Warren Sapp, star defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, can recall every detail of when his well-chronicled rivalry with Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre began.
"We had just beaten Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions to advance to round two of the (1997) playoffs," Sapp said. "And I remember thinking that for us to have any chance at beating that monster who calls Lambeau Field his home, I was going to have to play a great game."
One week later, Sapp delivered one of the best defensive performances in NFL postseason history, recording five tackles and three sacks, forcing two fumbles, and recovering one in a 21-7 loss to the Packers.
He also forged a lasting friendship with Favre, as the two players trash-talked and needled one another for much of the afternoon in full view of a national television audience.
"If you look at the NFL Films tape of that game, it really looked like Brett and I were mad at each other, but we really weren't," Sapp said. "It was like two good friends going after each other. It was like we were kids again. He went and got some of his boys, and I went and got some of mine, and we met out in some open field to decide the neighborhood championship. He and his boys were better that day."
Favre and Sapp, two of the NFL's biggest and brightest stars, renew their rivalry on Sunday in Tampa when the Buccaneers and Packers (both 8-2) put the league's best records on the line. But the competition between these former NFC central adversaries and their emotional leaders goes beyond wins and losses.
Favre says his rivalry with Sapp is one of the most celebrated in pro football because both players have a youthful passion for the game that transcends multimillion-dollar contracts.
"I would like to think that everyone who watches the Packers play would say, 'Brett gives you everything he's got and you never know what's coming next,'" Favre said. "'He plays with a lot of heart; it doesn't matter how much money he makes. All that matters is that he's treating the game like he was a kid back in fifth grade.'
"When I watch Warren play, that's what I see. The rivalry comes from that. I think people like to see two guys get after it. Maybe it reminds them of when they were growing up."
Favre and Sapp have combined for 11 Pro Bowl selections, yet they are an unlikely pair of friends in that they play on opposite sides of the ball, come from completely different backgrounds, and live in cities that are as different as the men themselves.
Favre is a gunslinger who hails from little-known Kiln, Miss., while Sapp is a disruptive defensive force who grew up in the tourist mecca of Orlando, Fla. Favre earns his NFL paycheck in the frigid, blue-collar town of Green Bay, Wisc., while Sapp lines up for the fun-in-the-sun, palm tree city of Tampa.
Yet the football field has created a strong bond between these ultimate weekend warriors, who get together during the offseason at various charitable events and golf tournaments.
"I admire the passion he plays with," Favre says of Sapp. "I think we are similar in that regard and that's probably why we enjoy playing against each other. We both love the game, we leave it all on the field, and we have fun doing it."
Including their 1997 playoff meeting, Sapp has sacked Favre 11 times in 15 games. According to the NFL's 1999 Defensive Player of the Year, if he were starting a team, Favre would be the first pick.
"He's the best quarterback in the game," Sapp says. "This guy has thrown for 3,000-plus yards for 10 consecutive seasons. No other player in the history of this game has won three MVP awards and this guy won three in a row (1995-97). We're talking about a guy who's started an NFL-record 167 straight games. He's a warrior. He's the best one out there."
Favre, who says he knew early on that Sapp was destined for NFL stardom, thinks his rival is playing at the top of his game.
"He's off to another great start," Favre says. "He's even got a couple of interceptions, and he remains one of the game's best defensive linemen. He's somewhat unique in that he's got the strength to play inside, but he also has the quickness and speed like some of the great defensive ends. It's a great combination."
Because of realignment -- with the Buccaneers moving to the NFC South and the Packers in the NFC North -- the teams no longer will meet twice each season. That makes the upcoming game extra special for Sapp, who says he will continue to look forward to these meetings, either during the regular season or in the playoffs.
"When we all changed divisions, I thought they were going to take my buddy away for good," Sapp says. "At least they didn't totally take him away. It's the Battle of the Bays. It's good for us. It's good for the game."
It's Sapp vs. Favre, one more time -- with feeling.