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Bucs, Bulls, buddies have been blessed

First in a series celebrating African-Americans who have had a positive influence in Tampa Bay sports.

Lee Roy Selmon's matriculation in Tampa Bay was a golden strike of pure good fortune. In the first NFL draft in which the Buccaneers participated, the All-Everything collegian from Oklahoma was available.

Tampa Bay got lucky, and in the nearly three decades since, Selmon has been our noble statesman. He is perhaps the area's most valued, humble and admired citizen.

Selmon's story, however, is grounded in faith, not luck, and he does not take such matters lightly.

"I remember saying a little prayer when I was very young out on the farm," said Selmon, the youngest of nine siblings raised in rural Eufaula, Okla. "I remember a commercial coming on this little black-and-white television we had. It was in the winter time, and this commercial was about vacationing in sunny Florida. I remember seeing the images and thinking, "God, I'd love to be in Florida.' It was cold!

"I think about that now, and who would have thought that 15 years later I'd be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I would live here for 28 years? You think about that, and it probably wasn't you; it was opportunities that were whispered in a prayer to God by a little boy, and life took a course that brought that prayer to reality."

Reality became Selmon's stature as the most recognizable and influential African-American in the Tampa Bay area, though his deep-seated humility would never allow him to acknowledge it.

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Selmon, 49, arrived in 1976 as the instantly anointed cornerstone of an NFL expansion franchise. He was 21, fresh out of college and thrust into position as the face of football in Tampa Bay.

It was a daunting challenge; he was more than up to it.

"Right after he got here they sent us to a (bank) opening, a three-hour gig," recalled WFLA-AM 970 radio host Jack Harris, who was a Bucs announcer during the early years. "The Bucs were new, and they were a big thing, and we had an enormous turnout.

For the whole three hours people stood in line and came up to Lee Roy, and kids sat on his lap, and he signed autographs, and everyone told him what the Bucs needed to do.

"And (Selmon) was non-stop. It was incredible. He went without a break, and it even ran a little long. It was astounding for an athlete of that magnitude to be so genuine with the people, and I soon found out that was him.

"That's how he always is."

"God Bless Mr. and Mrs. Selmon" was a popular refrain as Selmon and his brothers developed into football stars. Lucious Sr. and Jessie Selmon did much more than create nine children, though. They reared a tight-knit, loving family and, their youngest says, instilled character.

"We were growing up in a small town, out on a farm, so my parents, first and foremost, were very influential," said Selmon, whose brother, Dewey, is a year older and played with him at Oklahoma and with the Bucs. "The things they taught, the example they set, it's had a great impact. They had a solid, strong work ethic and showed a lot of love for their children. It really exemplified what commitment and sacrifice were all about. Honesty and integrity and doing things the best that you can, and with your foundation a strong belief in God."

Commitment, sacrifice, honesty, integrity _ all are commonly uttered when describing Selmon. He has touched lives as the benevolent Hall of Fame football player, successful banker and restaurateur, charitable citizen and trail-blazing USF athletic director.

(He recently took a six-week sabbatical from USF because of a private health matter.)

"I think whoever defined the essence of character, they must have had Lee Roy Selmon in mind," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "It's a guy who's just all dignity and class and skill. He's just a very special human being. I know he's really popular there, and he's extremely popular here."

When a back injury ended Selmon's football career before the 1985 season _ a defensive end, he has the most sacks, 78{, in Bucs history _ he and wife Claybra, a nurse at the USF Student Health Center, decided to stay in the area. Their three children already were born, and Selmon had begun his banking career a few years earlier.

With his trademark grace, patience and resolve, Selmon's influence expanded.

"(Times columnist) Hubert Mizell put it best," Harris said. "He said "Lee Roy Selmon would have been great if he'd never even played football.' "

Those who don't know Selmon know his name, from his popular, eponymous restaurants and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. The legions who personally know him laud his character and humility.

"Lee Roy exemplified what I aspired to be: having the respect of the community, being a class individual and being a professional," said Martin Mayhew, who first met Selmon when he signed with the Bucs in 1993 and is senior vice president of the Detroit Lions. "He impressed me with his intelligence and the way he carried himself.

"I went to speak to a youth group at his church one time, but he wasn't a guy who made demands on you because he was Lee Roy Selmon. He was a humble guy, and when he was approaching me he was unsure if it was something I would want to do. But of course it was really an honor."

Football helped forge Selmon's foundation.

"Sports gave me a snapshot of what the bigger picture is all about: working well with leadership, the coaches, and with your colleagues, the players," Selmon said. "Putting the team before self, preparing to help the team in whatever way you can.

"Sports gives you opportunities, to go through ups and downs and wins and losses. It builds character. It pushes you to work harder, to strive to do better to meet the team goals. Those are the same types of principles we all really live by in any organization."

