June 19, 2005

Men of the House
Chiefs' Sapp gets second chance to be a dad

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

The little boy wants attention. He punches his daddy's arm, chest and shoulder, looking for a reaction. The father only smiles, his strong body absorbing each swing.

Benny Sapp II sees himself when he looks at his 5-year-old son, Benny Sapp III. So he understands his hyper personality, the need to act tough. Mostly, he understands his son's need for fatherly affection.

Benny II, a Chiefs cornerback entering his second season, sits with his son in front of a big-screen TV at Tanner's in Overland Park, watching the NBA finals. The younger Benny goes by “B.J.” to avoid confusion.

They're joined by Erica Marseilles, Benny's girlfriend and B.J.'s mother. She cradles baby Brianna, the couple's second child.

Benny cups Brianna in his hands, hoists her into the air as if she's flying and kisses her cheeks softly. Benny glances at B.J., who's pouting.

“He's jealous,” Benny mouths as he hugs B.J.

This night is a treat for B.J., who loves to stay up late with Benny now that they share a home for the first time. But B.J. looks worried as the game progresses and the skies darken outside. He can feel bedtime closing in.

B.J. runs to Erica and hugs her. He closes his eyes, leaning into her. Benny can't help himself.

“Awwwww,” Benny taunts B.J. “You need your mommy?”

B.J. knows his mother's embrace. He trusts it.

B.J. didn't get to hug Benny much during the first four years of his life, while Benny was playing college football in Iowa. But now that the family lives together, Benny is open for hugs 24/7.

And today, Father's Day is Benny's Day for the first time.

***

As he grew up, the day's meaning was hollow to Benny. His father was murdered shortly before Benny turned 4.

So Benny never bought a funny card or a cheesy tie. He never went to an afternoon baseball game with his dad. Benny and his family prayed for their daddy on Father's Day.

Benny was Benny Sapp Sr.'s firstborn son, and Benny Sr. didn't waste any time teaching him the ways of the world.

“He was so happy to have that boy,” Benny's mother, Leanetta Sapp, says, laughing. “Everywhere he was going, Benny wanted to be right there.”

The two were always on an accelerated pace, as if Benny Sr. knew his time with Benny would be short-lived. Benny Sr. taught Benny how to walk at 7 months. By the age of 3, Benny was helping his dad with his landscaping business. He'd rake, sweep and plant.

“He used to put me on his neck while he was cutting the grass,” Benny says, “and I remember that he'd take me on the back of his green work truck.”

There are more gaps than memories, though. The gaps were filled by stories he'd hear about his father. Benny Sr. was known in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., community as a generous man, always helping his friends and people who weren't as fortunate.

That reputation made Benny Sr. an easy target. On a balmy August day in 1984, a group of men decided to rob Benny Sr. They jumped him, and when he fought back, they shot him three times, once in the leg, then in the back, then in the back of his head.

He was 28, the loving father of a 3 1/2 -year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, and he was gone.

When he was 5, Benny told his mother that he was going to take care of her.

“I'm a man, Momma,” he'd tell her often.

Benny hid the pain of losing his father.

“I felt like it was something I wanted to keep inside,” Benny says.

And that's why he'd prefer you not know about the nights he stayed awake crying, the times he went to father-son functions with his half-brother or his uncles.

Early in high school, Benny confronted his demons. His father's murderer was released from prison. Benny went to his house and knocked on the door. The man opened the door. Benny wanted the man to see his face, hear his voice, feel his pain.

To Benny, he was being a man that day. That was all Benny wanted, to be a man for his mother and sister, for himself.

“He never wanted to depend on me,” says his mother. “He always wanted to show me he could make it in life.”

Even though the Florida schools recruited Benny, he chose to play at the University of Iowa. He wanted to get away from home, to become a man away from his mother.

But months before he left for Iowa, Benny was shocked to find out Erica was pregnant.

“I said go ahead and go to school and whatever — everything is fine,” Erica said.

Erica planned to go to school like Benny, but she stayed home with B.J.

Benny's entire family went with him to the airport the day he left for school. Leanetta, his sister, Kandyce, and Erica, holding 11-day-old B.J. in her arms, sobbed as they watched Benny's plane take off into the south Florida sky, heading for the unknown.

***

Leanetta Sapp sounds tired, worn from a life of working two jobs to support her family. She knows that she did her best with Benny.

“Boys love their momma, but they watch their daddies,” Leanetta says slowly. “The man's supposed to do what's right in the house.”

Benny had no one to watch except Leanetta. He says she was his mother and his father. When asked about a time Benny needed his father, Leanetta doesn't have to think long.

“When he went to college,” Leanetta says.

In Iowa, away from his mom for the first time, Benny forgot about Erica and B.J. Distractions were everywhere.

He started at cornerback as a freshman and was a freshman All-American. Soon, everyone on the Big Ten campus knew who he was.

He partied, he drank, he moved from girl to girl, experiencing what his new town had to offer.

“I started walking with a different swagger,” Benny says. “I wasn't being myself; I was doing things I didn't do before. I was getting too high.”

He didn't talk with Erica and B.J. He said B.J. was too young; he wouldn't remember anything, anyway. Plus, he had no money to give them.

By his sophomore year, Benny was off track. According to the Des Moines Register, Sapp's name showed up on Iowa City police reports five times, once for assault, once for threatening a woman and once for being cut with a broken bottle in a bar fight.

