The measure of a man is not in the games he plays. Deep down, to the twisted pits of your soul where you feel pain over Lee Roy Selmon, you know that. He was a great football player, a terrific, inspired football player. There is no arguing that. Selmon was perhaps the best to play in Tampa Bay, and perhaps the best to play in Oklahoma, one of the best to play anywhere. He won awards, and he reached halls of fame, and he defined excellence. You can choose that definition of Selmon, if you wish. Or you can remember something greater about a man who has been far more than a football player.
The measure of a man is not in the money he makes. It is not whether he has an expressway named after him, or a restaurant, or if his name is in the Bucs' Ring of Honor. It is not a bust in the Hall of Fame, or a statue that may be built on his college campus, or in the memories of a thousand black and white photographs from his playing days.
In the case of Selmon, the measure of him and his meaning should be measured by the shadow he has cast. By the lives touched. By the grace shown.
And, yes, by the depth of the ache you felt when you heard the news that he had suffered a massive stroke Friday and was in extremely critical condition.
For 31/2 decades, Selmon has been Tampa Bay's best citizen, a gentle, dignified man with never a bad word to say to or about anyone. Selmon has always led the league in class, in grace, in integrity. No one dislikes Lee Roy. If you dislike Lee Roy, it says a lot more about you than it says about him.
Perhaps that is why the news of his stroke rippled so quickly across Tampa Bay on Friday evening. Bad news always moves in a hurry, like locusts across a field. There was word that Selmon had died, and then that he had not, and then again that he had, and then again that he had not. It was as if an entire community had been gut-punched. The news was grim and devastating and overwhelming, because few men have been as admired around here as Selmon.
How does this happen to Selmon? At 56, he looked to be in terrific shape. Whenever you saw Selmon, you had to force yourself to remember that he had played defensive end. Running back, maybe. Linebacker. But defensive end? True, Selmon had a health scare seven years ago, but he looked strong enough to suit up again.
"You hear people described as 'a perfect gentleman,' " said Rich McKay, president and CEO of the Falcons, who was a teenage boy when Selmon came to Tampa Bay to play for McKay's father, John, in 1976. "You hear the word 'flawless,' which isn't true because we're human. But with Lee Roy, I'm not sure it isn't close to being true."
In sports, in life, there are a lot of a good, decent people. There are caring athletes, and charitable athletes, and socially aware athletes. But there has never been an athlete whose basic decency has come easier to him.
Selmon has never been a man who had to work at being a good guy. There are a great many athletes who work at being a good guy, who want the world to know they are being a good guy, who border on playing a role of a good guy. Not Lee Roy. Lee Roy is just being Lee Roy.
"There is nothing special about Lee Roy Selmon," he told me once. It is the one thing he has ever said that no one agrees with.
"That's so far from the truth," McKay said, "because everything was special with Lee Roy."
McKay remembers. He was 17 when the Bucs sent him to pick up Lee Roy and his brother Dewey from the airport. He remembers how nice they were even then, how humble they were, how they were almost a little intimidating.
"I have never seen Lee Roy have a bad day, and in those early years (the Bucs started 0-26), we had a lot of bad days," McKay said. "He just was such an example of how to conduct yourself day in and day out. He was about as good as it gets.
"Later on, when the team got better, you would see him sitting at his locker, waiting to go out, in a complete calm state. Around him, everyone else was losing their minds. Ours is a very physical, intimidating sport. He played it without showing emotion. It would be the height of crazy around him, but he was the senator. When he did battle, he did it with honor, and he won almost every time."
There are those who believe you have to be nasty all the time to succeed. Selmon does not. And people love him for it. I once followed Selmon around the Oklahoma campus. He might as well have been the pope. People approached him with glistening eyes, with glowing words, with their hands shaking as they reached out to touch him. Somehow, the adulation didn't change him a bit. It never has.
"He was just one of those rare, great human beings," said Tim Ruskell, a ball boy on that first Bucs team who is now the pro personnel director for the Chicago Bears. "It's unbelievable how kind he is. You can't be any better. As a football player, you can always get better, but as a human, he never disappointed you. Forget that he was a football player. The football player lessens how good he was, because you get caught up in this stereotype."
Ruskell tells a story of that first year with the Bucs. Selmon was the high-priced No. 1 draft pick, the star designate. Ruskell was a ball boy. "A nobody," he said.
But Ruskell had been a disc jockey, and he knew his way around a stereo. Selmon asked him to come over and help him hook up his new system. Naturally, Ruskell was eager to help. But when he showed up, Selmon and his wife had food waiting. They rushed him to the table.
"They wanted to know who I was and what I was about," Ruskell remembers. "It was an hour before we got to the stereo, and then it only took 20 seconds. It was unbelievable. I was an 18-year-old kid. He could have treated me the way the other players treated me."
Then again, Selmon was never like other players. At 260 pounds, he was undersized for a defensive end, but he was always quicker, always stronger than the man he was playing against. He was good enough to be NFL defensive player of the year. He was good enough to be in the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. For a long, long time, until Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp and Ronde Barber and John Lynch, he was the crown jewel of the Bucs' franchise, its only flirtation with greatness.
Again, he was a terrific football player. And yet, he has been so much more. He has been an ambassador, a role model, a citizen. He has been decent enough, and kind enough, to embarrass the rest of us.
"I appreciated the game, and I wanted to play it with my best effort, but I didn't want it to define my life," Selmon once told me. "I believed there was more to it than football. It was an important part of it, but I wasn't consumed by it. I always knew there was going to be more to life when retirement came."
He was right. Thankfully, the best of Selmon has come in the smallest of moments. He has made the people he met feel special, and he has made their moments feel important.
Above all else, that has been the measure of Lee Roy Selmon. That has been his defining greatness.
Today, it is the reason so many prayers are being offered in his name.