He scoffs at the suggestion he is a celebrity, or that it can be particularly challenging to be Lee Roy Selmon.

"I live in the community; I don't see myself as a celebrity," Selmon said. "I go around just like anyone else. Sometimes people approach and say, "I remember when you used to play with the Bucs.' I just thank God for it. You hope it can be a positive experience for someone. If they say a kind word I'm thankful, or I'm hopeful my kindness left a positive impression on them.

"At the end of the day when you boil all things together, we're all created by God equally, and during this life our main purpose is to work together and love one another and try to live life in a positive way."

Children and the elderly are Selmon's favorite causes, and he has helped charitable endeavors such as the Children's Cancer Center, Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, NAACP and the United Negro College Fund.

"I have met Lee Roy Selmon several times," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "I respect enormously what he has accomplished and how much he has given back."

Selmon said the Tampa Bay area has made significant racial progress.

"I've seen some of the challenges met in our community," he said. "I've seen changes in areas such as the Gasparilla parade, the inclusiveness there, just to mention one.

"I'm glad to see the community reach out and be willing to change and not fight hard against it, but to be receptive and open, to listen to why and to see the value. I'm glad to see those changes happening.

"What we all have been fighting for is to benefit our community, our state and our country by valuing diversity and equal opportunity.

"All that really means is reaching and searching for talented individuals. And when an opportunity is created, you will have a diverse, talented pool to draw from and select."

Selmon is as grateful to Tampa Bay as Tampa Bay is to him.

"I'm thankful and humbled by all that has occurred in my life.

"I know it's the good Lord looking out and blessing me and allowing me to meet so many wonderful people who have touched my life and helped me along the way.

"We always have to look forward to teaming up and working with each other and ensuring the community is the best it can be for all of its citizens."

NAME: Lee Roy Selmon.

BORN: Oct. 20, 1954, Eufaula, Okla.

RESIDENCE: Odessa.

FAMILY: Wife Claybra, daughter Brandy, sons Lee Roy Jr. and Christopher.

COLLEGE: Defensive lineman, Oklahoma, 1973-75. All-American, Outland and Lombardi Trophy winner, GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame.

NFL: Defensive end, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1976-84. Four-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowl selection, 1979 NFL defensive player of the year, Pro Football Hall of Fame.

AFTER FOOTBALL: Began banking career at First Florida in 1978, was named bank vice president in 1989. Joined USF athletic department in 1993, became athletic director in 2001.

So who is Lee Roy Selmon, really?

His influence on the Tampa Bay community has been felt far and wide. Those who know him well describe a gentle, distinguished man of unwavering faith and uncompromising integrity. Nine who know Selmon best shared their thoughts about him with staff writer Pete Young. Here are excerpts from their responses:

DOUG WILLIAMS

Grambling football coach and former Bucs teammate

"The first time I met him was a story in itself. I was the (Bucs') No. 1 pick, and after I was drafted they took us all to Sarasota. I had a chance to meet Lee Roy, and all I was thinking was, he was at Oklahoma, he had been the No. 1 draft pick and how tough he was when he sacked the quarterback. I was looking for this mean and ferocious quarterback killer. I was (expecting) this rough voice, "Hey man.' But when I met him he shook my hand, and he says, "Hey guy, how are you doing?' And I'm thinking, "Oh Lord.' I'm saying, "That's Lee Roy Selmon?' The guy's as nice as pie. I always respected Lee Roy Selmon from Day One; he was one of the nicest guys you'd ever meet. If you know Lee Roy and his character and the type of person he is, you'd never have thought he'd be that type of player."

MICHAEL RIERSON

USF vice president for advancement

"One time Lee Roy, (USF president Judy Genshaft) and I went to visit a university donor at their home. Well, we got the dates mixed up somehow, and the donor wasn't home when we arrived. One of his children answered the door and let us in. We went in and sat down at the kitchen table, the three of us and the young boy. He was probably about 10, and he wanted so much to talk to Lee Roy. It was like Santa had arrived in October. He was asking him about playing for the Bucs, and Lee Roy was asking him about his homework. Lee Roy was so patient and funny, he said, "Let's call up your dad and find out where he is.' He wasn't interested in leaving _ "Oh, it's a scheduling mix-up, let's go.' _ he was interested in talking with him. He was so gentle with the young man and caring and giving."

DON BARR

USF tennis coach

"In the spring of 2001, I had a heart attack during the Miami match. I was in the university hospital for about two weeks; I had a quadruple bypass done. He visited at least three times; it might have been even more than that. And it wasn't just in and out. He stayed for quite a while and we talked. He just reassured me. He said that right now the main thing is your health; don't worry about tennis. When you get back on your feet and come back, your job's right here and we're supporting you. He was more concerned about me and my health. That shows quite a bit, when an athletic director has the pressures that he has, that shows his character. And I want to do that in return for him now (during Selmon's health-related six-week sabbatical). The other thing that really showed (his character) was when I lost my son, in '95. I remember him being there and giving reassurance. He came to the funeral and had some kind words. That's the first-class person he is. My son died suddenly. ... Lee Roy assured me to take as much time as I needed. He was an assistant (athletic director) then, but he was there and very, very supportive."

