TAMPA — Whenever the Tampa Bay Lightning played at home, Newk's Cafe was the place to be. The sports bar across the street from the St. Pete Times Forum packed 'em in from 1996 to 2005.
In the middle of the action — changing channels, chatting up customers or belting out Margaritaville with a ridiculous bird-shaped contraption on his head — was Jack Newkirk, whose easy banter oiled the gears of the restaurant that bore his name.
Mr. Newkirk died June 3 of a rare blood disorder. He was 62.
Newk's Cafe drew from a wide cross-section of Tampa and beyond. Lightning and Buccaneers players stopped by, as did their fans. Mr. Newkirk got more customers by matching special events at the Forum, such as concerts, with a similar event at Newk's.
Don't want to shell out a hundred bucks to see Billy Joel? Just go to Newk's, which was sure to have a band playing all his songs. Same went for Cher or Montgomery Gentry. As for the Parrot Heads, what little encouragement they needed — namely, each other and plenty of beer — was in abundant supply when Jimmy Buffett played at the Forum.
A thousand of them showed up to the restaurant by 11 a.m. Half the Parrot Heads never bothered to cross the street that evening for the actual concert. The singer visited them later at Newk's.
"A lot of restaurants, it seems to me that the personality of the proprietor is what runs the place," said Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, a friend of Mr. Newkirk's. "He was the hands-on guy."
Menendez, 61, was a classmate at Jefferson High School, where "Jumpin' Jack" Newkirk was a basketball standout with a 42-inch vertical leap.
His basketball prowess won Mr. Newkirk a full scholarship to the University of Florida. In a game against LSU, he would later boast, Mr. Newkirk "held" Pete Maravich to 46 points.
"The number always changes every time he tells the story," said daughter Janel Hutchinson, 37. "He could be touting his ability, but instead, he's making fun of himself."
After college, he married Frances Spoto and had two daughters. Both girls were athletic, and their parents attended all of their games. Though a Gator for life, Mr. Newkirk forgave volleyball star Janel for going to Auburn — because, after all, she had a full scholarship, too.
Christie didn't go as far in volleyball — she played for Stetson — but could leap 27 inches (and never lets her sister forget that fact). Their father, who adjusted his schedule selling insurance to attend their games, was a fixture in the stands for many years.
"I don't call many people sweet," said ex-Buccaneer Scot Brantley, 51, a longtime friend. "But he was one of the sweetest people I've ever met in my life."
In the mid 1990s, Mr. Newkirk relied on his friends to start a restaurant on property owned by his brother. Some invested in the idea of a sports bar across from what was then the Ice Palace.
Others contributed their sweat. The property had never been used as a restaurant, said owner Tom Newkirk, 65. Getting it up to code would take some doing — but his brother seemed to know everybody, Newkirk said.
"We had doctors, lawyers, judges out there breaking up walls."
A team largely made up of volunteers built a deck and installed palm trees. Newk's was born.
The restaurant served crunchy grouper with a Corn Flakes crust. Crowds turned out, especially for home games and concerts across the street.
Two events involving the Lightning — the championship season of 2004 and a prolonged NHL labor dispute the year after — helped and hurt the restaurant. By 2005, Mr. Newkirk's health was taking precedence.
A doctor diagnosed him with amyloidosis, a 1-in-a-million blood disorder that deposits excess protein in the body's organs. The condition is incurable and often fatal, said Dr. Rand Altemose, Mr. Newkirk's physician.
In many ways, Mr. Newkirk defied expectations by surviving four years after his diagnosis.
"Very honestly, he survived a whole heck of a lot longer than he should have," Altemose said. "I think that was just his underlying will to survive."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or firstname.lastname@example.org.