As stunned as his loved ones, friends and colleagues were about the suddenness of his death, it was the graceful, dignified and exemplary life of Lee Roy Selmon that they remembered most on Sunday.
The first player drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their only member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame died at St. Joseph's Hospital on Sunday afternoon (Sept. 4, 2011) surrounded by family and friends, only two days after suffering a stroke at his Tampa home. Mr. Selmon was 56.
"I called him Mr. Selmon," former Bucs tight end Jimmie Giles said. "It felt like you owed him respect when you talked to him. If you ever met Mr. Lee Roy Selmon, you knew him. You would never forget him. That first impression you got? That was the impression that was going to be with you forever."
Some remembered an unwavering teammate from the University of Oklahoma who transformed the expansion Bucs from a league's 0-26 laughingstock into the NFC championship game in three years. Others knew him as a tireless worker who spearheaded the effort to bring football to the University of South Florida.
Almost everyone in Tampa Bay considered him the area's greatest ambassador, as evidenced by the Tampa expressway that was named in his honor.
But all agreed Mr. Selmon's giant ability on the football field was only eclipsed by the life he led away from it.
"It is with very heavy hearts that the Selmon family announces the passing of our beloved husband, father and brother, Lee Roy Selmon," the Selmon family said in a statement. "Lee Roy passed away today surrounded by family and friends at St. Joseph's Hospital.
"For all his accomplishments on and off the field, to us Lee Roy was the rock of our family. This has been a sudden and shocking event and we are devastated by this unexpected loss. We deeply appreciate the prayers and support shown by family, friends, the football community and the public over the past two days."
Mr. Selmon had been in Dallas earlier in the week visiting family, and was preparing to travel to South Bend, Ind., to watch USF play Notre Dame on Saturday morning. But he suffered an apparent stroke on Friday and was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital.
Mr. Selmon's older brother, Dewey, said Saturday that Lee Roy had been responsive to family members and showed some signs of improvement, but was in extremely critical condition and doctors were awaiting the results of tests taken that morning.
By Sunday afternoon, he was gone. He is survived by his wife, Claybra, and three children, Brandy, Lee Roy Jr. and Christopher.
"God's will be done and according to His will," said David Lewis, Mr. Selmon's former Bucs teammate. "When you have a brother go down — he wasn't a teammate, he was a brother to all of us — it hurts. Give God praise and thank Him for the time he was able to be on Earth and we were able to enjoy him."
"I feel the world would be a better place if there were more Lee Roy Selmons," said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "I was with him several times when he interacted with the young people. Young people paid attention to what he had to say, because he had this presence about him. He wanted them to do well."
Born on Oct. 20, 1954, in Eufaula, Okla., Mr. Selmon was the youngest of nine children. An All-America defensive lineman at Oklahoma, he was the first player taken overall in the 1976 NFL draft. The Bucs also drafted his brother, Dewey, in the second round. Mr. Selmon went to six Pro Bowls and was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1979.
Mr. Selmon played for nine seasons, retiring in 1986 after missing the previous season with a herniated disc. His jersey number, 63, was retired before the season opener that year. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995 and became the first player inducted into the Bucs' Ring of Honor in 2009.
"He was such a great person and a great football player," said Rich McKay, the Atlanta Falcons president and CEO whose father, John, was the first coach of the Bucs. "I feel for his family and friends. At 56 years old, he had a lot of living to do and it's a shame he's not going to be with us.'
"What's so telling about Lee Roy is he played in the league about nine years. For an NFL career, that's somewhat long, but not that long. He wasn't from the area. He didn't play at Miami or Florida. He was from Oklahoma and he came to Tampa and played nine years and they named an expressway after him. That's all you need to know about Lee Roy Selmon."
"Tampa Bay has lost another giant," the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, said in a statement. " ... We are so blessed to have known this fine man and to have called him one of our own, yet so sad to have lost him so soon."
Mr. Selmon was USF's athletic director from 2001 to 2004 but had worked for the Bulls since 1993. Paul Griffin, who proceeded him as A.D., said Mr. Selmon's sterling reputation picked up key supporters as the Bulls sought to add a football program.
"Now the program has coaches and players that become the face of the program," Griffin said. "Prior to having that, there couldn't have been a better person, a representative of all the good things about college football than Lee Roy. That's why we sought, recruited and were fortunate to get him to join the team, to be the face of the program before we had a ball or a helmet."
Jim Leavitt, the Bulls first coach, remembers long days working alongside Mr. Selmon and Griffin in a trailer that served as the USF football office.
"We found some old goal posts under a soccer stadium," Leavitt said. "They were regulation size. So we erected them one morning. The sun was rising and I called Lee Roy and said, "We have football.' He couldn't have been prouder."
In the 1990s, Mr. Selmon and brothers Dewey and Charles started their own barbecue sauce company. Mr. Selmon called Outback Steakhouse co-founder Chris Sullivan to see if Outback would be interested in using the sauce. Outback didn't use the sauce, but Mr. Selmon was invited to join Outback's board of directors. That ultimately led to Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant chain, which opened in 2000 and now has seven locations along Florida's west coast.
Former Bucs quarterback and Grambling State University football coach Doug Williams and Giles were fixtures at Mr. Selmon's original restaurant on Boy Scout Road in Tampa.
On Sunday, Giles was driving back from Louisiana where he had traveled to watch Williams' son, D.J., play his first game at quarterback for the Tigers. Williams was nearly speechless when Giles called to tell him their friend had died.
"I don't know, it's one of those things where you don't have a whole lot to say," Williams said. "Being around the same age, you got to look at yourself a little bit. But I think about his family and their loss, that's the biggest thing."
The Selmon family said funeral arrangements will be announced at a later time but they asked that donations be made to Abe Brown Ministries or the University of South Florida Foundation Partnership for Athletics.