In August 2016, Mike Grant received word from an assistant coach that there was a player moving to town who wanted to join Eden Prairie’s football team.
“Who is it?” asked Grant, the Eagles’ longtime coach. “Benny Sapp,” came the reply. “I’ve heard of that name,” Grant thought, remembering the former Vikings defensive back.
The prospective Eagle was Benny Sapp III, son of the nine-year NFL veteran Benny Sapp and a transfer from high school powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
There was a catch, however. Sapp wouldn’t be able to play that coming season, the second in a row he would miss following two tears to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“People kept asking me, ‘Is he a good player?’ I don’t know.” Grant said. “I’d never seen him play.”
Turns out, Grant didn’t get to see Sapp play much as a senior this past fall, either, because the speedy defensive back tore meniscus in that same left knee before the third game.
Perhaps this is the best way to frame Sapp’s potential: three knee injuries, three surgeries and three mostly lost seasons have not scared away college programs, making him the most intriguing member of the Star Tribune’s 20th Super Preps class, an annual look at the state’s top college football prospects. Sapp is expected to sign his national letter of intent with the Gophers on Wednesday during the beginning of the new three-day early signing period.
Sapp, the state’s No. 3-rated senior in the composite rankings of recruiting-focused website 247Sports.com, received recent offers from Nebraska and Michigan State but said he’s sticking with coach P.J. Fleck.
“They took a big chance on me,” Sapp said. “After I injured my knee again, Coach Fleck said I could tear my knee up three times and I still would be a Gopher. I can’t owe them enough for giving me an opportunity.”
Sapp’s first scholarship offers came as he shined as a freshman in 2014, and the schools interested read like a top 10 poll. Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Florida State, Miami and Michigan all wanted the 6-foot, 183-pounder.
Though his experience is limited, his potential isn’t.
“He’s got really good hands — excellent hands — and he practices very hard. And plays hard,” Grant said. “He would have been a great wide receiver for us this year. Very good punt returner. Great hands to catch punts, kickoffs. He’s the full deal.”
As Sapp grew up in Florida — Southeastern Conference country — the Gophers were nowhere near his radar. “That’s all we do in Florida is talk about the SEC; we never talk about the Big Ten,” Sapp said.
That focus changed when Fleck took over as Gophers coach in January. Fleck visited Eden Prairie, and Grant gave Sapp a heads-up.
“Coach Grant said, ‘Hey, Benny. You might want to stay after school today. Coach Fleck might want to talk to you,’ ” Sapp recalled. “I didn’t know what ‘Row the Boat’ meant. When he came to school, I was like, ‘OK, I remember his face from Western Michigan. They went 13-0 and went to the Cotton Bowl and lost to Wisconsin.’ ”
Fleck made quite the first impression.
“He’s like, ‘You’re not leaving the state. I can promise you that.’ I was going to introduce myself, and he said, I already know who you are,” Sapp said. “… When he said that, I didn’t believe him. ‘Does he really know where I’m going to go?’ ”
This was no slam dunk, however. Ten Gophers under former coach Tracy Claeys had been suspended in December related to an alleged sexual assault, giving pause to Sapp’s mother, Erica. “My mom at first was, ‘Oh, no. We’re not doing this,’ ” he said.
Four of the players were cleared by a disciplinary panel in early February, including standout safety Antoine Winfield Jr., whose father, Antoine, played with Benny Sapp with the Vikings. “We’re really good friends with Antoine, and we were praying he would get out of that situation,” Sapp said.
Making the decision
On Feb. 6, Sapp received a scholarship offer from Gophers wide receivers coach Matt Simon, whose recruiting responsibility includes Minnesota. “I hadn’t gotten an offer in a while,” Sapp said. “… They were saying I would be the foundation of this 2018 class and they would build around me.”
Sapp and his father visited the U the following week and were whisked away to a nearby restaurant for lunch. When he stepped into an event room, Sapp received a standing ovation from the entire Gophers staff. “I felt like the president,” he said.
Later that day, Sapp and his father conferred with Fleck in his office.
“When I first when to his room, I was scared. I never felt uncomfortable like that — tense,” Sapp said. “He sat down and said, ‘Benny, I just want to ask you this before we get into details: When was the last time Alabama talked to you?’ It was a good month. ‘Michigan?’ Three weeks. … Coach Fleck said, ‘I want you because of you. I know your story, I know what you’ve been through. I admire you so much because a lot of kids don’t come back from two ACL surgeries.’ ”
After talking it over with his father, Sapp gave Fleck his verbal commitment. Neither side has wavered.
From negative to positive
Sapp’s meniscus tear this past fall came after solid games against Eastview and Lakeville North to start the season. The family opted to have surgery to repair rather than remove the torn piece, which required a longer rehab but saved the meniscus.
“It was pretty tragic right before the Prior Lake game to have him walk over and say, ‘Ah, something’s screwed up in my knee.’ ” Grant said. “You could tell by the doctors that it wasn’t going to be good.”
“Why me?” was Sapp’s initial reaction, but he rebounded and focused on improving his college entrance test scores and took on an off-field leadership role with his team. “This wasn’t my first rodeo in being injured,” he said. “I was sad and depressed for a while, but I had to do something for this team.”
In turn, his teammates kept his spirits up, and Grant even had him symbolically suit up for Eden Prairie’s Class 6A state championship victory over Minnetonka. “He had the hardest season, the toughest season,” Grant said. “We always think the starters, the guys who are playing well, that’s hard to do. That’s easy to do. It’s the guys who aren’t playing, who have to come to practice. You feel like you’re left out.”
Sapp already has resumed running and is expected to be fully recovered in January, Grant said. Despite having played just two games in the past three seasons, Sapp takes a philosophical approach, believing there’s much more to come.
“I didn’t get to experience high school football and the Friday night lights,” he said, “but I feel like I’m meant for Saturday and Sunday nights.’’