CHRIS SULLIVAN

Business partner and Outback Steakhouse CEO

"He's just a great human being. He's always handled himself with such grace. He's so humble, but at the same time he was one of the great athletes ever to come through. He's always got that great, infectious smile and soft way about him. They've got a highway named after him! I can't think of anyone more liked and respected.

"And he's the worst golfer I've ever seen, but he still always keeps a smile on his face. We've played a couple of times. He's obviously spent a lot more time on football and basketball then he ever has at golf."

JACK HARRIS

Local radio host and former Bucs announcer

"I was driving through Miami one weekend, and I got on the Don Shula Expressway. I thought, what an incredible honor, and it made me think of Lee Roy Selmon. When I came back I said, "We need to push to get something really significant named after Lee Roy Selmon.' At first I was thinking the Veterans Expressway, not the Crosstown. We got on the air and decided to approach it that way. We said, you know what, Lee Roy Selmon has done so much for this community, we need to honor him, and I talked about the Shula Expressway and so on. Well, we got a call from (Sen. John Grant, R-Tampa), who was a state senator then. He called us, and we put him on the air, and the rest is history. He said, "I think that's a great idea, I'm going to take it to the legislature. . . . Lee Roy of course was very humble, saying, "Shucks, you shouldn't have done it.' I've never, ever known any person of his star magnitude who had that kind of a demeanor. To me he is in a category of sainthood. From the outside he's flawless. When you're around somebody long enough, anybody, you find a flaw. But that never happened with Lee Roy. The guy is as close to perfection as any human being can get."

JUDY GENSHAFT

USF president

"When we visited the presidents of the Big East universities, they were very interested in programs that placed a high value on integrity. They kept stressing that point. Then Lee Roy spoke. He talked about student-athletes and how much he cared about them as people. He said he thought it was important for them to work hard and follow the rules because that's where their future was. Lee Roy and I have always made a good team, but that moment probably illustrates that better than any other. The Big East officials were clearly impressed, and they told us they were confident in the leadership at USF. I saw firsthand how Lee Roy's character, integrity and leadership made a difference."

JOE CASTIGLIONE

Oklahoma athletic director

"There simply isn't a player or coach that has more respect of the people in Oklahoma than Lee Roy Selmon. It's really his whole family; they're all fantastic people. It's really a great American story. I would put Lee Roy Selmon amongst the most impressive human beings I've ever met in my life. That's how highly I regard him. I run short of superlatives when I try to describe Lee Roy Selmon. He's certainly one of the most accomplished people we have seen but definitely one of the most humble. It's not surprising to see how and why people flock to him. (In 2002 Selmon was honored at the South Florida-Oklahoma football game in Norman, Okla.) That standing ovation, it made the hair on your spine stand up. With Lee Roy, it was their love pouring out. I think of it today, and I still get chills. People didn't want to let it go, and Lee Roy is saying, "Oh, they don't have to do that.' He's so humble. It's truly an endearing quality. He doesn't want people to do anything special. He's grateful, but he wants to put the spotlight on somebody else."

JIM LEAVITT

USF football coach

"He is just an outstanding man. Sometimes we (joke around) ... Lee Roy and I were driving together, and he was in the passenger side of the car, and it was right after the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway toll had just jumped, from like 25 cents to 75 cents or something like that. We pulled up to the toll booth, and I said to the (toll collector), "I cannot believe how high this toll has become. What's the deal? Is it because of Lee Roy Selmon? I'm going to find this Lee Roy Selmon and tell him a thing or two.' He was just sitting there next to me completely embarrassed. He didn't know what I was doing. I said, "What the heck is going on? Who is this Lee Roy Selmon?' She said, "Sir, I apologize.' I said, "My goodness, if I could find this Lee Roy Selmon, I'd tell him a thing or two.' Then I pointed to him next to me and told her I had Lee Roy right here, that I was just kidding. He thought I was crazy."

DICK WITTCOFF

Longtime USF athletics booster

"He's an icon. Have you ever met a nicer person? He has never tried to bluff me. I ask him a question, I always get a straight answer. When he doesn't have the answer, he says "Dick, I don't know.' You always respect somebody like that. He never gives you the song-and-dance. At the same time he's such a personal, private-type guy. I know nothing about him. I've only met his wife twice in the years I've been here. I've met his daughter once and junior a few times. He's very protective of his personal life."

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