Benny Sapp was considered the No. 1 returning cornerback in the Big Ten for his junior season at Iowa in 2002. Then, in August, as fall practice was starting, Sapp was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by Iowa City police. He was charged with public intoxication, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"It was never as bad as it sounded, and everything was dropped," Sapp said.

Unfortunately for Benny, he had been in trouble previously and was under warning from Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes coach dismissed Sapp from the team.

Sapp went to Northern Iowa. He also went from a strong prospect for the 2004 draft to a free agent.

"I got a few calls after the draft," he said. "I went to Kansas City to meet with the Chiefs. That was an eye-opener."

The Chiefs brought Sapp into a room that still had lists of predraft evaluations.

"They had these scores -- 5.7, 5.3, 4.5," he said. "It was long list, and I had the lowest rating ... one-point-something. I thought, 'They don't give me much of a chance.' "

Sapp's relentlessness gained him a place with the 2004 Chiefs as a special teams player. He hung around there for three more seasons, then signed with the Vikings in 2008. He made the team and took over as nickel back in November when Charles Gordon broke a leg.

A series of glaring penalties -- based either on being overaggressive or foolish -- followed. Sapp had to wait a while after the season to be re-signed by the Vikings. Again, he was required to beat out several D-backs to make the roster.

"It was the same as every year," Sapp said. "I've never gone to training camp with a guaranteed job."

The 2009 Vikings earned a first-round playoff bye for the first time in nine seasons. And Benny Sapp, with his play at nickel back, and as the starter at left corner in place of injured Pro Bowl player Antoine Winfield, and with his willingness to throw his 5-9, 190-pound frame into any fray, and with restraint when it came to penalties, has been a contributor to this success.

So, won't this be the offseason when Sapp, the longest of NFL long shots, ready to turn 29 next week, receives a contract from the Vikings that includes real dollars and a modicum of security?

Or, to paraphrase Bushwood Country Club's assistant greenskeeper Carl Spackler, "Hey, Vikes, how 'bout something for Benny's effort?"

This proposal was repeated to Sapp this week and he said: "I'm giving it all I got. I'm staying steady and trying to help this team get over edge. I agree with you. It's time for this old dog to get something."

Consider Benny's potential for an inferiority complex:

His best friend growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was Asante Samuel, a cornerback currently employed by Philadelphia on a six-year, $57 million contract with $20 million guaranteed.

"Asante and I have been close as you can get since we were 7," Sapp said. "We're more like brothers than friends. We lived five minutes apart. Our mothers were friends. If I was at Asante's house at night, I'd usually just stay over, and same with him at my house.

"It was two families, with five kids apiece, but it was like we were in it together. We were a team."

Sapp added this: "Asante and I still live together. We share a house in Miramar."

Asante's house? "Hey, he's like my brother, but we've always had an agreement that when it comes to money, you have to get it for yourself," Sapp said.

There were the teenage years when Samuel and Sapp teamed to come up with the bucks to buy extra food -- perhaps to finance a trip to McDonald's.

"We could've sold drugs, we lived in that kind of neighborhood, but we didn't," Sapp said. "What we did was go to the playground at night and play basketball for money.

"You want pressure? You're 14, 15 and playing 2-on-2 for 20 bucks at midnight in our neighborhood, and you don't have the 20 bucks. That's what you call, 'Must win.' "

That Fort Lauderdale background is among the reasons why Sapp will not flinch from the challenge Sunday, even if he does make his first playoff start (with the still-limited Winfield as the nickel back) against a hot Dallas passing game.

"The Cowboys receivers are very good, but I'll do what I do," Sapp said. "Go hard and play what I see."

Patrick Reusse can be heard 5:30-9 a.m. weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com