April 23, 2010

1986: Lee Roy Selmon Announces Retirement

It was not a surprise on April 23, 1986 when star DE Lee Roy Selmon announced his retirement. He had not appeared in a game since the Pro Bowl following the ’84 season where he suffered a herniated disk in his back. Selmon was forced to sit out all of 1985, hoping that surgery would not be necessary and that he would be able to return to action. But once he received word that even with surgery there was no certainty of playing again, he made the decision to retire. At the press conference, he said “I’m just thankful I was able to play ten years.”

It had actually been just nine years encompassing 121 regular season games, but a great nine years. Selmon’s retirement marked a significant milestone in Buccaneers history. He was the first player ever drafted by Tampa Bay with the initial overall pick as an expansion team in 1976 (the other new team that year, the Seattle Seahawks, lost a coin toss to the Bucs and chose second). His college credentials at Oklahoma were outstanding, where he had won both the Outland and Lombardi trophies for his play on the line. Head Coach John McKay was looking to emphasize defense in the new team’s first draft, and going with the best defensive player available made sense. In the second round, Tampa Bay picked Selmon’s older brother (by 11 months), Dewey, a defensive tackle (he was moved to linebacker in his second pro season); the two had played together in high school and college, and would now have the opportunity to do so again in the NFL.

The Buccaneers got off to a rough start, even for an expansion team, losing all 14 games in ’76 and the first 26 altogether before finally winning the last two contests of the 1977 season. The defense was the league’s worst in ’76, not helped by Selmon missing half of the campaign due to a knee injury.

The team began to improve in 1977, and Selmon was a key contributor. When they won their first game, at New Orleans, Selmon had three sacks (not yet an official statistic) and 12 tackles. The big breakthrough came in 1979, however, as Tampa Bay went 10-6 and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship game.

The overall performance of the defense was significant to the club’s success in ’79, and not surprisingly, Selmon led the way. Playing at right defensive end in a 3-4 alignment, he recorded 11 sacks (unofficially). He also had 117 tackles and forced three fumbles (with two recoveries, one for a touchdown). For his efforts, Selmon was a consensus first team All-Pro selection, went to the Pro Bowl for the first of six consecutive years, and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Brother Dewey was part of an outstanding group of linebackers that included Richard Wood at the other inside spot and David Lewis and Cecil Johnson on the outside. The secondary was the most effective in the league and consisted of cornerbacks Jeris White and Mike Washington and safeties Mark Cotney and Cedric Brown. The other two starting defensive linemen, nose tackle Randy Crowder and left end Wally Chambers, rounded out the solid unit that ranked first overall in the NFL – they gave up the fewest points (237), total yards (3949), and passing yards (2076).

The Buccaneers failed to sustain the success of 1979 – they sank back to 5-10-1 in ’80 and made it to the postseason just twice more during Selmon’s career.

The 6’3”, 250-pounder was often double- and triple-teamed by opposing offenses, yet his speed, strength, and agility made him an impact player in any event. In 1980, with offenses concentrated on stopping him, Selmon was credited with 72 quarterback “hurries” to go along with nine sacks. In all, he was credited with 78.5 sacks and 380 “hurries” over the course of his career.

Selmon received first or second team All-Pro recognition in five of his nine seasons, and was an All-NFC choice (first or second team) after seven of them. It was hardly surprising that the Buccaneers retired his number 63; he also became the first inductee into the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium in 2009. Selmon was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995.

Brother Dewey also played well for Tampa Bay (he was named team MVP in 1978) until a thigh injury suffered in training camp knocked him out for the 1981 season; he was traded to San Diego, where he played one year in ’82 prior to retiring.

Pleasant and soft-spoken off the field, Selmon was a terror on it. As Coach McKay put it at the time of Selmon’s selection to the Hall of Fame, “He was almost unblockable. I can’t imagine anyone being better. He was the heart of our team. At a time when we were pretty fair, he was what made us pretty fair.” Doug Williams, the club’s quarterback during much of Selmon’s career, added, “If he had been in a four-man front, they would have banned Lee Roy from the game.”

Maybe the most telling tribute came from an opposing offensive tackle, Ted Albrecht of the Bears, who once told an assistant coach at halftime of a game against the Bucs, “There are four things in the world I don’t want to do under any circumstance. Number one, I don’t want to milk a cobra. Number two, I don’t want to be buried at sea. Number three, I don’t want to get hit in the head with a hockey puck. And number four, I don’t want to play the second half against Lee Roy Selmon.”