WESLEY CHAPEL — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers lineman Tom McHale, who never went to a Super Bowl but said he'd rather be home anyway, was found dead in a friend's apartment Sunday morning. He was 45.
Foul play is not suspected in the death of the Tampa father of three and former restaurateur, said Pasco County Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll.
But it could take weeks for the medical examiner to determine a cause of death.
McHale was with Tampa Bay from 1987 to 1992.
"We lost a good one in Tom," said friend and former Buccaneer Tyrone Keys. "Tom was always a stand-up guy, always there for everybody. I'm just so very sorry for his loss, for the community and for his family."
Friend Martin Jackson found McHale dead in his apartment at 9:19 a.m., Doll said. McHale has a Tampa address, but deputies say at the time of his death he was staying with Jackson at Delano Apartments off State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel.
McHale and Jackson were attending a rehab center together, according to the Sheriff's Office, but deputies said they were unable to elaborate. Jackson contacted the center, they said, and reported McHale's death.
Someone at the center then notified McHale's wife, Lisa, who was in Jacksonville at the time, according to the Sheriff's Office.
The couple have three children: T.J., Mikey and Matthew. The oldest, T.J., was born with cerebral palsy.
Contacted at their Tampa Palms home Sunday night, the family declined comment.
"We were saddened to hear the news of his passing," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers spokesman Jeff Kamis.
McHale came to the Bucs from the Ivy League. The Cornell University grad was a versatile 6-foot-4, 275-pound athlete who was Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in 1986. His wife also received a degree from Cornell.
Keys, a former Bucs defensive end, first met McHale in 1987. Keys had won a Super Bowl ring with the Chicago Bears the year before. McHale went undrafted but signed with Tampa Bay, hoping to make it into the NFL with the Creamsicle Buccaneers.
Veteran and rookie forged a lifelong friendship under the most grueling of circumstances: three-a-day practices under ex-coach Ray Perkins.
"When I think of Tom McHale, I think of that big grin he always had," Keys said. "He was always encouraging. He was always willing to help."
As a pass rusher McHale wore No. 99 his first season. But the next season he put on No. 73 and switched from defense to offense.
That's how McHale put together a nine-year NFL career playing offensive guard and tackle with Tampa Bay, Philadelphia and Miami. After the switch, McHale went on to start 30 of his 59 games with the Bucs.
"I just remember him having real quick feet (along) with his work ethic and his willingness and toughness," Keys said, "and they wanted to find a place for him somewhere on that team."
After football, McHale went on to open two well-known Hillsborough County restaurants: McHale's Sports Pub on Howard Avenue in South Tampa and McHale's Chop House in Brandon.
It was a business he seemed destined for. Growing up in Maryland, McHale took over the cooking from his mother and started barbecuing for his four siblings. He opened his own produce stand at age 14.
At Cornell, he earned a bachelor's degree in hotel administration. After football, he managed a Longhorn Steakhouse in Brandon to get a feel for the business. Then he opened his own place in 1999.
McHale later sold his restaurants and went into real estate, according to Keys. But while he was in the restaurant business, Keys said, McHale was always quick to help out, especially with the Mike Alstott Family Foundation. McHale was also a former president of the Tampa chapter of the NFL Players Association's Retired Players division.
McHale watched the Bucs' Super Bowl win in 2003 from his Tampa home. He had no regrets, he told the St. Petersburg Times that year.
"In nine years of the NFL, I never went to a Super Bowl," he said then. "I would rather be at home."
Times staff writers Ernest Hooper, Stephen Holder, Alexandra Zayas and Mike Camunas contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.