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Lee Roy Selmon's death deprives Tampa Bay of a football, and community, legend

Monday, September 5, 2011

"Whenever I want to feel good, I think of Lee Roy Selmon," said the late John McKay, longtime coach of the Buccaneers

Today, Tampa Bay is not as kind as it was. It is not as gracious. It is not as decent. The best of us has been taken way. Lee Roy Selmon, a legend of a man with the demeanor of a common man, has died. All of the lives he touched, all of the people he enriched, mourn his passing. It is too sad for words, and it is too soon for reason. As a community, Tampa Bay was not yet done with Lee Roy. We needed to hear his soft voice, and to be comforted by his immense presence, for a while longer. He was only 56, and we needed to know he was there, and that he made the rest of us better, for years to come. Lee Roy is gone. A giant has fallen. And now, who is going to help to fill in the crater?

Josh?

Evan?

Steven?

Anyone?

The wounds are fresh, and the pain is deep. Since Friday, since the whispers of his death swept across Tampa Bay, most of us had braced for the worst. And still, it seems sudden and grim and final. He is gone, and much of us has gone with him. As an area, we are a little less than we were. Whoever can fill this void?

Gerald?

David?

Victor?

For the athletes of Tampa Bay, this should become a shared challenge. A good man has gone, and they should strive to carry the torch. One by one, they should realize they have a responsibility to help meet the standard that Selmon left behind. Oh, does Tampa Bay need it.

Above all else, the legacy of Selmon was in the consistency of his kindness. He never seemed to have a bad day, even a bad moment. He was a star who didn't act as if he were a star, a celebrity who never accepted the role. Tampa Bay loved him for that. How could it not?

On the day after his death, there are a thousand stories about encounters with Lee Roy being told across Tampa Bay, and they all sound the same. Lee Roy shook a lot of hands over the years, and his voice remained quiet, and his smile was never far away, and he treated strangers as if they were friends. He was as thoughtful as a professor, as calm as a diplomat, as honorable as a clergyman.

He was one of us. He was Lee Roy, and he set the standard for what an athlete should mean for the place in which he lived.

If you are Josh Freeman, or Evan Longoria, or Steven Stamkos, the responsibility has fallen to you. Be kinder. Make a difference. Take more time with people. Reduce the distance between yourself and those who follow you.

If you are Gerald McCoy, or David Price, or Victor Hedman, this should be a goal. Lower your voice. Raise your standards. Smile a little more. Give a little more.

In memory of Lee Roy, every athlete in Tampa Bay, from the budding stars to the players struggling to hang on, from the veterans to the rookies, needs to accept the responsibility of being a little more like Selmon. A little nicer. A little calmer. A little more like Lee Roy, the man who set the standard.

For that matter, it wouldn't hurt the rest of us to try, either.

This is how you honor Lee Roy. Not with a statue or a speech, not with a banner or a trophy. With Lee Roy, the ultimate tribute is to try to live your life a little more the way he lived his. How uncommon should common decency be?

Looking back, Tampa Bay did not merely draft Selmon 35 years ago. It adopted him, and he adopted the area right back. This is not as common as you might think. Most athletes come to a town through the accident of a player draft, and they change colors as quickly as there is bigger money to be made elsewhere.

Other athletes walk through a town and demand that the people who live there get out of their way. Too many are entitled and self-absorbed, and they convince themselves that nastiness and narcissism is the reason for their success. They love the adulation, but only as long as it keeps its distance.

Selmon's approach was different. His humility was genuine, and his decency was endless. He kept his awards in a box, and if he had any ego at all, it was in there, too. Part of his greatness was that he didn't need to bring it up.

On Friday night, after Selmon suffered his stroke, Chicago Bears pro personnel director Tim Ruskell (a ballboy for the Bucs when Selmon arrived) was talking about the last time he had seen Selmon. He had gone to visit Selmon at USF, and Selmon was giving a campus tour to prospective students.

"I wonder how many of those kids knew who Lee Roy was," Ruskell said. "Because you know he wouldn't tell them."

Ah, but if they were from Tampa Bay, they knew. Here, everyone knew.

He was more than a football player. It is odd, but the years have changed Tampa Bay, and there are more people who never saw him play than who did. Most of the people who loved Lee Roy, who idolized Lee Roy, never saw him embarrass a bigger offensive tackle with his rare speed and strength. They have read about him, and they know about his skills, and they know why he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (the college one, too).

Still, Selmon was an NFL player for only nine seasons.

He has been Lee Roy for the 27 years since.

As communities go, this one has been blessed with more good guys than most. Warrick Dunn. Derrick Brooks. Mike Alstott. Vinny Lecavalier. John Lynch. We have seen how athletes can affect lives.

Ah, but there has never been anyone quite like Lee Roy. He made a difference in a hundred big ways, and in a million small ways. He made people cheer, and he made people smile, and he filled Tampa Bay with his demeanor. He could have been a teacher or a plumber or a roofer, a mayor or a preacher or a lawyer, and he would have been the same guy.

Today, we mourn a loss that seems much too soon, and much too large, to comprehend. Tampa Bay is lucky that he came here, and blessed that he stayed. This was his home, and he was our neighbor.

Goodbye, Lee Roy.

Oh, and thanks.

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Lee Roy Selmon's death deprives Tampa Bay of a football, and community, legend 09/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 6, 2011 2:25pm]

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