Upon his retirement three years ago, longtime local sports-operations extraordinaire Rick Nafe used the occasion to tap into his seemingly bottomless reservoir of zany anecdotes.
Nafe told a reporter about an incident prior to the 1984 USFL title game at the old Tampa Stadium, when he was entrusted with a rare Krugerrand to be used for the coin toss. When a league official came to collect it, Nafe — feigning embarrassment — explained he mistakenly had inserted it into a soda machine.
He then clung to that story for several seconds, just long enough to make the official go pale, before handing him the coin.
“He was quite a personality,” USF athletic director Michael Kelly said.
In a sense, that 40-year-old incident captured the essence of Nafe: mischievous, dutiful, detailed, irreverent.
And on the local sports landscape, an absolute jewel.
“He was a funny guy,” said longtime friend Jim McVay, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Bowl (formerly known as the Outback Bowl). “That was part of who he was. He had a great combination of being humorous, smart, hard-working, good-hearted. He’s everything you can think of that’s good.”
Nafe, a prominent behind-the-scenes executive in the sports market for nearly 40 years, died Thursday night, his wife, Dana, posted on Facebook. He was 70 and passed away at St. Joseph’s Hospital North in Lutz. No public cause of death was given.
A key force in management and operations of the stadiums where the Bucs and Rays played, Nafe was one of only two facility managers to have hosted a Super Bowl, a World Series and the NCAA Final Four.
“All the (sports) buildings here in this community, whether it be here on this side of the bay or the other side, his fingerprints are on them,” said Mickey Farrell, senior vice president of operations for Raymond James Stadium whom Nafe hired 35 years ago.
“Being around Rick was nothing like being around any other human being. He left you happier than he found you through his humorous musings on situations around him and his take on life.”
Nafe, a Florida State alumnus, joined the Tampa Sports Authority in 1980 as director of operations and stadium director for Tampa Stadium — the Bucs’ home before Raymond James Stadium opened in 1998 — then was promoted to executive director of the TSA in 1992.
Former Bucs general manager Rich McKay said Nafe was a disarming, diplomatic figure amid the dicey negotiations for a new stadium, culminating with a community investment tax — the money going toward the stadium and other public projects — that was narrowly passed by Hillsborough County voters in 1996.
“It was a very tense time,” said McKay, now Falcons president and CEO. “There wasn’t a lot of camaraderie going on, and he played a big part in letting us make our case and begin to negotiate a deal, when I’m not sure if the authority itself — meaning the (Tampa Sports Authority) members — were all enthralled with what we were proposing.
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“But Rick helped us make the table round as opposed to sitting across from each other and making it confrontational. I felt like he did that very well.”
The Bucs released a statement crediting Nafe with playing “a pivotal role in the development and growth of professional sports in Tampa Bay over the past four decades.”
“So much of the early success our area enjoyed in hosting major sporting events can be traced to Rick’s leadership and forward thinking,” the statement said. “He dedicated his career to serving as an advocate for our area sports scene and his presence will be sorely missed.”
Nafe joined the Rays in 1996 as vice president of operations and facilities and worked with them until retiring in 2019.
“Rick Nafe was a longtime, loyal Rays employee and a devoted champion of the Tampa Bay region,” Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. “He would put you at ease in trying times, and his true gift was putting smiles on faces and adding laughter to the world.”
Nafe’s Outback Bowl duties included serving on the game’s board and selection committee, and emceeing countless ancillary bowl-game functions — a duty conducive to his charm and sharp wit.
“His gift is that he was he was a good-hearted person,” said McVay, marketing director of the original Tampa Bay Bandits (1983-1985) and a Nafe acquaintance for roughly 40 years.
“He was a very bright guy. He always volunteered himself. He was a high-profile person in the community who was well known. You knew if you needed something, Rick was one of the first guys that you would engage.”
Nafe also served on the host committee for the 1999 men’s NCAA Tournament Final Four held at Tropicana Field and worked with several civic community organizations. He also held leadership positions with the national Stadium Managers Association.
“(The 1999 Final Four) is when I first got to know him,” Kelly said. “And I always appreciated how, as a complete newcomer to the area and relatively young in the profession, he still obviously brought a lot to the table but also was very accepting and very mentoring in a lot of ways.
“He was really involved in that (event), and that was after his stint with the Tampa Sports Authority, where he was obviously very instrumental in the first Super Bowls that came here.”
In a tweet posted Friday morning, Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins called Nafe “a legend.”
“He was instrumental in so much of what has happened here in the local sports scene,” Higgins said. “Also made a tremendous impact nationally with his work. May he rest in peace.”
In the post announcing her husband’s death, Dana wrote: “He is the greatest gift God ever shared and if there is a stadium (on) the other side, he is there planning a party so all his friends can celebrate.’’
Nafe is survived by his wife and three children, Travis, Parker and Katie.
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