Tony Dungy lives on the same street as Warren Sapp, just two doors away in one of this area's most exclusive gated golf communities. But when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach wanted to deliver a message to his star defensive tackle last offseason, he put his words in writing rather than just ring the doorbell.

Dungy had watched last season as Sapp and the Buccaneers faltered after a breakthrough 1997 campaign. Dungy felt it was not a coincidence that the team fell to 8-8 during a season in which Sapp arrived at training camp 40 pounds overweight and struggled, by his admission, to get through a game without fatigue.

Dungy thought Sapp could be much better. A reserve cornerback on the 1977-78 Pittsburgh Steelers, Dungy had watched Sapp employ his combination of strength, speed and aggression and wrote Sapp that Sapp reminded him of "Mean" Joe Greene, his Steel Curtain teammate.

"I thought he had that kind of ability," Dungy recalled recently. "I told him that if he put his mind to it that he could be defensive player of the year and we could go to the Super Bowl."

Last week, Sapp was named the NFL's top defender, winning the award 20 years after Buccaneers Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon captured the honor while leading the club to the NFC championship game. On Sunday, the Buccaneers will play the St. Louis Rams for a trip to the Super Bowl in large part because of Sapp, who dropped from 327 pounds to 287 last summer and hasn't slowed since.

At 27, he has emerged as one of the game's more colorful personalities, with his booming voice, constant trash talk on the field and his ability to produce memorable quotes in the locker room.

"If you're going to talk it, you better walk it," he said. "I say what I think. My momma told me not to sell wolf tickets; empty boasts, you know. Nobody wants to hear about an empty wagon that makes a lot of noise but there's nothing happening. I like to think my wagon is full."

Sapp says he has been driven this season by the embarrassment of last season, when he watched game tapes and saw himself winded in the second half. But he takes perhaps greater inspiration from an event that occurred nearly five years ago.

Sapp was considered one of the top three players in the 1995 NFL draft when he left the University of Miami after his junior season. But his stock plummeted during the days preceding the event because of reports of drug use, and he fell to the 12th pick and Tampa Bay.

Sapp says he's gotten over the incident, although he can rattle off the 11 players chosen ahead of him. "Only [Jacksonville Jaguars offensive lineman] Tony Boselli has played as well as I have," Sapp says. Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair "is now coming on."

Sapp says he failed two drug tests, both for marijuana--one as a freshman at Miami and another at the NFL scouting combine. "I made some dumb mistakes," he said. "But by the time the stories came out, they said I flunked six tests for marijuana and one for cocaine. That's what angered me. Cocaine is something that can make you harm your mother. I love my mom too much to ever consider it."

As a rookie, Sapp clashed repeatedly with coach Sam Wyche and didn't begin to blossom until Dungy's arrival a year later. But he still couldn't shake his off-field troubles.

In June 1997, Tampa police stopped Sapp and searched his car. In one of his friends' backpack, officers allegedly found 12 1/2 grams of marijuana, which, according to police, the friend said was his. Sapp and his friend were charged with misdemeanor possession, but the case was thrown out when a judge ruled the police had searched the car without sufficient cause.

Dungy urged Sapp to take greater care when choosing his companions, and Sapp has slowed off the field. He got married before the 1998 Pro Bowl, and he and his wife have a 2-year-old daughter, along with a son due shortly. And in perhaps the ultimate show of maturity, he bought a home on the same block as the low-key Dungy, in the same neighborhood that provides privacy to baseball players Derek Jeter and Fred McGriff.

Sapp says he just wants to be left alone when away from football, and while he is gregarious with teammates and the media, he throws up his guard in public. The Buccaneers have received numerous calls from fans saying they encountered Sapp and found him rude and surly.

"I know I can't go out and do all the things an average person can do," he said. "But I still would like to be able to go out with my wife and kid without having somebody coming up and bothering me, touching me--doing all the things a regular person would find absolutely annoying.

"For every person that likes you, there are three that don't. Crazy things can happen. I like to keep going, not stopping to talk. I won't disrupt your life, so don't disrupt mine. When someone buys a ticket, I owe them all I've got for three or four hours on Sunday. But away from football, it's my life."

On the field, Sapp is drawing more frequent comparisons to Selmon, who is so revered here as one of the only stars from the Buccaneers' dismal early years that the city's crosstown expressway is named after him. Sapp says he admires Selmon and hopes to fashion a similar Hall of Fame career, but he's just as motivated by his coach down the street.

"Since the day I met him, he's taken the shackles off me and allowed me to be the player that I needed to be," Sapp said of Dungy. "In '98 I felt like I let him down. I wanted to make sure that never happened again."