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The legend of Hubert Mizell lives on in Tampa Bay

He arrived before the heroes. That's important to understand.

If you are trying to figure out how a wise-cracking son of a trucker grew to be a larger-than-life figure in St. Petersburg, that's a significant part of the story. He arrived before the Bucs, Rowdies, Lightning and Rays, and he helped introduce us all to the big time.

Hubert Mizell was the conduit between them and us. That's important, too.

In the days before cable television, websites and Twitter, he was the guy athletes trusted and readers relied on. For a sports-obsessed kid growing up around here, the day did not begin with a shower or breakfast. It began with Hubert's opinions in the St. Pete Times.

He existed in that final era of the sports columnist as a local giant.

And, God bless him, Hubert was our very own giant.

It has been almost 15 years since he began easing into retirement, and much has changed since then. But his passing in Gainesville on Thursday at 76 in no way minimizes the impact he had on generations of readers in Tampa Bay and beyond.

Everything about Hubert was grand. His size. His voice. His ambition. His ego. He was easy to pick out of a crowd and impossible to ignore in a conversation.

We used to joke that he could have played Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners with even more panache than Jackie Gleason. He was bombastic, and occasionally overbearing, but always anchored by a sweet nature.

Somewhere along the line, he outgrew the role of a mere sports columnist. His job was to be Hubert. On the street, in the press box, on the radio, in the locker room. His personality was his commodity, and he played it for all it was worth.

He left the Times briefly in 1986 — to be a national feature writer in Atlanta — but like a homesick kid he quickly returned when he realized he couldn't be Hubert up there.

Instead, he continued to pile up more plum assignments, more raves and more memories than a roomful of journalists. He was in Munich in 1972 when terrorists killed 11 Israeli coaches and athletes at the Summer Olympics. He was in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 when the U.S. hockey team won the Miracle on Ice. He saw Evel Knievel try to jump the Snake River Canyon and was at the World Series in 1989 when an earthquake shook Candlestick Park.

Hubert went to the Masters more than 40 times. He attended the Final Four and the Super Bowl more than 30 times each. He showed up at 10 Olympic Games.

He lived a life others dreamed about.

I know, because I was one of the dreamers.

Just like Sports Illustrated NFL writer Don Banks in northeast St. Pete, and the Times' Rick Stroud in west St. Pete, I grew up just outside of Kenneth City, imagining how remarkable Hubert's life must be.

"I used to sit on a brick planter before school reading the paper, and the kids would call me little Hubert. And it was true, I wanted to grow up to be a sports writer, just like him,'' Banks said Thursday. "I think Hubert was always kind of proud of that. The idea that he influenced this new generation of writers who came through the Times.''

Unlike a lot of other major columnists of the '70s and '80s who had a difficult time saying goodbye, Hubert didn't overstay his welcome.

Whether it was because he was eager to enjoy the easy life with his wife, Marcy, or because he intuitively sensed the time was right, he stopped working full time at 62.

It was a typically astute move. The media landscape was changing, and his style wouldn't have translated as well today.

Hubert could be critical, but usually with a wink and a smile. Cynicism wasn't his aim. And while he had a wide and impressive knowledge of games and strategies, he wouldn't have appreciated today's fascination with advanced metrics.

He was a throwback. An original. A writer who understood what his audience wanted, and he delivered thousands upon thousands of mornings.

In one of my first job evaluations at the Times in the mid 1980s, I was asked to plot out my ideal career path. I don't remember all of the steps listed in between, but I do know that my announced target was to one day replace Hubert as a sports columnist.

As it turns out, when he retired in 2001, I started writing sports columns in his place. But the truth is, I never really replaced him. I never had his voice or impact. I never commanded the sort of adoration that was such an effortless part of his world.

And that's fine by me. The world has changed. The job description has, too.

What I can say is that I grew up reading one of the giants and later got to share dinners, airplane rides and memories alongside him.

I used to tease him about reading his columns while in third grade, but for the life of me I can't remember if I ever expressed how much that meant to me.

If I didn't, then this will have to suffice:

Thanks, Hubert. Thanks for everything.

The legend of Hubert Mizell lives on in Tampa Bay 03/03/16 [Last modified: Thursday, March 3, 2016 10:09pm]
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