Born in 1981, Gerome Sapp grew up in a tough area of Houston, raised by his mother with little in the way of extras to be found. She helped steer him toward a successful path that later included an important role model in his high school football coach, Lee Malowitz. Sapp played football at Lamar High School in Houston where he became a Parade All-American defensive back as a junior and the top-ranked recruit in Texas as a senior. Acting upon his mother’s request to see the world, Sapp left Texas and became a part of a Notre Dame defensive squad that scored more points than the offense. He then went on to play safety for five years in the NFL for the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts.
Q: How did you make the decision to leave Texas and play football at Notre Dame?
A: “I didn’t really know much about Notre Dame as a kid. When I was about 8 years old I remember seeing them on TV. I thought they were a professional team, though, because they were always on TV. At about 13 I realized they were actually a powerhouse college football team. Growing up I did not really like Notre Dame. Florida State was my favorite team and I loved Charlie Ward. When the movie “Rudy” came out, my whole perspective of Notre Dame changed. When you grow up in Texas, the only schools you are exposed to are Texas, Texas A&M, and maybe Oklahoma. Once I figured out what the essence of Notre Dame was, they moved to the top of the list.”
“My official visit to Notre Dame was the worst experience of all the visits that I made. There was absolutely nothing to do in South Bend. It was freezing cold outside. This compared to my visit to Texas, which was awesome. The weather was perfect. The Texas Angels escort you around. But there was something that was internally drawing me to Notre Dame. I knew I needed to be there.”
“At that point Texas was my second choice, and the rest of the list was USC, Miami and Michigan. As my Mom and I were discussing my choices, she expressed that she really wanted me to get out of Texas and experience life. ‘Experience the world.’ After she said that, I knew I was going to Notre Dame. It was the perfect mix of tradition, athletics and academics.”
Q: What is your favorite Notre Dame football memory?
A: “My favorite is the one you always remember, because it’s your first memory. The first time I ran out of the tunnel for the Kansas game, which was the first game of my freshman year. Amazing.”
“Probably the next best memory was the USC game that same year. They came out of the blocks running and were handing it to us during the first half, despite the fact that it was storming. After we were given our adjustments at half time, we came out to start the second half and things changed. The rain stopped. The wind shifted in our favor. And we started playing our game. We all looked up and said, ‘Wow, did that really just happen?’ Divine intervention. We won that game, 26-24.”
Q: What was it like playing with Vontez Duff, Glenn Earl and Shane Walton in the defensive backfield?
A: “Those were some of the best times. All four of us had such extremely different personalities, and yet despite that we were a cohesive unit on the field. Glenn Earl was very intelligent but also quite crazy. He was the guy who would run through a brick wall because he wanted to get to the other side. Going around it be damned. He was very sarcastic and negative at times. He was my roommate on the road. Almost every Friday night before a game he would tell me, ‘Gerome, you know something bad is gonna happen tomorrow? I’m just waiting for that bad thing to happen so that I can over it.’ However, Glenn was an amazing athlete and always seemed to make the plays that helped us win games.”
“Shane Walton was also a very intelligent guy, but also very personable and charismatic. He kind of went overboard, though. He would be the one to reprimand you on the field if you screwed up. He was our mascot. He represented us. He was our leader & displayed the swagger for the group.”
“Vontez Duff was a southern boy. Very intelligent, very athletic, but was definitely the little brother of the group. Walton made sure to take him under his wing. I was the analytic professor type. I was the one who kept order in the room. I was the Father of the group. Got everyone lined up. But once we hit the field, we really meshed. We 100 percent enjoyed making other teams look bad. We had a board where we put up names of guys from the other team, the ones that we were going to get in the next game, and after each game we checked their names off. It was definitely fun.”
Q: What it was like to play on a defense and special teams until that was outscoring the offense?
A: “At first you don’t think about it. We were so close. As a defense we just knew we needed to play as hard as we could. It wasn’t like we knew we had to do it in order to win, it was how we played. If you’re not scoring, you’re not completing the play. It didn’t really bother us until we got about midway through the season. At that point we realized that we were outscoring the offense. Here is the problem with that. When you are out on the field more, you become more physically tired. But beyond that, mentally you are not getting the time to get the intellectual knowledge during your time on the sideline to make the necessary adjustments and/or corrections that you need. When the offense continually goes three and out, you have no time on the sideline to figure out what is going on. It did not just affect us physically, but mentally and psychologically. It really put a lot of pressure on us to be perfect.”
Q: How do you remember your NFL Draft?
A: “I broke my wrist during the USC game, which was the last game of my senior season. I didn’t know it was broken and I played the rest of the game. I also played with a broken wrist for the bowl game and the East/West game. They didn’t discover the break until after that, and then at that point I had surgery. I attended the combine with a cast on, so many teams assumed that I would not play my rookie year.”
“It was a very exciting time for me. The good part about getting injured the way I did was that when it came time for the draft there really was no pressure on me. I knew I was going to get drafted, I just didn’t know where. I had received calls from the Colts, Steelers and Raven. The whole draft process is a huge chess match. They keep telling you, ‘If this guy gets drafted we’ll take you in this round’ or ‘If this guy is still on the board, we’ll wait a bit longer before we take you.’”
