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Departure of Dilfer is our loss off the field

Of all the names Trent Dilfer was called during his six years with the Bucs, generous was not one of them.

But the name calling about Tampa Bay's disappointing on-again, off-again and now ex-quarterback was in response to what he did with a football, not how he handled his wallet when charities came knocking.

"I didn't know the extent of it," says Dr. Jack Guggino, for 20 years the team's ophthalmologist. "But he was quick to put his hand in his pocket."

Just how quick, Mabel Bexley remembers.

Some pro athletes have a reputation for slapping around their wives and girlfriends. Yet for at least two of Dilfer's six years in Tampa, he gave $25,000 to The Spring, the city's domestic violence shelter, which Bexley runs. In 1998, he and his wife, Cass, co-chaired The Spring's fundraising campaign. At every home game, Dilfer paid for tickets for two dozen kids. Some of them always came from The Spring, where women escaping violent relationships seek shelter.

Said Bexley: "When his collarbone was broken, I thought about writing him but . . . I didn't want to seem self-serving, and now that he's going, I will write, because I will miss his leadership."

Then there was Tampa Habitat for Humanity. Between 1997 and 1999, Dilfer donated about $75,000 that helped pay for the construction of four houses. "A lady at the Bucs said he didn't want a lot of publicity," recalled Lew Frazar, Habitat's executive director.

Dilfer also contributed at least $25,000 each to Joshua House, for abused children, and Metropolitan Ministries, Tampa's shelter for the homeless.

Other Bucs certainly donate to charity, and like them, Dilfer has plenty of change to spare. But not even the Glazers can match Dilfer's record with the United Way.

According to a United Way spokeswoman, Dilfer was among the charity's biggest givers virtually every year he was in town, contributing at least $10,000 annually. The Glazer Family Foundation only reached that level last year.

You will not hear this stuff talked about on the sports call-in shows, and you may be surprised hearing it from me. But Dilfer's generosity reminded me of writing a few weeks back about the call that went out from the Children's Board to Tampa-area businesses to help bail out the local office of the Department of Children and Families.

They had so many kids, and so few places to put them, that some were sleeping in DCF offices, officials said. Asking businesses to help was, at least at first, like trying to get blood from a stone. It makes you wonder what Dilfer might have done, if he weren't watching his Bucs career unravel or unloading on a Sports Illustrated reporter. He called the Bucs "the most frustrating team on earth."

"I'm afraid he's going to be one of those quarterbacks who goes somewhere else and blossoms," said Habitat's Lew Frazar. "We have a habit of that, don't we?"

The prediction from The Spring's Mabel Bexley was of a different nature.

"To me, he is a loving, generous spirit, and I know wherever he goes, he'll share his light."

Jack Guggino, the eye doctor, put his feelings for the man _ who got picked on almost as much as Vinny Testaverde _ up on a sign in front of his South Tampa office. The message on the sign changes regularly. Guggino wishes passers-by Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah and Happy Easter. He has announced his parents' wedding anniversary, the engagements of some of his staff members.

On Jan. 26, the day after Dilfer and the Bucs parted ways, the sign changed again:

"Good luck, Trent Dilfer. We'll miss you," the sign read.

Yes, and in a way most of us never realized.