Gary Shelton's hardest word: Goodbye

Tampa Bay Times columnist Gary Shelton says Warren Sapp was the funniest he ever covered. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 

Tampa Bay Times columnist Gary Shelton says Warren Sapp was the funniest he ever covered. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Nov. 15, 2014

I always thought the ink would last a lifetime.

I was a newspaperman, after all, born on deadline and delivered at a doorstep. At my core, that is who I was, who I have been since I walked into a newsroom at age 18 and never left.

This is how I spent my lifetime, chasing stories and keeping score, one deadline chasing another until the days became weeks which became seasons which become years. The finest people I knew were sportswriters, and the best storytellers, and none of them ever had a better time doing their job than I did.

Until now.

Until it is time to dim the lights.

This is my final column for the Tampa Bay Times, a newspaper where I have worked for the last 24 years and 10 months. I'll be honest. There have been easier departures. A man doesn't spend all of these words and not stumble upon the final one: Goodbye.

And so I move to a different field. In the coming weeks, I will launch a subscription-based web site, I hope you will join me. We'll look at sports in the Tampa Bay market, sports that vex us and frustrate us, and every now and then, define us.

We have seen some things, you and I. There was the sweet Sunday when the Bucs won the Super Bowl, and the electric night when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup, and the wonderful run by the Rays to the World Series. All three teams were young enough, and skilled enough, that you thought excellence would last for a while. It did not, and there is a lesson for us all there. The good times never last as long as we think.

In the end, however, it is not teams I will remember, or great seasons. It is the people, the subjects of all these stories.

The funniest guy I ever covered was the Bucs' Warren Sapp. Yes, he could be infuriating, too, but no one knew what to do with a decent question better than Warren. I remember having an argument with him once over his place in Tampa Bay. He was convinced people would love to see him go. And some did. But there were other moments, too. I remember his feud with Michael Strahan, for instance, whose Giants had just lost to the Ravens in the Super Bowl. "Tell him," Sapp roared, "that his team lost to Dilfer."

The most talented player I covered was Derrick Brooks. It is almost amusing to think back now that, early in his rookie year with the Bucs, his position coach referred to him as "the worst linebacker prospect I've ever seen." By the time he was finished, no one was more durable than Brooks. No one ran like him. No one cared like him.

The guy who got the most out of what he had was Marty St. Louis. The scouts will tell you that St. Louis had no business becoming a star. Those same scouts will applaud when he walks into the Hall of Fame. Remember his goal that won Game 6 of the Stanley Cup for the Lightning? How could you forget?

The most instinctive player I've ever seen was Ronde Barber. I was in Philadelphia when he returned his interception to clinch the NFC Championship Game. I remember then-general manager Rich McKay in the press box yelling "Run, Ronde, run. Don't ever stop running." In some ways, his team never has.

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The most competitive cuss of them all was John Lynch. He was one of the nicest men ever to play for Tampa Bay, but if you would suggest that the opposing offense was a bag of talent, Lynch's eyes would grow cold. The Bucs defense was pretty good, too, he would remind you.

The finest man I ever covered was Tony Dungy, but I have to be honest. Joe Maddon took a good run at that one.

The best leader, and there have been a lot of them, was Dave Andreychuk, a player who had surrendered stardom to lead his Lightning team to excellence. Yeah, it was a good trade.

The most disappointing player in Tampa Bay history was Josh Hamilton. As a kid, he had a rare swagger. Once, when a coach was running through the signals, Josh looked up and asked, "What's the signal for home run?" But Hamilton ran into drug problems, and his stardom was delayed until he was elsewhere.

Evan Longoria probably has had the largest portion of star quality of any athlete in Tampa Bay. Give the guy a proper stage, and he'll rise to it. Remember his home run in Game 162? What has been more dramatic than that?

No one was more beloved, or had more effort, than Mike Alstott. Once, when the stadium replay board was showing one of his runs, the crowd began to count the number of broken tackles. "Six … seven … eight."

There was Lee Roy Selmon, the gentlest soul ever to play here. There was Warrick Dunn, the most sincere. There was James Shields, the bulldog. There was Wade Boggs, the professional. There was Vinny Lecavalier, who was magic for a while.

There were tough columns, too. Once, when Jon Gruden's Bucs were off to an 0-4 start, I wrote that the union between him and general manager Bruce Allen just wasn't working. That day, the Bucs won, and in the locker room, one of Gruden's lackies approached me and said, "I read what you wrote today. It was lies! Everything in that article was lies."

I looked at him. "I think I got the part about 0-4 right," I said.

I visited Booker Reese in prison. I visited Randy Grimes at the drug rehab facility where he almost died. I walked out of the stadium with Bobby Bowden after his final game.

I interviewed Dan Johnson of the Rays while someone poured champagne on my head, and the whole time I was thinking, "Not on my tape recorder." I was there when Phil Esposito opened the doors for the Lightning. I was there when Vince Naimoli turned out the lights for the final time as owner of the Rays. I was there when they shut down the Big Sombrero.

Tampa Bay was my yard. It was an honor to spend all of these mornings with you. It was the best job anyone ever had.

I hope you had a little fun, too.