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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Selmon a great player, but an even better man

Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 08:53 PM

Lee Roy Selmon has been in this community for 35 years, a familiar and public figure from both the football field with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and later as a key member of the athletics department at the University of South Florida.

That’s just the start of things, though. Even though I have known him since he arrived here in 1976 from the University of Oklahoma, part of me was a little awed every time I spoke with him. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

Maybe it is how he has carried himself, a giant treating everyone he met with respect. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it shouldn’t stop there. If life had a hall of fame, Lee Roy Selmon would be in it unanimously on the first ballot.

If he ever was disrespectful to anyone, I never heard about it. Maybe that’s why it seemed to touch everyone in a deeply personal way as news spread late Friday afternoon that he suffered a major stroke with an uncertain prognosis.

You either knew him or felt like you did, but either way there is no disputing his impact on his adopted home. His contributions are immense.

USF probably wouldn’t have football without Selmon’s efforts. He was named athletic director after the women’s basketball program was rocked by allegations of racial prejudice by the coach, and his steady hand kept things afloat during one of the most troubled times in school history. He later raised millions and helped bring USF athletics into the big time.

He was the first player drafted by the Buccaneers and still stands as the best. He is the only Buc in the Hall of Fame. He was the first player enshrined in the Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. The Crosstown Expressway was renamed in his honor.

We could go on and on, but the substance of Lee Roy Selmon can’t be measured just by what he has done. People are so deeply touched because of the man himself.

"He’s a good human being and one of the best ballplayers I’ve ever seen in my life. You couldn’t meet a more loving person," teammate and linebacker Richard Wood told me when Selmon joined the Ring of Honor in 2008.

"He was so quiet and unassuming, he doesn’t come off as one of the best defensive linemen in the history of the game, but he is someone I’d want my children to be like. Something just happened when he put on that uniform, though. He became a changed man. You’d have to see it to believe it."

In that same story, even Selmon found humor in the contradiction.

"I enjoy competition, and it’s just a competitiveness that comes out," he said. "Each player gets it out their own way. I enjoyed the game and had fun playing and competing with my teammates. You work hard to prepare for that, but once the game was over, well, that’s it. I didn’t carry it with me for very long.

"You were disappointed in the losses and excited about the wins, but after that it’s back to regular life."

He walked away from football and into that regular life with ease. He always preferred to have the spotlight focused on someone else — anyone else, for that matter.

Just this week he was uncomfortably thrust into the limelight when a lawsuit filed in California mistakenly listed him and his brother Dewey as plaintiffs against the NFL and helmet-makers. We were unable to reach him for two days after the story broke, but on Wednesday morning he called me back and said he was "appalled" to be listed in the suit.

But only Lee Roy Selmon could use that word and deliver it in a way that sounded like a Sunday school lesson. He never raised his voice. He didn’t accuse anyone. He just wanted to set the record straight. He didn’t want people thinking he was sick. It was important to him.

Just as important, though, is how the people here feel this morning. There is sadness, melancholy, maybe a little denial.

And, yes, there still is awe as we think about a most gentle man who has stood above us in many ways, but never forgot to walk among us.