“I didn’t even sit and watch the draft on TV. I was actually playing football outside with my brother when my phone rang. It was the Ravens telling me that they were about to draft me. We went inside and I turned the TV and my name came across the screen.”
“I put in all the work and I did the best I could. You never want to look back and have regrets. I graduated from ND, I was the captain of ND football and at that point I had a sort of an inner peace about things. I was excited about the future. Someone is going to choose you, to pick you from a list of others to make a lot of money doing something you love. They are going to give you the opportunity to live in a new city and meet new people. The world was in front of me.”
Q: What were the highs and lows of playing in the NFL?
A: “The best part was the competition. Being given the opportunity to play with the best people in the world, at such a high level and on that platform. That was the dream. Being able to compete in that arena and see how well you adjusted to the competition. There is a huge learning curve when you first start out, especially mentally. When you tackle that guy, yes, that is your job. But it’s also his job not to get tackled. So at first it’s a big accomplishment when you just tackle him.”
“The worst part is the business aspect of the game. Most people don’t understand the business side at all. It’s more than just signing a contract and getting paid. It is such a completely one-sided business. You are contractually obligated to play for a team, but they are not contractually obligated to you. At any moment they can release you and be done with you. But you have to be committed 100 percent, at all times, and if they think you are not they will attempt to expose you as some horrible, greedy athlete. The older you get, the more time you get to interact with the business side, the smarter you get. Being cut was a blessing. I felt like, you’ve done the worst to me, and I’m still here.”
“My time playing in the NFL really helped me with my life. It taught me that we are all disposable assets. The more that you can increase your value, the harder it is for you to get disposed. My asset is me.”
Q: What was the highlight of your NFL career?
A: “My NFL highlight is a bittersweet one. The sweet part of my NFL highlight was my first game playing as a starter for the Ravens. The first time I actually got to not only start a game, but start a game after getting to practice with the first team all week as opposed to a starter getting hurt and getting thrown into a game.”
“We were playing against the Saints, and we beat the mess out of them down in New Orleans. I caused Reggie Bush’s first career fumble with a big hit on him in the back field along with several INTs and pass deflections. It was definitely an ‘I told you so!’ moment. It was a vindication type thing for me, but not in a negative way. In a ‘see what I can do if you give me the opportunity’ kind of way.”
“The bitter part was in that very same game I made a mistake, and got benched for it. Talk about a high and a low. My first start and I got benched. My family all drove down from Houston to see me play. Starters make a ton of mistakes all game long, but I only made one mistake and got benched. That was the nature of the NFL. For the first time, there was a hole in my armor. I realized that hard work does not always pay off in this league, and that the good guy does not always finish first.”
Q: What were your life experiences like after the NFL?
A: “During my last year in the NFL I tore my hamstring, which pretty much ended my career. As that was becoming clear to me, two of my fellow Notre Dame teammates (Glenn Earl, and Chris Yura) and I decided to start a business called Morph & Thro. Morph & Thro produced high-performance sports apparel. The apparel was produced domestically using high end materials which were made out of recycled plastic. We knew nothing about the rags business but we studied and learned on the fly. Our product line was so highly regarded the Navy Seals trained in them.”
“Now I am in the process of starting a company on my own. My new business venture is called Fluencr.com, through which I hope to help people harness the power of social media. Social media has allowed the average person to have a voice on a level never before heard by the world. It gives people the opportunity to be ambassadors for the brands they love. Even if you only know one person, and you tell them about your favorite brand or company, you can be an ‘influencer.’ For example, I am valuable if I tell one person to go to Legends (which is a bar on Notre Dame’s campus), but by proclaiming it on social media I can amplify my influence. What I am doing with Fluencr.com is taking it to the next step … helping people get rewarded for their influence specific to their favorite brand. This is good for the brand as well, because it allows the brand to cash into the consumer’s social credibility with their friends. In a sense people end up getting endorsement deals just for simply supporting the brands that they love.”
“I am very excited about this new chapter in my life. In preparation I have done a tremendous amount of research, watch webinars, done everything that I can to get my hands on information and individuals that allow me to learn everything I can about the social media marketing industry. I believe it’s a win-win for the brand and the consumer. Not only does the company or brand win by getting the support of their customers, we will also provide them with a dashboard of analytics so that they can numerically see the return on their investment. The consumer gets rewarded for something they already do … talk about their favorite brand.”
Q: What is your favorite Tyrone Willingham memory?
A: “Following the beat-down that we put on Florida State down in Tallahassee, we were on the bus back to the airport. Everyone was happy and having a great time. We look up to see that Coach Willingham is actually dancing with joy. That was the first time that I saw that our success actually affected him as well. He was actually letting loose and enjoying being in the moment! That left a big impression on me.”
“Coach Willingham was a pretty quiet guy. He never really raised he voice, but that was because he didn’t have to. He didn’t feel as if he needed to either. He didn’t talk just to talk, he talked when he had something to say. A lot of coaches just like hearing their own voice and what they say does not hold much weight. Everything Coach Willingham said was very much respected.”
I’d like to thank Gerome Sapp for spending some time with me this week. If you want to learn more about Gerome and his new company Fluencr.com, you can reach him on his web site at http://beta.fluencr.com/, or on Twitter at www.twitter.com/geromesapp Next week I’ll be talking with cornerback Jeff Burris.