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Bucs, Bulls, buddies have been blessed

First in a series celebrating African-Americans who have had a positive influence in Tampa Bay sports.

Published February 1, 2004

Lee Roy Selmon's matriculation in Tampa Bay was a golden strike of pure good fortune. In the first NFL draft in which the Buccaneers participated, the All-Everything collegian from Oklahoma was available.

Tampa Bay got lucky, and in the nearly three decades since, Selmon has been our noble statesman. He is perhaps the area's most valued, humble and admired citizen.

Selmon's story, however, is grounded in faith, not luck, and he does not take such matters lightly.

"I remember saying a little prayer when I was very young out on the farm," said Selmon, the youngest of nine siblings raised in rural Eufaula, Okla. "I remember a commercial coming on this little black-and-white television we had. It was in the winter time, and this commercial was about vacationing in sunny Florida. I remember seeing the images and thinking, "God, I'd love to be in Florida.' It was cold!

"I think about that now, and who would have thought that 15 years later I'd be drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and I would live here for 28 years? You think about that, and it probably wasn't you; it was opportunities that were whispered in a prayer to God by a little boy, and life took a course that brought that prayer to reality."

Reality became Selmon's stature as the most recognizable and influential African-American in the Tampa Bay area, though his deep-seated humility would never allow him to acknowledge it.

* * *

Selmon, 49, arrived in 1976 as the instantly anointed cornerstone of an NFL expansion franchise. He was 21, fresh out of college and thrust into position as the face of football in Tampa Bay.

It was a daunting challenge; he was more than up to it.

"Right after he got here they sent us to a (bank) opening, a three-hour gig," recalled WFLA-AM 970 radio host Jack Harris, who was a Bucs announcer during the early years. "The Bucs were new, and they were a big thing, and we had an enormous turnout. For the whole three hours people stood in line and came up to Lee Roy, and kids sat on his lap, and he signed autographs, and everyone told him what the Bucs needed to do.

"And (Selmon) was non-stop. It was incredible. He went without a break, and it even ran a little long. It was astounding for an athlete of that magnitude to be so genuine with the people, and I soon found out that was him.

"That's how he always is."

"God Bless Mr. and Mrs. Selmon" was a popular refrain as Selmon and his brothers developed into football stars. Lucious Sr. and Jessie Selmon did much more than create nine children, though. They reared a tight-knit, loving family and, their youngest says, instilled character.

"We were growing up in a small town, out on a farm, so my parents, first and foremost, were very influential," said Selmon, whose brother, Dewey, is a year older and played with him at Oklahoma and with the Bucs. "The things they taught, the example they set, it's had a great impact. They had a solid, strong work ethic and showed a lot of love for their children. It really exemplified what commitment and sacrifice were all about. Honesty and integrity and doing things the best that you can, and with your foundation a strong belief in God."

Commitment, sacrifice, honesty, integrity - all are commonly uttered when describing Selmon. He has touched lives as the benevolent Hall of Fame football player, successful banker and restaurateur, charitable citizen and trail-blazing USF athletic director.

(He recently took a six-week sabbatical from USF because of a private health matter.)

"I think whoever defined the essence of character, they must have had Lee Roy Selmon in mind," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "It's a guy who's just all dignity and class and skill. He's just a very special human being. I know he's really popular there, and he's extremely popular here."

When a back injury ended Selmon's football career before the 1985 season - a defensive end, he has the most sacks, 781/2, in Bucs history - he and wife Claybra, a nurse at the USF Student Health Center, decided to stay in the area. Their three children already were born, and Selmon had begun his banking career a few years earlier.

With his trademark grace, patience and resolve, Selmon's influence expanded.

"(Times columnist) Hubert Mizell put it best," Harris said. "He said "Lee Roy Selmon would have been great if he'd never even played football.' "

* * *

Those who don't know Selmon know his name, from his popular, eponymous restaurants and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. The legions who personally know him laud his character and humility.

"Lee Roy exemplified what I aspired to be: having the respect of the community, being a class individual and being a professional," said Martin Mayhew, who first met Selmon when he signed with the Bucs in 1993 and is senior vice president of the Detroit Lions. "He impressed me with his intelligence and the way he carried himself.

"I went to speak to a youth group at his church one time, but he wasn't a guy who made demands on you because he was Lee Roy Selmon. He was a humble guy, and when he was approaching me he was unsure if it was something I would want to do. But of course it was really an honor."

Football helped forge Selmon's foundation.

"Sports gave me a snapshot of what the bigger picture is all about: working well with leadership, the coaches, and with your colleagues, the players," Selmon said. "Putting the team before self, preparing to help the team in whatever way you can.

"Sports gives you opportunities, to go through ups and downs and wins and losses. It builds character. It pushes you to work harder, to strive to do better to meet the team goals. Those are the same types of principles we all really live by in any organization."

He scoffs at the suggestion he is a celebrity, or that it can be particularly challenging to be Lee Roy Selmon.

"I live in the community; I don't see myself as a celebrity," Selmon said. "I go around just like anyone else. Sometimes people approach and say, "I remember when you used to play with the Bucs.' I just thank God for it. You hope it can be a positive experience for someone. If they say a kind word I'm thankful, or I'm hopeful my kindness left a positive impression on them.

"At the end of the day when you boil all things together, we're all created by God equally, and during this life our main purpose is to work together and love one another and try to live life in a positive way."

* * *

Children and the elderly are Selmon's favorite causes, and he has helped charitable endeavors such as the Children's Cancer Center, Ronald McDonald House, Special Olympics, NAACP and the United Negro College Fund.

"I have met Lee Roy Selmon several times," Gov. Jeb Bush said. "I respect enormously what he has accomplished and how much he has given back."

Selmon said the Tampa Bay area has made significant racial progress.

"I've seen some of the challenges met in our community," he said. "I've seen changes in areas such as the Gasparilla parade, the inclusiveness there, just to mention one.

"I'm glad to see the community reach out and be willing to change and not fight hard against it, but to be receptive and open, to listen to why and to see the value. I'm glad to see those changes happening.

"What we all have been fighting for is to benefit our community, our state and our country by valuing diversity and equal opportunity.

"All that really means is reaching and searching for talented individuals. And when an opportunity is created, you will have a diverse, talented pool to draw from and select."

Selmon is as grateful to Tampa Bay as Tampa Bay is to him.

"I'm thankful and humbled by all that has occurred in my life.

"I know it's the good Lord looking out and blessing me and allowing me to meet so many wonderful people who have touched my life and helped me along the way.

"We always have to look forward to teaming up and working with each other and ensuring the community is the best it can be for all of its citizens."

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