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Selmon remains hero, class act for Sooners

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

NORMAN, Okla. -- The magnificent journey of Lee Roy Selmon, at least the latest leg of it, began shortly before the game.

He moved slowly through the crowd, talking quietly as he moved beneath the bleachers and through the fans. He was dressed in a dark suit, looking more like a banker than yesterday's hero, and for a moment, no one seemed to recognize him.

It didn't last. Before Selmon could move far enough for a first down, the heads began to turn, and the fans began to nudge each other and point. That's him. That's Lee Roy!

You have never seen such adoration, such awe. Selmon would stop, shake a hand, listen to a memory, and other fans would lean in, just to hear his voice. He would walk another few feet, stop again, smile again.

The fans would reach out and touch his arm, thank him, wish him luck. They would wait turns, one after the other, as if the stadium had turned into a giant receiving line. Selmon would grin, grip, listen as if simply thrilled the fans would remember him.

There were old men, and there were children, and their eyes were the same, all glistening with wonderment. Once in our lives, all of us should have someone look at us that way.

[AP photo]
Former Oklahoma head coach Barry Switzer (from left), Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, South Florida athletic director Lee Roy Selmon, and his brother Dewey Selmon watch a tribute to Lee Roy Selmon on the stadium scoreboard Saturday.

Maybe you thought you knew how much Selmon meant to football, and how much football means to Oklahoma. But it was only in that moment you realized how much they intertwine.

Here, in the flattened plains of Oklahoma, there is Will Rogers, and there is Jim Thorpe, and there is Lee Roy Selmon.

Not necessarily in that order.

The conquering hero returned home Saturday night and, no, his new team didn't conquer. South Florida's Bulls were a plucky opponent for a while, but only a while. By the end, Oklahoma gave USF another dose of what the big time really looks like. Also, a check.

There are nights that are about the players making memories, however, and there are nights that are about the memories that were there when they arrived.

What do you remember about your college days? Selmon remembers two national titles, the Outland, the Lombardi, the No. 1 pick in the draft. He also remembers O'Connell's, the local Irish pub. Being Lee Roy, he came for the burgers.

"I loved the hamburgers," he said. "Of course, I loved McDonald's, too. We didn't have one of those in Eufaula."

In the moments before kickoff, Selmon stood near the south end zone of the stadium and let the years roll back. Thirty years? Can it really be 30 since he arrived on campus, a wide-eyed, overwhelmed kid from a small town 90 miles down the road?

"I remember stretching in that end zone before my first game," he said. "It was the first time I was in front of a crowd that big. My eyes were so wide. I was overwhelmed."

Before long, everyone else was, too. Selmon, with brothers Dewey and Lucious, was a wrecking ball. By the numbers, there have been 138 All-Americans at Oklahoma, 31 first-round draft picks and three Heisman winners. There has been McDonald and Sims and Vessels and Owens and Mildren and Bosworth and Casillas and Pruett.

Then there is Lee Roy.

The best the Sooners had.

Can you ever remember the athletic director of another school getting this kind of welcome? Can you remember another A.D. being honored at the half? Can you remember the home crowd standing, cheering, chanting his name over and over? It was as if Oklahoma fans thought they owed Selmon a memory. He had given them enough.

The funny thing is how all of it seems lost on Selmon. He is perhaps the most genuine, most dignified former star who ever walked. His nature is so placid it amazes you he could conjure such a physical player from it.

Somehow, he made the transition from small town to big time, from unassuming to unstoppable. Now, USF's program tries to retrace his steps.

For all the world, this looked like one of those Julius Caesar nights. You know, half praise and half burial. USF came for one of those high-profile, high-payroll games that small programs leap upon. Because of it, most of us expected a re-enactment of the Trail of Tears.

This was better than that. USF did okay, and give the Bulls credit for being irritated at the loss instead of wrapping themselves in the glory of being respectable. Jim Leavitt was so miffed you would swear he thought the sides were even. But they aren't, and the 17-point spread was about as good as USF had a right to expect.

Games such as this are the hard part of growing up. USF has graduated from expansion to a directional school, but if it's going to keep growing, it's going to take delicate scheduling. It needs some big names, but not so many it is beaten down. There is a balance between rep and ruin. The schools that have made it -- FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech -- have found the proper proportions.

In the years to come, as the Bulls try to catch up to big-time ball, that's the challenge.

The man making the schedules? Lee Roy Selmon.

Maybe you've heard of him.

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