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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Former Bucs' star, USF official Lee Roy Selmon dies

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 09:04 PM
TAMPA -

He was a cornerstone of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers franchise, a menacing defensive end whose soft-spoken personality was disarming and refreshing. He was a catalyst for the University of South Florida's football program and a mentor to young athletes everywhere. He was a businessman whose repertoire spanned the high-finance world of banking and the down-home feel of his barbecue restaurants.

Lee Roy Selmon, the Pro Football Hall of Famer, the college football legend, the approachable, God-fearing icon who was regarded as a long-lost friend.

Around Tampa, that name was spoken with pride.

The sense of loss was deep when Selmon, one of the most decorated and revered citizens in Tampa Bay area history, died at St. Joseph's Hospital on Sunday, two days after suffering a massive stroke at his Tampa home.

He was 56.

"I know God has the time when he calls us all home," said former Bucs linebacker David Lewis, who visited the Selmon family throughout the weekend at St. Joseph's Hospital. "In my mind, I guess there probably wasn't anything left for him to accomplish. He did it all. He touched us all. He made the Hall of Fame on Earth and he's definitely making the Hall of Fame in Heaven.''

Selmon was surrounded by his immediate family — wife Claybra, daughter Brandy, sons Lee Roy Jr. and Christopher, plus brothers and sisters who rushed to Tampa — at his bedside in the intensive-care unit.

The family reported encouraging news on Saturday, when Selmon showed improvement and responsiveness, squeezing the hand of his oldest son and recognizing family members, but his condition took a turn for the worse.

In a statement released by St. Joseph's Hospital, the Selmon family said, "For all his accomplishments on and off the field, to us Lee Roy was the rock of our family. This has been a sudden and shocking event and we are devastated by this unexpected loss. We deeply appreciate the prayers and support shown by family, friends, the football community and the public over the past two days.''

Funeral arrangements are pending, but there will be a memorial service in Tampa before Selmon's body is flown to Oklahoma for burial.

"He was a servant in every sense of the word,'' Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "He carried himself in a quiet dignity. He walked amongst us as a special person. The city is thankful for Lee Roy having been a part of it. I think he made us better.''

Selmon's influence transcended the world of athletics.

Following his 1995 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the City of Tampa renamed one of its major toll roads as the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. In 2000, he opened the first in his popular chain of barbecue restaurants, Lee Roy Selmon's. Often, Selmon would appear at the restaurant to greet customers or recommend something from the menu, which was patterned after the home-cooked meals his mother prepared in Selmon's hometown of Eufaula, Okla.

Selmon was the youngest of three All-American football-playing brothers at the University of Oklahoma – "God Bless Mrs. Selmon'' read the bumper-stickers that cropped up around campus – and the centerpiece of a 1975 Sooner defense that helped OU to a consensus national championship.

Coach John McKay's expansion Bucs made Selmon the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 NFL draft.

"It wasn't a difficult decision at all. In fact, it was obvious,'' said Ron Wolf, who was the Bucs' first general manager. "You go and study these guys, watch them play, get to know them and find out what makes them tick. It didn't take long to know that Lee Roy was a cut above.

"As it turned out, he was the absolutely perfect first pick for an expansion franchise. A great player. A wonderful person. Somebody who made valuable contributions to his community. Somebody we can always be proud of. Somebody who left something very meaningful behind.''

Or as McKay once said during the dregs of Tampa Bay's franchise-opening 26-game losing streak: "Whenever I want to feel good, I think about Lee Roy Selmon.''

Selmon, a relentless pass-rusher who also played the run effectively, set the franchise record for sacks (78.5). He was named to the Pro Bowl six times. In 1979, he was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league's No. 1-ranked defense and helping the Bucs to within 10 points of a berth in Super Bowl XIV just four seasons into the franchise's history.

After missing an entire season due to a herniated disc in his back, Selmon retired from the NFL on April 23, 1986, a few months before his 32nd birthday. At halftime of the 1986 season-opening game at Tampa Stadium, Selmon's No. 63 jersey was retired.

Selmon began a full-time career in banking, then left in 1993 to join USF as its associate athletic director. Primarily, he was charged with helping to raise a $5-million endowment to ensure financial security for USF's fledgling football program, but he also became one of the school's most recognizable ambassadors as well as a mentor to its young and impressionable athletes.

"Clearly, bringing football to USF was not a unanimous concept,'' said former USF athletic director Paul Griffin, the man who hired Selmon, who is now an associate athletic director at Georgia Tech. "We endured the debate over whether college football would bring value to USF, but just his presence pushed everything over the top. He represented everything we wanted the program to become.''

Selmon, president of the USF Foundation Partnership for Athletics, served as the school's athletic director from 2001-04, but left the position due to high-blood pressure caused by heart and stress-related problems. He returned to a fund-raising role, which was instrumental in USF beginning its football program, as well as the athletic program's stadium upgrades for basketball, baseball, softball and soccer.

Even after his NFL playing career had ended, the Bucs continued to embrace Selmon as an enduring face of their franchise.

"Lee Roy's standing as the first Buc in the Hall of Fame surely distinguished him, but his stature off the field as the consummate gentleman put him in another stratosphere,'' said the Glazer family, who own the Bucs, in a statement released by the team. "Put simply, he was first class. He was the real deal.''

In 2009, Selmon became the first person inducted into the Bucs' Ring of Honor during halftime of a come-from-behind victory against the Green Bay Packers at Raymond James Stadium. Afterward, he was overcome by emotion.

"It's home,'' Selmon said. "This is where I grew up in the NFL. All I know is here. For the franchise to do this, to have that kind of generosity, it's overwhelming.''

Everyone familiar with Selmon's high-profile accomplishments seemed overwhelmed by his low-key understated personality.

Paul Catoe, president and chief executive officer of Tampa Bay and Company, the area's convention and visitors bureau, remembers the first time he saw Selmon, still active with the Bucs and just beginning his banking career. It was at Spanish Park restaurant and Selmon appeared to be participating in a high-powered lunch.

"The waiter brought the lunch, everybody started digging in and Lee Roy just paused, silently bowed his head and blessed his food to himself,'' Catoe said. "He wasn't doing it for show. That was just who he was – a committed Christian.

"I don't think we're going to get any more men like Lee Roy Selmon. I don't think they make them like that any more.''


Reporters Ira Kaufman, Roy Cummings and Jose Patino Girona contributed to this report. jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353

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