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Thousands attend Lee Roy Selmon funeral to laud a generous spirit

LUTZ

Since Lee Roy Selmon died, countless stories have been told about the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great's exemplary life, some about his man-eating performances on the field and many more about his uncommon generosity and concern off the field.

Friday, during a three-hour funeral service at Exciting Idlewild Baptist Church attended by a few thousand past and present pro and college athletes, civic leaders and Bucs fans, Selmon's life was presented in several chapters by family members, teammates and friends, from birth to death.

The narrative crystallized to all that Selmon was the same gentleman all the time, even after sacking a quarterback — and even up until the 56-year-old Hall of Fame player died Sunday after a stroke.

"He was always the same," former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said before the ceremony. "Always considerate, always kind, always humble."

Born on a farm in Eufala, Okla., Selmon loved animals. He fell off horses and pinched his dog Rip's nose for the pleasure of hearing him bark. He was generous with the chicken feed.

"The chickens didn't know that Lee Roy loved to eat chickens, too," brother Dewey Selmon said.

Eleven months older, Dewey was put on a bus first to school but Lee Roy couldn't bear being left behind so his mother put him on the same bus the next day. The brothers learned to play football after watching other boys play the game. They had never seen a football nor did they have one. So they used a tin can for a ball and their mother's flower bed for a field.

Both brothers almost quit on the first day of high school practice when they realized the sport required running sprints.

But they stuck with it, and Lee Roy excelled, at one point playing his team's hulking running back because of his unusual speed. But what he wasn't good at was meeting girls, Dewey Selmon said.

Upon learning that his brother didn't have a date to the prom, Dewey offered to take Lee Roy, concealing the fact that he didn't have a date either. Both boys stood around the punch bowl together that night.

In college, Lee Roy Selmon couldn't be knocked off his feet. A devastating defensive lineman — often called the best Oklahoma Sooner ever — Selmon was described as a persistent bird dog who wrapped up prey rather than crushing them.

"He wouldn't hurt a soul," college teammate Joe Washington said, "but when he got you, he got you."

Professional quarterbacks talked about how Selmon apologized after "beating your brains out," Bucs owner Bryan Glazer said. Dewey Selmon, also drafted by the Bucs with Lee Roy in 1976, recalled Lee Roy breaking into tears one training camp morning in 1977.

The Bucs had lost 18 straight games but that wasn't the problem.

"Through the tears he said, 'People hurt,' " Dewey Selmon said. "There are people hurting in the world."

It was that heart that drove him to help anyone he saw in pain, Dewey said. He was the man who quietly paid for church dinners, brought ailing families food and drove through a hurricane to be near a hospital bedside, said Belinda Williams, a family friend.

Glazer, who leaned on him as the Buccaneers public ambassador for years after retirement, likened Selmon to the selfless character in It's a Wonderful Life.

"Every community needs a George Bailey," he said, "and we're blessed to have him, and his name was Lee Roy Selmon."

An athletic director at the University of South Florida, Selmon built a football program from scratch that concentrated on character, not "the thrill of victory," university president Judy Genshaft said.

When she told the crowd the USF athletic center had been renamed for Selmon this week, the entire crowd stood in applause.

The only way Selmon might hurt someone was with his handshake, noted Bob Basham, one of the Outback Steakhouse chain co-founders and a partner in Selmon's namesake restaurants. You had to make sure your hand was completely in his grasp because if Selmon grabbed it wrong, he'd crush your fingers.

But he couldn't hurt feelings. During taste tests for new dishes, Selmon was too nice to object to something he didn't like.

If he liked a new dish, he'd say he didn't know if his mother ever made such a meal — but she would have liked it. If he disapproved, he'd say, "I don't remember eating something like that growing up."

In the restaurant chain, that sort of consideration is called "Lee Roy's way," Basham said.

If you asked Selmon's pastor, the Rev. Jeffery Singletary, what "Lee Roy's way" was based on, he'd say it was the ex-Bucs' strong Christian faith.

During the eulogy, Singletary pointed out how Selmon was consistent in following Christ's instruction and example throughout his life when it came to faith, family, friends, football and his future.

After the lengthy ceremony, which included read proclamations from the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the city of Tampa, as well as several rollicking gospel songs, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn remarked that he didn't really learn much new about his longtime friend.

"Nothing that I didn't suspect already," Buckhorn said. "He was the same guy when he was 6 until the day he died. He never strayed."

Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

On Lee Roy Selmon

Former Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks:

"The humility and humbleness he carried himself with as a man set the bar for things I've been trying to do, and it really should be a challenge to all the sports figures in Tampa to step up and be the best ambassadors we can be in the Tampa Bay because we've lost our greatest ambassador."

Grambling State University head football coach Doug Williams, Selmon's teammate:

"I think everybody who got up there just about had the same speech because that's the only speech you've got. With Lee Roy, there was never going to be a different speech.''

Former Bucs running back Warrick Dunn:

"I thought the service was a true representation of who he was and what he meant to so many people, learning more about his background and being that gentle giant in so many ways. Football was always a stepping stone for the rest of his life.''

Oklahoma Sooners head football coach Bob Stoops, right:

"I make a point to let my team know that every year, that of all the players we had, Lee Roy stands out."

Former Bucs teammate and linebacker

Hugh Green:

"I was more the boisterous, the physical, the curse words type of player. What I learned was you could accomplish the same level of respect without it."

Atlanta Falcons CEO and president Rich McKay:

"It was a wonderful service for a really special man. Lee Roy's footprint is large and the service captured that very well. We will miss him.''

Edward DeBartolo Jr.,

former San Francisco 49ers owner:

"It was a classy service for a dear friend and the most gentle, caring man that I have ever had the privilege of knowing."

Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco:

"If everyone would take note and be a little like Lee Roy Selmon, this world would be a better place."

Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications and historian for the Pro Football Hall of Fame:

"Lee Roy was a man of great dignity with a rich story of love and life, neither of which he ever spoke in a boastful or triumphant way. It was just who he was. So to hear how others he touched saw that in him was uplifting."

— Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Justin George

Thousands attend Lee Roy Selmon funeral to laud a generous spirit 09/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 12, 2011 12:49pm]

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