Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Gone Too Soon

It’s interesting, the things we remember vividly years after they take place.

The day was December 3, 1978, and I was seven years old. That was the day my father took me to my first professional football game. I remember sitting in the stands at Tampa Stadium with him and some of his co-workers from Ernst & Ernst, the old accounting firm that has since morphed into Ernst & Young. We left shortly before the final gun and as we were walking along the sidewalk outside the stadium, with me holding my brand new Tampa Bay Buccaneers pennant, a motorist slowed down and asked what the score was. I still remember my dad’s response: “17-7 Green Bay.”

My lone clear memory of the action on the field does not involve either team scoring. It involves an injury. I don’t recall if it was a running play or passing play, but the Bucs were on defense and as players from both teams stood up after a tackle, one of them remained on the ground in obvious pain. The stadium as a whole fell silent, but people around us were talking in low voices and I could tell they were distressed about whoever that was on the turf. I asked my father which player was hurt, and I remember his reply like it happened yesterday. He leaned over and said: “That’s Lee Roy Selmon. He’s our best player.”

Selmon was helped onto the trainer’s cart. As it was driven behind the east end zone to take him off the field, he was sitting upright with his helmet off and I remember precisely how he looked: Calm. How fitting that was.

The following season, the Bucs’ defense would prove to be the top-ranked unit in the entire NFL and Selmon would be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Although the Bucs had no offense to speak of, their Selmon-led defense was so formidable that it carried the team to three playoff appearances in the four seasons between 1979 and 1982 -- and to within 10 points of earning a trip to Super Bowl XIV.

Because he played in a 3-4 defense with the Bucs, Selmon was double-teamed on almost every single down and quite often triple-teamed, yet he still dominated. Former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Ted Albrecht, referring to a game in which he had to face Selmon, once said this to sportswriter Paul Zimmerman: “At halftime I told the coach my deepest secrets. I said I never wanted to be buried at sea, I never wanted to get hit in the mouth with a hockey puck, and I didn’t want to go out and play that second half against Lee Roy Selmon.”

And I have not even mentioned his legendary college career with the Oklahoma Sooners, during which he was a two-time All-American, won both the Lombardi Award and the Outland Trophy, and led the Sooners to back-to-back national championships. Oklahoma has one of the longest and most prestigious histories in all of college football, and according to former coach Barry Switzer, Selmon is the greatest player to ever don the Sooners’ uniform.

He was inducted into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame. He was the first player ever drafted by the Buccaneers, and so far he is the only one ever to play for them who has been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Buccaneer.

But going back to what I alluded to earlier, when I said he looked calm while being carted off the field 33 years ago, the main thing about Selmon is not all the accomplishments, but the man himself. He was the personification of class and integrity, and for all his on-field ferocity, he was the kindest and humblest person you could ever meet, the ultimate “gentle giant.”

He became known because he was a football player of the highest caliber, but remained known because of his genuine good nature. In all the coverage since he passed away on Sunday, hardly anything has been said about his career because all the talk and ink have been spent declaring what a good person he was. This is remarkable because it is the first time I have ever witnessed such a thing in news coverage, and I have been a news junkie ever since 1980, back when Iran was holding Americans hostage and the U.S. hockey team stunned the Soviets and Reagan kicked Carter to the curb.

Lee Roy Selmon was raised on a farm in eastern Oklahoma, the youngest of nine children. His parents instilled in him a work ethic that never wavered until his dying day, as evidenced by Coach Switzer saying that he “never had a bad practice,” and by the fact he never stopped working even though he could have quit years ago.

Maybe it was Selmon’s farm rearing that made him so adroit when it came to down home food. It was no secret that he could whip up a fine barbecue, and when I was a kid grocery stores around Tampa and St. Pete sold Selmon Brothers Barbecue Sauce, made from a family recipe. In recent years he lent his name to a chain of restaurants and it just so happens that Erika once worked for its president. This gave her the opportunity to meet Selmon on several occasions, and she has always described him as “so nice.”

All through the years, Lee Roy Selmon remained an integral part of the Tampa Bay community. All the way from that first time I saw him from the stands, up to his untimely death, I continued to see him around town with impressive regularity. And even more impressively, he was always doing regular things in regular places. You might expect to see famous rich people only at fancy five-star restaurants, but I saw him eating dinner with his family at Carrabba’s.

Once, I was at a University of South Florida basketball game where the stands were mostly empty. At halftime, when they called out random seat numbers and asked the people sitting in those seats to come down and participate in a halftime contest, it turned out that Selmon was sitting in one of the seats that got called. I don’t remember what the prize was, but I do remember that the contestants had to make a long-distance shot to win it. Everyone else missed, but Selmon’s shot swished through, nothing but net. As he meandered through the arena afterward, people came up to talk to him and he obliged every one with a smile and a handshake.

And speaking of the University of South Florida, he worked for that institution for 18 years, including four as its athletic director. Before he got involved it had no football program, but now it has one that defeated Notre Dame in South Bend three days ago. Sadly, he was supposed to be in attendance at that game, but suffered a stroke the day before and passed away the day after.

People of my generation and older generations know Lee Roy Selmon as a force on the gridiron. People of younger generations know him as a man whose restaurants serve up a delicious pulled pork sandwich. They also know him as a man who quietly and dutifully pulled a little-known university’s athletic department up by its bootstraps and turned it into something to be reckoned with. Everybody knows him as a man of character who believed in doing things the right way. May he never be forgotten.


Betsy from Tennessee said...

Great post, John.. You don't hear the term "man of character" coming out of the mouth of many professional athletes or celebrities... That is great --that he remained that 'man of character' all of this life.

Dar said...

What a wonderful tribute to Lee Roy Selmon, a man who obviously touched your life in a very important way. He really was an honorable man, more important to so many than he probably realized. You write a news-worthy tribute of your friend, a friend to all.
Also, thanks for stopping by. Mom raised 9 of us also and I hope some of her ' character ' has rubbed off on me, my 5 and theirs. One day, I will take up hunting again, but for now, my only shots are through the lens of a camera.

Jennifer Richardson said...

enjoyed your tribute
....well spoken benediction
to this wonderful man.