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  1. Opinion

Henderson: Once-thundering Vince Naimoli still speaks loudly through gifts

Vince Naimoli Jr., shown being honored last week at the University of South Florida, has bestowed big gifts on the school and on the University of Tampa.
Published Apr. 21, 2017

People who know Vince Naimoli only as the thundering and head-shaking owner of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays didn't get the whole story. There are two sides to this man, and the one who isn't talked about nearly enough is what I want to share today.

It's the side with a 24-carat heart, the side that only wants to help. It's the side that pushed a kid who grew up poor in Paterson, N.J., to donate large sums of money — including a $1 million gift in the last few days to the University of South Florida athletic department. USF called the gift "transformational."

And it's the side that called me last May a couple of days after The Tampa Tribune went out of business, just to see if I was OK. That meant a lot because these days, Vince himself is not OK.

He spends his days in an assisted living facility in north Tampa, his body ravaged by a neurological disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). It has left Vince unable to care for himself.

That's almost impossible to comprehend.

Lenda, his wife of nearly 36 years, helps get him in and out of bed. She cuts his food for him. She helps him stand, although that now takes more than one person.

He won't get better.

"It hurts to see this, but we don't get to choose how we leave this world," Lenda told me. "But Vince has never said, 'Why me?' He has such determination. His mind is sharp, but he is just trapped in his body."

He was diagnosed in 2014 at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville after a series of problems that included crashing and totaling his car. The issues seemed manageable at first, but they've gotten much worse.

Vince's mind remains alert and active, though. That's what drew him to USF Senior Associate Director of Athletics Andrew T. Goodrich — well, that and the fact they both have ties to Notre Dame. Vince does love his alma mater.

"We were having lunch one day and Vince asked what we needed," Goodrich said. "He said he wanted to help. And thing about it is, he asked for nothing in return."

That was in 2014, and although Vince had been diagnosed he didn't show a lot of outward symptoms. That changed dramatically by the time the gift was formally announced at the recent USF spring football game.

One thing hasn't changed, though.

"Everything Vince did, he did because he wanted the best for the community," said former Rays media director Rick Vaughn, who currently leads Joe Maddon's Respect 90 Foundation.

"The fact is, we wouldn't have Major League Baseball without Vince, and we should recognize that he has remained a part of our community and has generously given back before, during and after his tenure with the franchise."

That need to help is why he also gave large sums of money to the University of Tampa athletic program. Think about that. The man has donated millions to two schools he never attended.

He still holds four season tickets at Tropicana Field, but he can only watch games now on TV; the tickets are given to friends. They plan to treat staff members at the assisted living facility to a suite one night soon at a Rays game.

So, I asked Lenda what she would want people to know about her husband. The two of them have been inseparable since they met all those years ago. She was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines and Vince was traveling non-stop to establish a career.

She thought for a moment.

"He is a complex person," she said. "With the Rays, he came across as a hardnose, but he loves the community. He wants to help young people. He has a big heart — a really big heart. He really is a big teddy bear."

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