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Sports luminaries, Tampa community turn out for Tom McEwen's funeral

TAMPA — In 1976, Lee Roy Selmon had just arrived to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when a newspaper man pulled him aside.

His name? Tom McEwen. "He told me," said Selmon, "he was someone I needed to know."

He wasn't kidding.

McEwen, a former Tampa Tribune sports columnist who died Sunday at age 88 and was remembered at a memorial service Friday, gets a lot of credit for helping turn Tampa Bay into a sports community:

He helped bring — and keep — the Bucs. He helped lured professional soccer and hockey. He lobbied for favorite players to win top honors, from Selmon's 1995 NFL Hall of Fame induction to Steve Spurrier's 1966 Heisman trophy.

McEwen even helped pave the way for Selmon's post-football career in banking, introducing him to some important contacts.

"Tom McEwen was largely responsible for all of it," said Leonard Levy, one of a group of Tampa businessmen in the early 1970s to lobby the NFL for a pro football franchise.

McEwen's funeral was held Friday at St. Lawrence Catholic Church. It was a who's who of the sports world, and the city.

Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden. Retired football player Freddie Solomon. Bucs owner Bryan Glazer. Tampa Bay Lightning founder Phil Esposito. Baseball players Wade Boggs and Tino Martinez. Developer and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. Former Rays owner Vince Naimoli.

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco. Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Every Tampa Bay sports team was represented.

Spurrier, who gave one of the eulogies, said McEwen had a hand in helping shape his own career.

McEwen persuaded the United States Football League's Tampa Bay Bandits to give Spurrier his first head coaching job. Then in 1985, he called Spurrier and said, 'Spurrier, do you realize you're not in the college hall of fame? ... We're going to do something about that.'

The next year, Spurrier was inducted.

"He was a winner," said Spurrier, now the University of South Carolina football coach. "He ran to the end. He finished his race."

Spurrier then got everyone to stand up and hold up their arms, as if they were in a locker room huddle. "One, two, three," he said, and people shouted, "Go Tom!"

Levy, who also spoke, noted that McEwen played an unusual role for a journalist.

"He was an activist. That's rare among the media today, but thank God he was," said Levy.

McEwen was often criticized for never writing negative columns about the business group that was pushing for an NFL franchise.

"How could he?" Levy said, with a chuckle. "He was telling us what to do."

McEwen realized early on that provincialism could stand in the way of success. Lightning founder Esposito recalled in an interview his first meeting with McEwen in 1989 at Malio's, the Tampa steak house and institution.

Esposito said he asked: Could hockey survive in Tampa?

"Yes it can, but it's not Tampa," McEwen told him. "It's Tampa Bay. Don't forget that."

WFLA-AM 970 radio host Jack Harris joked that McEwen "wasn't a stickler for grammar." But he said McEwen had mastered the art of the interview: luring in the subjects and making them comfortable.

"Here I was listening to Tom talking to Bear Bryant like he was a long lost brother," he said. "You wanted to be interviewed by Tom because you knew it was going to be special."

Though he was a wiseacre, who never let anyone — including his priest — dilly-dally too long in conversation, McEwen was also remembered for his common touch.

Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, who worked his way up through the ranks of the franchise, said McEwen treated him the same throughout his career — no matter what rung he happened to be on.

"Tom has always been gracious to me," said Dominik. "He reached out to me early on. He kept the same demeanor."

Bucs fan Jackie Riles, 73, and her son, Pat, took the bus to McEwen's funeral. She wore Bucs gear, and Pat wore his Gators shirt. Riles held up a sign that said "Thanks for the memories Tom."

It was McEwen who dubbed Riles "Tampa's Pillow Lady" for the thousands of pillows she crocheted over the years for Bucs players, Lightning players and even celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Cloris Leachman.

"We lost a good one," she said.

Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Sports luminaries, Tampa community turn out for Tom McEwen's funeral 06/10/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 10, 2011 7:26pm]
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