Charges weren't pressed until the fifth time. On Aug. 4, 2002, police charged Sapp with public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest at an after-hours hangout in Iowa City.

The police report said that Sapp had a blood-alcohol level of .155. It said that he pushed his ex-girlfriend into a shop window. It said that he pulled away repeatedly when he was being handcuffed and had to be pepper sprayed.

To this day, Benny says that he hugged the girl and that he had never dated her. Nevertheless, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz kicked Benny off the team.

“It was an accumulation of minor things,” Ferentz says. “I had a conversation with Benny in May where I told him that we needed him to demonstrate maturity and be a positive role model.”

Benny begged Ferentz to let him back onto the team, but Ferentz wouldn't budge.

“I was at the lowest point of my life,” Benny says. “I thought it was over.”

***

Benny didn't want to leave his room in Iowa City the week after his expulsion. He didn't eat, didn't sleep. Then the coaches from smaller schools started calling. Benny transferred an hour up the road to Division I-AA Northern Iowa.

He chose Northern Iowa even though he would be under a strict no-tolerance policy. First, there would be no drinking. If Benny was spotted with a drink, he'd be kicked off the team. Second, he'd attend counseling. Third, he'd go to study sessions every day with the freshmen.

“Fine,” Benny responded. “Anything else?”

Benny knew this was it. He had to be responsible, if not for himself, then for his family. He put together two solid seasons at Northern Iowa and stayed out of trouble.

Benny says his experience at Iowa taught him about being a man. That is, after all, why he left home.

“I think I needed it to happen,” Benny says without hesitation. “In order to make it, you have to go through some curveballs.

“God had to humble me down.”

Benny regretted the way he had ignored Erica and B.J.

“I didn't feel like a father,” Benny says. “I felt bad. I was raised without a father, and I'm sitting there not being a father to my son.”

On a trip home during his senior year, he visited them. Benny asked Erica to be his girlfriend again. She hadn't stopped believing in him, even after the alleged incidents with the woman in Iowa.

“She was the same girl, and it hit me,” Benny says. “This girl's still here. She was there with me in high school, and I didn't have a dime.”

***

To be a provider for Erica and B.J., Benny needed a job. So he prepared himself for the 2004 NFL draft.

But draft day came and went — 255 picks, and nothing.

Sapp, a 5-foot-9 physical corner, received interest from several teams about a free-agent contract before the Chiefs signed him.

His signature moment in training camp last season came in early August during a practice against the Minnesota Vikings. Sapp threw Vikings reserve wide receiver Ryan Hoag to the ground during a one-on-one coverage drill. He then turned, looking around for Randy Moss.

“Where you at, Randy Moss?” Sapp yelled. “Come get some of this.”

“You don't want none of this, Benny Sapp,” Moss said.

The Moss exchange raised some eyebrows around Chiefs camp.

“That was a sight to see,” Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield says. “A young guy coming in, going against the best. Randy called him out. He stepped up; he didn't back down.”

Sapp made the Chiefs' roster as a special-teams player and nickel back. He played in 15 games, picking up 15 tackles and one interception.

“He had to fight like a son of a gun to make the team,” Chiefs coach Dick Vermeil says. “To me, a guy as tough as he is, competing to earn a right to play in the NFL comes natural to him. He's just a tough guy.”

Benny made the league-minimum salary of $230,000 last year. It was enough to support Erica, who left her job while she was pregnant with Brianna, and it was enough to move his mother and sister into a new home.

“He's very free-hearted,” Erica says. “Anytime his friends call him and say, ‘Benny, I need fifty bucks,' he'll give it to them. He was raised that way.”

***

By halftime of game one between the Pistons and Spurs, it's tough to tell who's more tired: Benny or B.J.

Benny, normally a bundle of energy like B.J., slumps in his chair. He looks like a daddy who was awakened at 5:45 a.m. by his son jumping on him in bed.

“He does it every day,” Benny says.

But can you blame B.J.? He, his mother and his sister moved to Kansas City for good three weeks ago. He's living with Benny for the first time in their new Overland Park home. It's all new and exciting.

B.J. is a year older than Benny was when he lost his father. Benny says he feels blessed to have a second chance to be a father — a chance his father never got.

“Now, Benny's the father,” Leanetta says. “He'll give Brianna and B.J. what he didn't have from his father, giving them that love.”

Benny is learning as he goes. He spends most of his time telling B.J. to calm down.

“When I look at him in his eyes, he reminds me of myself,” Benny says. “So it's hard for me to punish him.

“He tries to do everything I do. I have to be careful what I do around him.”

These last few weeks, Benny has also learned that he and B.J. have a lot in common. They love to drink juice, and they're grouchy when they wake up.

Today, for Father's Day, Erica will cook a big dinner with all of Benny's favorites, and they'll possibly catch a movie afterward.

Benny's not sure what they'll do. It doesn't really matter. They'll be together.

“The best part is knowing that when you come home, you're coming home to someone who loves you,” Benny says. “After work, you'd be tired, but as long as you know that you're going home to someone who loves you, it feels great.”

Benny still wants to become a man. He knows that raising one is a start.

“I think it's a big thing in that process,” Benny says. “You really don't know when you become a man. It's just a thing that happens. It doesn't happen overnight.”

To reach J. Brady McCollough, sports reporter for The Star, call (816) 234-7747 or send e-mail to jmccollough@kcstar.com.

J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)