Guess who's coming to dinner?
It's one of the most famous questions ever invented: If you could invite anyone in history over for dinner, who would it be? But we're adding a twist on that age-old question. Imagine if you could host the ultimate Thanksgiving Day dinner and invite your dream list of athletes and coaches -- the brightest, funniest and smartest -- in Tampa Bay sports. Good guys, nice guys, guys that, well, you'd like to have over for dinner. So let's carve the turkey and meet the 10 Tampa Bay sports figures we want around our table on Thanksgiving.
For starters, we need someone to bring the wine, and the only thing the Rays skipper might know more about than baseball is wine. His passions, however, run much deeper than those two subjects. He's a Renaissance man who is well-versed in music, art, pop culture and politics. Just consider some of the items decorating his office: the cover of a 1973 Bruce Springsteen album, a chess set, a poster of Jackie Robinson and a quote from Dr. Seuss. Plus, just looking at those Buddy Holly glasses and witnessing his against-the-grain managerial tactics, you can see he is an interesting chap who thinks outside the box. For our money, the most fascinating sports figure in Tampa Bay.
We're down with anyone who speaks French and just the name (pronounced GEE boo-SHAY) is about as suave and debonair as it gets, don’t you think? Besides collecting NHL victories, know what else he collects? College degrees. The Lightning coach has degrees in arts and engineering from the prestigious McGill University in Montreal and has a master’s degree in sports psychology from the University of Montreal. He paints, plays chess and has been known to romance his wife by singing songs and writing poems. You have to respect anyone who can speak intelligently about dozens of things besides the one thing (in this case, hockey) he knows more about than anything else, and more about than most people.
Ever go to a cookout and get introduced to someone you've never met before, but within minutes you feel as if the guy is your best friend? That's the feeling you get from the USF football coach. He is engaging, charismatic, charming but so down-to-earth that he makes you feel as if what you have to say is more interesting or funny than anything he has to say -- even though that could not be farther from the truth. Holtz can talk and talk and talk, and you never get bored or annoyed. It's a wonder that he doesn't get every kid he recruits. After talking to him on the phone for the very first time, I was ready after five minutes to see if I had any college eligibility left. And, just for fun, ask him to bring his dad.
Well-traveled. Well-schooled. Well-spoken. Well-read. Toss in good looks and the Bucs cornerback is the type of man who would make you sick if he didn't happen to be such a nice person. The guy co-wrote a children's book with his twin brother, for crying out loud. He's so cool and smooth, he could play James Bond. He's a man about town, if you consider planet Earth to be his town. He has traveled the globe and can talk just as easily about the golf courses in Ireland as he could about the details of the Tampa 2.
The Rays first baseman (for the moment) is not only one of Tampa Bay's best ambassadors but one of sports' great humanitarians. He has led local high school teams on mission trips to underdeveloped countries. He donated food, medical supplies, money and time to those in Haiti after the devastating earthquake earlier this year. He's a spokesman for the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. Who wouldn't want that guy sitting at your table? Besides, he's so decent, he would be willing to give up the drumstick.
Any dinner needs levity, humor and all the off-kilter thoughts that most NHL goalies possess. Smith is a bit of a goofball, and we mean that in the nicest possible way. He easily has the most outgoing personality on the Lightning. Plus, he's talented. Consider this goofy mix: Back in junior hockey, he became the only known goalie in the history of hockey to record a shutout, score a goal and get in a fight … in the same game! Telling that story alone is worth an invitation.
We invite the Bucs running back so we can listen to the wonderful stories about his late mother, who passed away earlier this month after a year-long battle with cancer. Sandra Smith was 57. She worked as a nurse for 30 years to raise and support her four children. She was directly involved in all our her children's lives and was even known to call opposing coaches and players to stick up for her Earnest. After she passed away, Graham told Times Bucs writer Rick Stroud, "She was special. She was a special lady.'' And she raised a special son, who has inherited all of her best qualities.
To me, there are few jobs in sports as fascinating as an NFL quarterback. You have to be smart enough to run a highly sophisticated offense, confident enough to lead teammates, poised enough to deal with the media and thick-skinned enough to deal with criticism from everyone. That the Bucs quarterback is a mere 22 years old makes him someone I want sitting at our table. Not only is he successful on the field, but he seems unaffected off of it. Teammates gravitate toward him. Fans support him. Coaches compliment him. It's partly because of his success, but mostly because he is a genuinely likeable person.
Is there anything more endearing and respectable than someone who is among the very best in the world at what he does, yet never exhibits the slightest hint of arrogance? The 20-year-old Lightning center has climbed into rarefied NHL air and can be listed alongside Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the premier players in the league. But if you didn't know he was one of the best hockey players in the world, you would never know it by talking to him. He is just your typical aw-shucks, humble, hockey-playing kid from Canada.
Okay, we're cheating a little bit here because the Lightning founder no longer has an official position with the team other than a part-time radio gig. But he lives in the area and, quite frankly, if you're throwing together a dinner anywhere in the world, Espo needs to be invited. He could easily fill a two-hour dinner by himself telling PG-rated stories. Then he could take up another two hours after dinner telling his side-splitting R-rated stories. But here's the thing about Espo: He is one of the greatest hockey players of all-time. He is a legend in every sense of the word. Yet, he's just a regular Joe who treats everyone the same regardless of who they are and what they do. Know who else is like that? Former Rays skipper Lou Piniella. Maybe we could squeeze him in at our dinner, too.