TAMPA, Fla. -- I remember precisely where I was the moment Lee Roy Selmon was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I was standing outside a hotel ballroom in Miami in 1995. It was the day before the Super Bowl. A few minutes after the privileged voters inside the room had voted Selmon in, the door swung open. Out walked Tom McEwen, the legendary former sports editor of The Tampa Tribune.
"He’s in," McEwen said.
For the rest of that afternoon, evening, the media brunch and all during the Super Bowl, I kept seeing writers, league officials, former players and even Ferdie "The Fight Doctor" Pacheco coming up to McEwen and offering congratulations.
The response was the same every time.
"Why are you congratulating me?" McEwen said. "Lee Roy’s the one who got into the Hall of Fame. He’s the one who played the game."
That’s the first story I thought of when I heard Selmon had been hospitalized Friday after suffering a stroke. It kind of sums up the story of the first Buccaneer elected to the Hall of Fame and the first member of the team’s Ring of Honor.
He died Sunday at the age of 56.
A humble, exceedingly gracious man, Selmon never was one of those people who would go around seeking attention or adoration. He simply earned it by his play on the field and the way he carried himself off it -- during and long after his career ended in 1984.
McEwen, a powerful man, might have twisted some arms to get the votes. But Selmon was the one who did the grunt work. He was the one who beat double-teams and chased down quarterbacks every Sunday. He was the one who endured the 0-26 run the Bucs went on as a 1976 expansion team.
He was the one who made the Bucs seem like miracle workers (long before the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars entered the league under a different set of rules in 1995) when they reached the NFC Championship Game in the 1979 season.
Yeah, the 1979 team had some guys like Doug Williams and Jimmie Giles who made some big plays on offense. But John McKay’s first winning team won with defense and Selmon was the center of that.
Selmon still was the center of the team in subsequent years when Williams left and things went bad. He left the game after the 1984 season because of a bad back, but he remained the icon of all icons in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs were bad for the next decade, but fans and the team could always point to Selmon as a point of pride. He stuck around town and stayed active in the community. He eventually joined the staff at the University of South Florida and helped the college start its football program.
Selmon remained an ambassador for the Bucs as the late 1990s arrived and things got better. Even if you weren’t in Tampa Bay for Selmon’s playing days, you knew who he was. There’s a Tampa expressway named after him and I have to drive by one of the restaurants that bears his name to get just about anywhere.
I’ll think of him every time I go by that restaurant and I’ll have one lasting memory of the man. Last November, Selmon was a guest speaker at a luncheon to honor McEwen at Saint Leo University.
At one point, Selmon said he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it hadn’t been for McEwen. No doubt, McEwen played a role. But, like McEwen said, Lee Roy was the one who got into the Hall of Fame and he was the one to play the game.
He played it with uncommon grace and dignity and he lived his life that same way. That’s why the legend of Lee Roy Selmon is going to keep lingering in Tampa Bay.