On Jan. 25, 2003, the night before Super Bowl XXXVII, Bucs players gathered in a San Diego hotel meeting room for pregame mass. The following night, they became world champions. First things first. Monsignor was rolling.
"We always loved his homilies and pep talks," Bucs great John Lynch said. "I can still hear his Irish accent. 'You strive to do your best and win the race! You have to fight and fight hard!' I'll never forget the one before the Super Bowl. He brought it all. Monsignor was sweating by the end and his cheeks were all red. He had everybody ready to play. It was like he was part of the team."
Monsignor Laurence Higgins, as beloved and benevolent a teammate as any city ever had, will be celebrated and laid to rest today in his adopted home, where he touched countless lives. His beautiful light made Tampa a better place.
He was a sports guy, too.
In Monsignor's home, next to St. Lawrence Catholic Church, where he was pastor for 49 years, his jerseys are everywhere, some near the large photo of him with Pope John Paul II. There are two jerseys the Bucs presented him. There is a jersey from the Lightning, No. 53, for 1953, the year Higgins was ordained a priest. And there is a No. 12 jersey from his Gaelic football days in Ireland, playing for County Derry.
The man loved people. And Tampa. And sports. And he came to play.
Tony Dungy, one of today's eulogists, first met the monsignor 20 years ago, when Dungy arrived to coach the Bucs. There was that twinkle in Higgins' eyes, and behind them that sense of humor.
"Welcome to Tampa," he told Dungy. "I'm here to serve. You're coaching my team. Do it well. Don't mess it up."
Last Saturday in Dublin, Ireland, Derry played County Dublin at famed Croke Park in the All-Ireland senior championship semifinal in Gaelic football, a rough mix of soccer and rugby, and we mean rough.
But before the national telecast, commentators offered a tender tribute. Analyst Joe Brolly, a forward on the 1993 Derry All-Ireland champion, still the last Derry title winner, honored a legendary forward from Derry's 1947 national champion.
"We also remember here a very famous Derry man. That is Larry Higgins."
"Godspeed to him. A most remarkable man."
Monsignor Higgins was a star for Derry and all of Ireland. Back then, he was 5-10, 175 pounds, wiry, fast, strong and tough.
Kevin Murray, a eulogist today, was co-pastor with Monsignor Higgins at St. Lawrence from 1988 to 1995. Murray's mother, the indomitable Polly, was Higgins' lay administrator at St. Lawrence for half a century. Polly's six wonderful sons helped care for the monsignor even before she died.
But one day a long time ago at St. Lawrence Catholic School …
"We were kids kicking a tether ball, and someone kicked the ball to Monsignor. He just drove a bullet back at us," Kevin Murray said. "We scattered like ants. I'll never forget it. Monsignor was a Mickey Mantle in Ireland in 1947."
"Yes, everyone knew him in Ireland," said Martin Gourley, 65, Higgins' nephew, who will also deliver a eulogy. "Sports was his life. But he left all that behind."
Well, not all of it.
Monsignor Higgins was de facto Bucs pastor for years, holding masses, presiding over weddings, counseling players, traveling with the team to away games, including the Super Bowl. He was close to Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer players. He sat with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner at spring training. Higgins helped build the deal that built the stadium that brought the Yankees to Tampa.
Put together movers and shakers at that time in Tampa — Mayor Dick Greco, George and Leonard Levy, Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen, Steinbrenner. Then add the monsignor to the list.
"Do I think Monsignor played a role in why the Bucs are still in Tampa? Absolutely," former Bucs general manager Rich McKay said. "Before the stadium vote over the community investment tax, Monsignor was always bringing people together. He was a connector."
And when John McKay, the first Bucs coach, was dying, Monsignor Higgins stopped at the hospital to see him.
"Every day," Rich McKay said.
There are hundreds of Monsignor Higgins stories like that.
Rich or poor, famous or not, he was there.
Cecil Edge tells this story.
In the late 1980s, the Tampa businessman was chairman of the FIFA World Cup soccer task force for Tampa Bay. The United States was trying to land the 1994 World Cup. It did, though Orlando was eventually chosen over Tampa as a Florida venue.
But go back before all that.
Monsignor Higgins was going on one of his Ireland trips. Before he left, he asked Edge to write a letter to the Irish FIFA delegate who owned a World Cup vote. He wanted a meeting with the man.
"When we went to the World Cup vote in Zurich, we were selected as the host nation," Edge said. "A shocker."
But the head of FIFA and another voting member had stepped aside because they were from Brazil and Brazil had made a bid.
"So guess who took over?" Edge said. "Monsignor's new friend from Ireland. When I told the man that I was the one who wrote the letter to him, his face lit up. He said, 'Tell my good friend Monsignor Higgins that we delivered.' "
My good friend Monsignor Higgins.
Tim Murray, Kevin's brother, remembers Sundays watching the Bucs on TV with Monsignor Higgins.
"Every game, he'd get nervous," Tim Murray said. "He wanted to win every time."
By the way, remember that 1993 Derry championship Gaelic football team?
Guess who delivered the pregame pep talk?
Monsignor Larry Higgins.
"When we'd hear him say, 'You have to fight and fight hard!' we'd fist bump each other and say, 'Here he goes,' " John Lynch said. "He lived a life of sacrifice, but he kept his competitive fire. He fought for everyone."
It was all about the team.