Back in the 1980’s, one of my writing heroes, Lewis Grizzard, wrote a book titled, “Elvis Is Dead, And I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.”
Sunday night as I sit there numb, thinking about the death of number 63 – Buccaneers legend Lee Roy Selmon – from a stroke he suffered on Friday, I would like to steal Grizzard’s title, but change the name “Elvis” to “Lee Roy.” My head spins, my heart hurts and I have tried to blink myself from this bad dream.
As a person who has followed the Buccaneers since a child, the passing of my hero breaks my heart. The first game I ever saw the Buccaneers play on television was Tampa Bay’s first franchise win in 1977 against the New Orleans Saints. Not knowing the history of the 26-game losing streak, I assumed this was a pretty good football team. Little did I know the heartbreak I would suffer over the years watching this team.
But even in those tough years there were always a few bright spots.
The 1978 team got better and by 1979 the Buccaneers would host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC divisional playoffs at the old Tampa Stadium. I remember that Saturday afternoon vividly as our television at our home had recently broken. Not wanting to miss this historic moment, my Dad and I walked down to my grandmother’s house and watched the game from there. Ricky Bell ran for 142 yards, Jimmie Giles caught a touchdown pass and Lee Roy Selmon became a permanent fixture on Ron Jaworski’s back that day.
My wife and I bought my grandmother’s house after her passing in 1995, and as I write this, I sit in the same living room where I witnessed that initial win in franchise history, and where two years later I saw the Buccaneers hand the Eagles a 24-17 defeat.
A week later, the Los Angeles Rams came to town and left with a 9-0 victory and a ticket to the Super Bowl. I was crushed.
But from that moment on when I played football in the yard [nearly every afternoon] I was always Doug Williams on offense and Lee Roy Selmon on defense. My friends were Jack Youngblood, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach or Mean Joe Greene, but I was always a Buccaneer. I took plenty of ridicule over the years but it never wavered my choice to be a Buccaneer. As Bucs fans, I’m sure you can relate.
In 1981, my Dad took me to my first Buccaneers game on November 14 against the Denver Broncos for my 11th birthday. Selmon played in that game but unfortunately the Buccaneers defense couldn’t contain a little known backup at the time by the name of Steve Deberg and Denver won 24-7.
In 1984, I was in the stands for the final game of John McKay’s Buccaneers coaching career. Little did the 60,000 or so in attendance know but it would prove to be Selmon’s final home game as a Buccaneer, too. A herniated disk in his back suffered in the Pro Bowl led to his retirement and a Tampa Bay legend was gone from the gridiron.
In the mid 1990’s, I was a flunky producer/reporter for Tampa’s WFNS 910 a.m. – the area’s first sports radio station. While I earned a paycheck punching buttons in the studio I used my press pass to get into Buccaneers’ practices at the old One Buc Place. I would pretend I was a big shot, but I did my reporting on my own time and dime.
One afternoon while the Buccaneers were practicing I was standing on the back patio at the team’s antiquated facility off of Westshore Boulevard and noticed a large shadow cast over the concrete porch. A little intimidated, I walked over and introduced myself to Lee Roy Selmon.
We spent the next 15 minutes talking about his Buccaneers days, and his new job with the University of South Florida. He didn’t know me, nor even asked me whom I was working for. And for those 15 minutes I was treated as if I were Charlie Rose, Chris Mortensen, Larry King or one of the world’s great interviewers. I found that old cassette taped interview just a few weeks ago and listened to it. It will always be a treasure to me.
In 2009, I was a struggling free-lance writer but convinced my wife to let me spend some money to take my son to the Packers-Bucs game where Selmon would be inducted into Tampa Bay’s Ring of Honor. My son, who was eight at the time, never saw Selmon play but he had heard me talk about the legend. As Selmon spoke that day, tears filled my eyes. My son looked up, maybe a little embarrassed at his dad crying, but I was not ashamed that afternoon nor am I as tears fall writing this story.
On Saturday afternoon I was at One Buccaneer Place for the team’s special teams practice, and after getting my work done I decided to stop by St. Joseph’s hospital for an update on Selmon. Top columnist Joey Johnston of the Tampa Tribune was there in the ICU waiting room and we spent the afternoon into the evening trying to gather information as best as we could, while at the same time respecting the family’s privacy.
As the afternoon became evening, and after watching members of the family shuffle in and out of the waiting room, you could tell by their body language, things were not well. Holding out hope for any encouraging word, I still had the uneasy feeling things may not work out well for the 56-year old Selmon, whose stroke was considered to be quite serious.
As I made my way out of the hospital I walked down the hall one more time. I could see the family gathered at the end of the hall. As much as I wanted information for the news story it was, I turned around and silently said a prayer for Selmon and his family. Journalism would have to wait.
My best friend, Spencer Robinson, and I talked Sunday evening after the news came out. Robinson told me about a time back in the late 1970’s when Selmon came to a local bank in Lakeland for an autograph appearance, and his father took Robinson and his younger brother to wait for an hour in line to get a photo.
“This isn’t right,” Robinson said. “Lee Roy meant too much to be gone too soon. He was my hero, but even more so, my father’s hero. It hurts me that he is gone, but I hurt more for my Dad because his hero is gone.”
Today the tributes will start in print and on television. I imagine the Buccaneers will wear a 63 patch on their jersey or sticker on their helmet this season. A moment of silence will probably be held before next Sunday’s game against the Lions, and there will undoubtedly be some sort of mention or tribute to Selmon at the throwback game later this fall when former Tampa Bay tight end Jimmie Giles, a teammate of Selmon’s, will be inducted into the Bucs’ Ring of Honor. Fittingly, Selmon, the franchise’s only Pro Football Hall of Famer, was the first Ring of Honor inductee in 2009.
But whatever the tribute is, it won’t be enough. Like my friend said, he had too much left to offer. But as I get older it becomes more and more apparent that sometimes life just isn’t fair. Fifty-six just doesn’t seem old to me.
As my son went to bed last night I hugged him a little harder and I told my wife I love her a little louder. I’ll pray for comfort for Selmon’s family. And I’ll wonder why him, why now?
And to paraphrase the great Grizzard with some liberties, “Lee Roy Is Gone, And I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself.”
Rest in peace, Gentle Giant.