TAMPA — It’s difficult to imagine a certain community icon wearing oil-stained blue overalls or a T-shirt with rolled up sleeves covered in the grime that can only come from a car engine.
It’s easier to envision the affable statesman lifting up a car like a super hero than to envision him sliding under one.
Yet in his earliest days at the University of Oklahoma – long before he donned a Bucs uniform, suited up as a successful banker and eventually grew into the role of University of South Florida football patriarch – Selmon dreamed of becoming a mechanic and running his own shop.
Claybra Selmon, the Pro Football Hall of Famer’s widow, said her husband held that goal when they first met as undergrad Sooners. While he ultimately took a different path in life, she shared the memory to illustrate that Selmon always looked beyond football. The youngest of nine children, Selmon and all his siblings possessed a drive to work hard, be successful and take advantage of all the opportunities a university can grant a student.
“Lee Roy and I both grew up in an era where education, especially in our community, was truly a blessing and one we didn’t take for granted. It was important to both of us.”
Yet Selmon witnessed too many athletes who never prepared for life after sports. Claybra Selmon said even in his earliest days with the Bucs, her husband started mentoring teammates.
“Some of them didn’t know how to make good decisions while they were transitioning from professional sports life in general,” Claybra Selmon said recently. “It saddened him to see players who didn’t have any direction or any goals.”
That desire ultimately led to the creation of the Selmon Mentoring Institute at USF. Lee Roy Selmon had been working with USF athletic department officials to build on the support system it created for athletes, but he never got the chance to see his vision come to fruition.
Claybra Selmon, donors such as Outback co-founders Chris Sullivan and Bob Basham and university officials made it their mission to create a legacy for the star players that would lend true help to the school’s student athletes. Finally launched in 2014, student-athletes can now enroll in a two-credit career development course that culminates with a one-on-one mentoring experience. Selmon meets with the participants at the end of every semester.
On Saturday night, the university staged BullsFest, a sold-out fundraiser backed by the Bucs that drew more than 500 people to the West Club at Raymond James Stadium. Dignitaries included Doug Williams, Charlie Strong, Brian Gregory, outgoing USF president Judy Genshaft and major university donors Pam and Les Muma.
Items for auction included VIP experiences with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Rowdies, an opportunity to attend the 2020 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Busch Gardens and Adventure Island gift packages and numerous vacation destination trips.
More than 100 Bulls have graduated from the program that allows them to engage in one-on-one mentorships with professionals in the Tampa Bay area. Lelo Prado, USF’s deputy athletic director for development, says the goal is to expand the institute so it can include more student-athletes, and eventually endow the financial support needed to provide additional faculty and staff.
Prado said the support lent will go to a program that’s worthy and needed because the transition to careers can be a challenge for student-athletes.
“I think what happens is that the athletes’ schedule is so programmed,” Prado said. “They’re told when to lift, when to eat, when to work out, when to go to study hall. Then once their athletic careers are over, no one is telling you what to do and you have to figure it out.
“The mentors are key. They’re aware of this and the communicate how to handle it.”
USF offensive linemen William Atterbury already has obtained an undergraduate business degree and continues to star on the football team as he works towards a master’s. After going through the mentoring institute, he encourages his fellow USF student-athletes to sign up. Not only did he find value in the lessons – such as creating a five-year plan -- but he mentored with Otis Dixon, a financial planner and former USF football player who just happens to be from his hometown of Clearwater.
He’s also learned more about Lee Roy Selmon.
“The more you look into him, the more you see how intelligent he was not just as a player, but as a man, you can’t help but be inspired,” Atterbury said of Lee Roy Selmon.
Atterbury’s assessment must be music to Claybra Selmon’s ears. Extending Selmon’s legacy and working to ensure more student-athletes follow the path blazed by her late husband. She’s driven to not only help them attain success, but to return as mentors themselves and give back.
It’s a vision we all can embrace.
That’s all I’m saying.
Times Staff Writer Joey Knight contributed to this story. Contact Ernest Hooper at email@example.com. Follow @hoop4you. Sign up for Hooper’s weekly newsletter at https://www.email1.tampabay.com/tbt/tbtreg2.html