Goodbye, Great One

Hall of Famer Selmon was a man among men.

I remember seeing him take the field at Tampa Stadium, his big orange jersey brilliant under a merciless sun. His college coach, Barry Switzer, said he was the best player he’d ever seen, and claimed he’d never had a bad game. Expectations were high. That was in the mid-to-late 70s, back when life was ageless and verdant, and back when a hint of the Old South still lingered in the crannies of my small Florida town. The Bucs were to be a ready-made punchline for every comic running low on late-night fodder, but the heralded first-round pick proved a soothing balm on that lingering wound. Sitting high up in the Big Sombrero—resigned to wilting heat and losing ways—I watched an orange-clad titan single-handedly defy his team’s blundering profile with superhuman play.

He was a revelation, a wonder. At the snap he morphed into a whirling orange blur, an unstoppable force who obliterated blockers and mauled hapless passers. Opponents would double-team him on practically every play, but all for naught. They ran at him and he stacked their futile bodies like cord-wood, they ran away from him he closed on their tailbacks like a missile. Given the dearth of talent on those early Buccaneer teams he saw more devoted blockers than any player of his era—or possibly any era—with no noticeable effect, save the dejected faces of opposing coordinators. Scores of NFL coaches, players and analysts attest that he was the best ever at his position. I confess brimming levels of bias, but I certainly agree…

One of his peers, offensive tackle Ted Albrecht of the Chicago Bears, best summed up Selmon’s impact when he said:

“At halftime I told the coach my deepest secrets. I said I never wanted to be buried at sea. I never wanted to get hit in the mouth with a hockey puck, and I didn’t want to go out and play that second half against Lee Roy Selmon.”

Above and beyond his gridiron exploits, he was the man we aspire to be, the stripe of individual we point to when instructing our children on the incongruous principles of humility and toughness. He was a kind assassin, a gentle storm, a soft walk and a very big stick. He was the rare player who humiliated his opponents, helped them up and sent them back to the huddle with a genuine smile. He was loved and he was respected. He was a man among men, a quality that ultimately dwarfs his gridiron artistry.

Lee Roy Selmon died young this past Sunday, and his passing stirs echoes of a bygone era. Forever gone are the creaking bleachers, the torrents of afternoon floodwater, the garish cream-sicle duds, the post-church pomp, the floppy hat and the witty one-liners. And with them goes a Sunday-afternoon innocence as potent to the senses as the smell of fresh-cut grass, laid waste by free agency, incessant greed, prima donna antics and the relentless march of time. I’m a fan now and ever, but the game will never fuse in my bones as it did three decades ago when, records aside, Sunday afternoons were marked by the selfless, matchless play of #63. To me and I suspect to many others, Leroy was and always will be the game of football. He was a role model worth emulating, a bonding element between a father and a son, a hero worth his salt.

I owe him a grass-stained debt of gratitude, one I’ll attempt to repay by keeping his memory free from tarnish. If you were fortunate enough to witness his play and his life, I trust you’ll do the same.

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