans' posse of 300-pounders swinging Wiffle bats in a confined space. "As the veteran, Bruce is commissioner," says Nedney. "He always seems to win his own games. I won't comment further other than to say it always seems legitimate. Bruce is very good at reasoning."
Matthews's locker is the first stall by the door, an honorary position in many dressing rooms, though Titans coach Jeff Fisher insists he isn't paying homage to a superb career but saving an old man a few steps. The other prized spots are generally corner stalls or those with vacant lockers around them: the redoubt of John Elway in the Broncos training facility; the recessed locker in the front right corner of the clubhouse in the Bronx, which has been handed down from Sparky Lyle to Ron Guidry to Dave Righetti to Don Mat-tingly to Bernie Williams, the New York Yankees centerfielder; the corner locker facing the clubhouse 'IV in Fenway Park, which has been home to proper Boston Sox stars Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Roger Clemens and Bret Saberhagen. Recently retired Baltimore Orioles icon Cal Ripken changed in a corner stall near a back exit at Camden Yards. In lockers as in real estate, it's location, location, location.