TAMPA — More than a priest.
It was a central theme Wednesday at the funeral Mass for Monsignor Laurence Higgins, 87, the Irish-born clergyman who died Aug. 24 after six decades in Tampa.
And it was a lesson former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy learned as soon as he moved here in 1996.
"I was quickly told there were three people I needed to meet," Dungy said during a eulogy for Higgins at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, the parish Higgins started in 1958. He said the three were then-Mayor Dick Greco, Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen and Monsignor Higgins — "not necessarily in that order."
It was the kind of anecdote that underscored what Higgins meant to Tampa. He founded a parish, building it eventually to 2,200 families. But he also launched or helped lead programs in addiction recovery, affordable housing, education, cancer research, care for the victims of domestic violence, help for families of fallen law enforcement officers and care for the needy.
Look around Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said before the service, and there's nothing important to the city that Higgins "didn't have his fingerprints on."
So despite a looming tropical storm, his funeral drew more than 1,000 mourners.
They included three mayors — Greco, Buckhorn and Pam Iorio — former Gov. Bob Martinez, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, businessmen George and Leonard Levy, and longtime Tribune columnist Steve Otto.
The size and makeup of the crowd illustrated a duality central to Higgins.
Though born in a farm town in County Derry in Northern Ireland, Higgins lived a classic Tampa story — that of the Sunbelt boom town newcomer who makes friends in his adopted home town, then sees those relationships channel ideas, commerce and influence in ways that transform the city.
This dynamic doesn't always work. At times in Tampa's past, deals driven by little more than friendship have failed.
But Higgins' life shows what it looks like when the relationships and the good intentions go right.
"What he strove for reminds us all that we are called to make a difference," Monsignor Michael Muhr said during his homily for Higgins, who led St. Lawrence for 49 years before his retirement in 2007.
"He would talk with you with such a twinkle in his eye," Iorio said outside the church. "He extended himself to everyone in this community. . . . When you were around him, you wanted to be a better person. He made us all a little bit better, more humane, caring a little bit more for our fellow man."
Growing up in Ireland, Higgins starred on a 1947 national championship team in Gaelic football — "a tough sport," said his nephew, Martin Gourley, "in which local rivalries and personal grudges could be played out" — before turning to the priesthood and missionary work. Not yet 30, he was sent first to Miami and then to Tampa and given 20 acres covered with sand spurs and scrub oak for a new parish.
Higgins brought to the clergy some of the same qualities that helped him score goals as a teenager: dedication, discipline and what he once called a "oneness of purpose."
Hearing him preach, Muhr said, was like being called into a huddle. Higgins preached passionately, directly and not for very long, "then he would literally break the huddle with 'Let's do it!' You felt like you wanted to run out of the church."
One Easter, Muhr said, as Higgins was about to sprinkle holy water to remind his congregation that baptism washes away sin, he stopped and said, "Some of you need a whole bucket of this."
Midway through his first season, Dungy had yet to win his first game when Higgins, who by then had already been the Bucs' team chaplain for 20 years, came for a pre-game Mass.
"In that voice, he said, 'Coach, we need to be winning a game here soon — and sooner rather than later,' " Dungy recalled. " 'You may consider giving the ball to young (Mike) Alstott a little more. He's a fine boy.' "
Despite heavy rain Wednesday morning, mourners filled about 800 seats inside the church, plus a few hundred more in a huge overflow room in Higgins Hall.
About 200 joined the funeral procession to Memorial Gardens Cemetery, forming a caravan of brand-new Mercedes and beat-up Honda Civics. A bagpiper played Danny Boy as Higgins' casket arrived.
Graveside, the crowd offered up the Rite of Committal and the Lord's Prayer, as a steady rain fell. Mourners filed by one by one to lay a hand on Higgins' casket and offer a final prayer, and the pallbearers each took a white rose from their lapels and laid it on the casket.
During the Mass, the fourth and final eulogist was one of those pall bearers, Kevin Murray, whose family has been close to Higgins for decades. He recalled how his late mother, Polly Murray, was long known as the administrator at St. Lawrence, but he noted that she once quit to sell real estate. It was going well, but after three or four months she returned to her old job at the church.
He asked her why. Her answer was another point reinforcing how Higgins inspired people to serve.
"She said, 'It's because Father Higgins is the one person who I've met in my life who genuinely loves God with everything he has,' " he said. "She couldn't walk away from that."
Times staff writer Tony Marrero, sports columnist Martin Fennelly and photographer Chris Urso contributed to this report.