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Hooper: More than a restaurant, Lee Roy Selmon's was a meeting place

Quotes by Lee Roy Selmon hangs on the ceiling at Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant at the original location on Boy Scout Boulevard in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times
Quotes by Lee Roy Selmon hangs on the ceiling at Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant at the original location on Boy Scout Boulevard in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Jun. 7, 2018

It's where former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Doug Williams had lunch with current Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston.

It's where University of South Florida fans often gathered to watch the program's biggest road games.

It's where folks showed up in their Sunday best to devour Mama's Meat Loaf, Sweet Heat Fried Chicken and Selmon's Melt In Ya' Mouth pecan pie.

It's where I had lunch with my friends every Christmas Eve.

It's Lee Roy Selmon's on Boy Scout Boulevard in Tampa — the original location of the once upstart restaurant chain — and by the end of June, it will have shuttered its doors. Employees learned of the situation Wednesday morning.

It's the end of an era for a place that holds so many memories for so many people.

Owner MVP Holdings has converted a number of Selmon's locations into Glory Days restaurants, but it won't do so with the Boy Scout Boulevard spot. Bloomin' Brands, which owns the land, will build an Outback Steakhouse there.

The chain that paid homage to the community icon who rose to fame as a Buccaneer and grew to become a popular civic leader soon will cease to exist. The remaining Selmon's restaurants, in Sarasota and Fort Myers, will be converted to Glory Days this year.

It's a sad day for me and for those who appreciated dining at one of the few area restaurants co-founded by an African-American. It's certainly a sad day for the legion of fans who not only loved the food but loved the man.

My colleague Martin Fennelly once called Selmon one of the great human beings to grace not only Tampa Bay but anywhere. I wonder if such praise is high enough.

On one of my most recent visits to the restaurant, I dined with someone unaware of Selmon's legacy, and I relished the opportunity to share stories of his greatness. Selmon matched his on-field success as the Bucs' first superstar with his love and kindness off it. He carried his stardom into a successful banking career and then spearheaded the formation of USF's football program.

In 2000, then-Outback Steakhouse Inc. opened the restaurant, with Selmon, a company board member, serving as part owner. It immediately gained attention because of the stature of Selmon, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame whose name adorns Hillsborough's former Crosstown Expressway.

It quickly grew into a favorite among diners because of its Southern comfort-food entrees, many tied to Selmon's Oklahoma roots, like Sweet Heat Fried Chicken, Mama's Meatloaf and Soul Good Pulled Pork. Selmon didn't just lend his name to the restaurant. He loaned his mother's recipes, participated in tastings and contributed branding knowledge.

"It's bittersweet," said Bob Basham, an Outback Steakhouse Inc. co-founder and a partner in Selmon's, then and now. "It obviously brings back a lot of fond memories of Lee Roy and the time he spent in there at all the tastings. It is the end of the era."

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For me, the restaurant holds a special place because for many years a story I wrote about Selmon adorned one of the walls. It hung near the restroom, but that didn't dim my enthusiasm. If anything, I kept wondering why I didn't get the spot above the urinals. Seriously.

Still, I showed the article to anyone who took time to humor me after a meal: my wife, my kids, my friends, the servers — even strangers who walked out of the restroom with me.

When the restaurant was remodeled, the piece came down, but I have it after pleading with a manager. It'll always remind me of how Selmon, with the patience of Job, spent an entire afternoon answering questions from multiple Times reporters for a special section on his 1995 Pro Football Hall of Fame induction.

Selmon's widow, Claybra Selmon, said that since Selmon's death in 2011, it has been difficult for the family to maintain its affiliation with the chain. The conversions honor its wishes.

"On behalf of the entire Selmon family, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Tampa Bay community for all of the amazing love and support they have shown the Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant over the past 17 years," Claybra said in a statement released by MVP Holdings. "The restaurants were indeed a dream that Lee Roy was able to see come to fruition and enjoy for many years before his death. We are so very grateful for the partnership we've shared with MVP and for each and every person who has ever been employed by Selmon's and had a hand in its success.

"Lee Roy's spirit will live on in this great city forever."

Basham said Wednesday the restaurant will now focus on giving Selmon's a proper farewell. Fans who enjoy the memorabilia that make up the restaurant's ambience will have a chance to purchase it at a special event June 25. Proceeds will go to the Selmon Mentoring Institute, a specialized program for USF student-athletes, and customers also will have a chance to make donations to it.

Basham called it a fitting tribute, and even without the restaurant, perhaps memorializing the man and the meals once a year could be a tradition.

What could taste better?

That's all I'm saying.