TAMPA — They came in Lincoln Navigators, Lexus sedans, dented minivans, wingtips, wheelchairs and walkers from all across Tampa Bay to mourn "the Greatest Buccaneer," who had touched all of them with his giant hands and humble heart.
Pro football players, college students, bankers, churchgoers, neighbors and plain old fans: They all had a story to share about Lee Roy Selmon, a bone-jarring NFL legend who became just like them — only better — when he removed his jersey.
Selmon, 56, also a civic leader, bank vice president and University of South Florida athletic director whose name graces a Hillsborough County expressway, died Sunday after a stroke. Thirty minutes before his visitation Thursday, attended by hundreds, people lined up to get into Selmon's home church, Exciting Central Tampa Baptist Church.
At the front of the line stood Torya Hills, 46, carrying a box of tissues. She first met Selmon decades ago as a teen in a fried chicken drive-through. A customer had just scolded her for getting an order mixed up. Selmon followed in a station wagon and told Hills, "Don't worry. She ordered just what you said she did. You're doing a great job!"
Selmon's wife leaned over from the passenger seat and smiled to add encouragement.
Years later, Hills worked as hostess at Selmon's namesake restaurant during its grand opening. While he chit-chatted with her, famous celebrities came up but he wouldn't abandon their conversation. Instead, he calmly introduced Hills to the professional athletes "as if I was somebody," she said.
It was the same way he treated Roesolia Young, 82, a restaurant customer who met him maybe twice, showing her pictures of his own mother on the wall, explaining how the meals included her recipes.
"A guy you could approach," Young said.
Earl Kagler's wife once saw him in 1978 and whispered, "There's Lee Roy Selmon." Selmon heard it, turned and shook their hands, Kagler, 67, said.
He served as a Boys & Girls Club mentor for Maggie Williams, e-mailing, calling and meeting with her, extolling her to become what she became: a 24-year-old straight-A USF student.
She was too distraught to attend Thursday, but her mother, Ruth, took her place.
The relationship that veterinarian Eddie Garcia, 69, shared with Selmon was ordinary after they attended Leadership Tampa civic classes together decades ago.
"He knew who I was," Garcia said, "and I knew he was."
But when Garcia had a tough time arranging tickets to see Selmon enshrined at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he called his former classmate for help.
Selmon got Garcia and his son tickets — next to his own family.
He seemed perfect but he wasn't, onetime USF co-worker Mike Lewis pointed out. He was an awful golfer. But he humbly made sure everyone knew it every time before teeing off, Lewis, 51, said.
"I'm not very good," he'd say before shanking a drive.
At church, Ray Thomas, 61, noticed how Selmon never jetted off after Sunday service but stuck around shaking hands, even as the church emptied. "He laughed at my dumb jokes," Thomas said.
Lo White, 32, went to USF with Selmon's daughter. When White visited the Selmon home, she thought he seemed like her own father.
Nathan Bisk, 65, one of the founding contributors to USF's football program, remembers how difficult it was to find out-of-the-way restaurants to avoid crowds at lunch. Everywhere Selmon went, Bisk recalled, people thanked him for a quiet, charitable act few knew about.
All Thursday night, people told story after story — so much so that it seemed more of a loud celebration than a grave remembrance before an open casket.
At one point, a church official rose to the pulpit and told the large crowd to quiet down and be respectful. But the Rev. Jeffery Singletary didn't mind.
"It's infectious," he said. "Lee Roy had a way to make you feel like everything was going to be all right. He had those huge hands when he touched you on the shoulder. You knew everything was going to be all right."
That's what Selmon would want to show them now, Singletary said. Everything is all right.
Justin George can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3368.