Joe Henderson: Remembering Joe Zalupski, who helped make Tampa a big-time sports town

Joe Zalupski, shown here with his wife of 66 years, Vilma, helped bring professional sports to Tampa. Zalupski died Monday, just a few weeks after Vilma passed away. [Times files]
Joe Zalupski, shown here with his wife of 66 years, Vilma, helped bring professional sports to Tampa. Zalupski died Monday, just a few weeks after Vilma passed away. [Times files]
Published June 13 2018
Updated June 14 2018

Joe Zalupski wouldn’t want me to write this.

He would cringe at the thought anyone might make a fuss about him. He was most content away from the spotlight and to be with Vilma, his wife of 66 years.

He valued friends. He loved golf.

He loved to read and make escapes to Little Gasparilla Island.

He taught biology, was a coach, and a leader.

"He was," long-time friend Steven Sessums said, "a totally decent person."

And he left instructions that when he died, which happened Monday at the age of 84, there would be no funeral. No church filled with people dabbing at their eyes with tissue and telling sad stories.

Just cremate him, scatter his ashes, and maybe enjoy a glass of good wine.

It doesn’t seem right to let him go without a fitting send-off though. As executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority, he was an important figure in turning this into a big-time sports market.

"You could never question his integrity," long-time friend Leonard Levy said. "He was as honest as the day is long. He shot straight. You could depend on him."

University of Tampa football and the Plant-Hillsborough high game on Thanksgiving Day used to be the biggest sports things we had.

That all changed on Zalupski’s watch.

The original Tampa Stadium was built. The Buccaneers, Rowdies, the Tampa Bay Bandits, and football bowl games followed. Super Bowls were played there.

As Zalupski once said, Tampa became a dateline in the sports world. A once-sleepy city dared to dream, and the TSA helped make it come true.

"He ran the authority like he ran his football team. He hired good assistants and let them do their jobs. He wasn’t a micromanager," said Rick Nafe, who served 12 years as director of stadium operations and eventually also served as the TSA’s executive director.

Zalupski grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, the son of Polish immigrants. He was just 145 pounds but determined enough to become a starting guard on the local high school team.

His nephew and godson, Jack Ham, saw leadership and quiet strength in his uncle — traits Ham would use on his way to the NFL Hall of Fame as a star for the famed Pittsburgh Steelers Steel Curtain defense.

"He was very important in my life," Ham said. "I learned humility from him. I learned to do things the right way. He knew me better than anyone, including my dad. He gave me the DNA of hard work.

"And it didn’t matter if you were a highbrow guy or someone doing manual labor. He treated everyone with respect."

When he just 16, Zalupski received a phone call from UT football coach Marcelino Huerta, offering a scholarship. If he wanted to accept, a bus driven by Huerta would pick him up by the side of a road and take him to Florida.

"Tampa?" Ham said. "Back then, that might as well have been Singapore."

But Zalupski took a chance and headed toward a life that would change him and a city.

His beloved wife Vilma died in April. Although Levy said he looked and sounded fine when the two had lunch recently, losing Vilma left a hole in Zalupski’s soul.

When an attendant at his Tampa residence came by Monday to check on him, he was gone — unexpectedly, but probably expected if you really think about it.

"He treated everyone with respect. He wasn’t looking for fame or money," Sessums said. "You would have never known what an important figure he was."

But we know.

Yeah, Zalupski wouldn’t want to read these things about himself, but Tampa is better because he was here.

Sorry Joe, but you were important. People should know what you did, if only so they can say thank you.