One indelible image Patrick Sapp left upon Death Valley was his move from quarterback to linebacker his senior year. To switch from offense to defense at that late stage of a college career is rare. To convert from hunted to hunter, with such flair you make top-50 in the NFL draft—unheard of. Yet notable transformation is just one pattern the 46-year-old draws upon in his master playbook, as the former pro seeks victories for himself, and others.

Play #1: Tiger Town Handoff 

Life was football, and football was life, growing up as the baby of six in the Sapp family. “My dad played in college, my brothers all played growing up,” the brawny athlete reveals. “At Christmas, you got a sweatshirt and football. You played pick-up from the time you’re two or three.” As his high school stats soared, colleges from coast-to-coast came calling. Sapp narrowed it down to three, and chose Clemson over FSU and Syracuse, simply because the team offered to take his close buddy, as well. “My friend, Brian Dawkins, really didn’t have any other options,” he recalls. “I asked the coach would they offer him a scholarship, too. They said, ‘OK,’ and I said, ‘All right! I’m going to be a Tiger.’”

Photograph courtesy of Clemson Athletics Dept. Records, Clemson University Libraries Special Collections and Archives

Play #2: Hail Mary

Sapp racked up 25 games as QB, with a near 50 percent pass completion record, but wound up getting benched midway through his junior year. Rather than ride the pine that last fall, he saw an opening on defense, as linebacker. “When I went to the coaches and said I wanted to switch, they tried to talk me out of it. They weren’t sure I could get it done,” he admits. “But I believed in me. I just felt like I could contribute to the team. I’m not one who sits on the bench. I was not a normal quarterback at 6’4” and 245. I only gained 5–10 pounds to put on some muscle and won the starting job.”

Play #3: The Voice

Sapp remembers Draft Day as if it were yesterday. “It was weird,” he explains. “When I got off the phone with the San Diego coach, and he’d told me they were going to draft me with their next pick, a voice spoke to me as loud as it could be. ‘This is not what you’re supposed to do. This is just part of what you’re supposed to do.’ It was crazy to hear that at a time when you’ve just been drafted into something you’ve wanted your whole life.” He never forgot the voice. “It was a job, but it was not my identity,” he states. “I worked my butt off, I fought every day, but I knew there would be other things I’d do later in life bigger than football.”

Play #4: Kumbaya

The East Coast boy moved west, and found himself learning as much off the field as on. “I grew up in black communities my whole life,” he shares. “Moving to California was life-changing. Culturally, it exposed me to so much. It really expanded how I view life, people who are different from me. I saw people love each other, and extend love to me, who were from totally different lifestyles. That was one of the bigger things that really touched me in a major way.”   

Play #5: Business Shuffle

 Two years into his NFL career, his agent called with news he’d been traded to Arizona. “I had no heads up, no warning.” he declares. “But by that time, I knew it was a business. This is about life’s lessons, right?” The toughest part: missing old teammates. “You just become such good friends with these guys, and all of a sudden you’re not in the locker room with them. But you get in your new locker room, with your new team, and in about a week, all you bleed is Arizona Cardinals. I think that’s true for every player.”

Photograph by Eli Warren

Play #6: The Reverse

A decade after leaving Clemson, Sapp returned to finish his B.S. in psychology. “I was kind of the old man in the class,” he says reminiscing. “They had computers and internet, which was all new to me. That’s how you communicated. That’s how you took notes. That’s how you turned in assignments. I had to get caught up.” Classmates teased him with admiration, even bringing in old photos. “A young lady brought a picture she took with me when she was a young kid!” he sighs with a laugh. “I told her, ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ I felt so old.”

Play #7: Family Slant

Sapp’s draw to psychology is rooted in his older sister’s struggle with crack. “My sister was classified as genius, has two degrees and a photographic memory,” he divulges. “So, a woman who was that strong and smart, succumbing to drugs, that was interesting to figure out.” His sister has now been clean for 20 years. Sapp is just practicum hours away from earning a master’s degree in addiction-focus counseling. He dreams, “I would love to have my own practice dealing with the psychology of athletes and addictions, and have some family practice there, as well.”

Play #8: Volunteer Draw

The one-time passer now receives major gifts for Clemson University, overseeing fundraising and alumni relations. Off the clock, he’s the “giver,” serving multiple groups and communities. “I’m always volunteering. I’m always trying to give back,” he conveys. “I’m just trying to have an impact and have a lasting impression, help somebody have a better life.” Sapp currently serves on boards for the Greenville Tech Foundation, Greenville Police Foundation, and the Brian Dawkins Impact Foundation. “These are the things that fulfill me. I’ve always gravitated to that, to be a part of something bigger than myself.”

Play #9: Bahamian Action Pass

Children rank at the top of his philanthropic stats. “I’m always pouring into kids,” he says. “I think that is my natural passion. In most kids’ eyes, you can look at them and they want to learn; they want to be the best they can be.” He travels to the Bahamas twice a year with the Global Athletic Foundation for Youth. “We hope to help with their education system. We meet with ambassadors, bring sports equipment, refurbish rec facilities, put on football camps . . . anything to try to have some real change, empowering youth through sports. We are trying to create opportunities that will impact the kids.”

Play #10: Son Sweep

Routes now overlap, with Sapp’s oldest son, Joshua, playing for Greenville High. “He’s starting to go through the recruiting process,” shares his dad. “It’s fun being on the other side, and watching him mature, and start to establish his own mind. He is better than me at this age. He’s a good kid and good student, too. He’s very humble and works hard. That’s what I’m most proud about.” From his home in the West End, the former player coaches Joshua, and toddler, Miles, on the fine-points of a committed game and life. “More big things are to come,” he promises. “To me the life lessons that football gives you are so, so important. Football has given me so much more in life outside of the opportunity to play.”