Make us your home page
Instagram

Get the quickest, smartest news, analysis and photos from the Bucs game emailed to you shortly after the final whistle.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Monsignor Laurence Higgins had strong sports background

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."

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.

Funeral Mass today

A third day of remembrances to honor the late Monsignor Laurence Higgins is at 11:30 this morning at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, 5225 N Himes Ave., Tampa. Burial will follow in the Garden of Memories Cemetery, 4207 E Lake Ave., Tampa.

Monsignor Laurence Higgins had strong sports background 08/30/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 30, 2016 9:40pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Crosstown rivals Bloomingdale-Newsome kick off season

    Footballpreps

    LITHIA — In a week filled with area football rivalries, there is a game on the east side of Hillsborough County — Bloomingdale vs. Newsome — that has matured into a classic crosstown battle, complete with classic cliches.

    Bloomingdale wide receiver Ed Amos charges through a drill a few days before the big rivalry game against Newsome on Friday night.
  2. Bucs Cannon Fodder podcast: Several key players still sidelined

    Bucs

    Greg Auman gives an injury update, with several key players still sidelined from practice three days before the Bucs play the Cleveland Browns in Tampa, and a full recap of your favorite scenes from Tuesday …

    Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans was held out of practice Wednesday at One Buc Place. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
  3. Playoff ambitions evident in opener for Zephyrhills, Wiregrass Ranch

    Footballpreps

    WESLEY CHAPEL — A new football season in Pasco County begins Friday night, but this one promises to be like none before it — with more math than ever. A new playoff system emphasizes schedule strength, making non-district tilts particularly important.

    Wiregrass Ranch wide receiver Jordan Miner catches a pass in spring practice at Wiregrass Ranch High School in Wesley Chapel on Monday, May 1, 2017.
  4. Dirk Koetter says Bucs used team meeting to discuss social issues

    Bucs

    Four days before their preseason home opener against the Cleveland Browns, which had 12 players not stand for the national anthem prior to their last game, the Bucs used their team meeting to discuss social issues that might have led to that demonstration, coach Dirk Koetter said.

    "The main thing is we have to respect everybody's opinion," Dirk Koetter said, "because everybody is not going to agree." [AP photo]
  5. Rookie tight end Antony Auclair making case to stick with Bucs

    Bucs

    Don't let his modest preseason stats fool you: Antony Auclair, the undrafted rookie tight end from Canada is making a strong case to stick around on the Bucs' 53-man roster this season.

    Bucs tight end Antony Auclair (82) collides with a defender following a catch during training camp. [CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times]