The Sporting News GOAT Mountain project named four pro athletes from the nine cities that have had three of the following four leagues represented for at least 20 years – NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Last summer, we looked at 13 four-sport cities. There were no hard-and-fast rules pertaining to the athletes selected. Our panels of experts considered individual resumes, team success and legacy within the sports landscape of each city. Not every franchise within a city needed to be represented. All sports fans have an opinion on this topic. This is ours.
The Tampa Bay area was doing fine before the Buccaneers came along. There were oranges, beaches, sunshine and all those cool bridges stitching together the entire region. The snowbirds arrived in late autumn and departed in mid-spring, just as they do now.
This is about sports, though, isn’t it? And in that case, there were six weeks worth of not-really-real baseball from the Mets, Pirates, Phillies, Reds and White Sox – and not a lot else. By the mid-1970s, the area had little to call its own, save for a highly competitive soccer team called the Rowdies in a league, the NASL, that was not long for this world.
The “Tampa Bay” area– which comprises the city itself along with communities such as Bradenton, Sarasota, Clearwater and St. Petersburg – was home to about 1.1 million before the National Football League decided in 1974 it was time to expand with a second team in Florida, to join the Miami Dolphins.
The region’s 300 percent growth since has not resulted entirely from the presence of the Bucs, the Lightning and the Rays, the latter two arriving in the 1990s. There is something about being a major-league city, though, that can help keep residents from looking for more interesting environments or drawing in new citizens from elsewhere.
By the time ESPN’s Hall of Fame college basketball analyst Dick Vitale chose to relocate to the region roughly 30 years ago, the Bucs were long established and the two other teams were just getting going. Because he loves sports and loves where he lives, Vitale has become a Tampa Bay superfan, the person the cameras inevitably find when the teams he has adopted inevitably do well.
“I’m truly wrapped up. I believe in supporting the local clubs,” Vitale told SN in 2021. “It’s where I live, and I get to know a lot of the key people who work in these organizations, and they’re good people, and I love supporting them.”
Vitale was a Yankees fan growing up in New Jersey but has become the Rays’ No. 1 fan, and they have delivered him two American League pennants, four AL East division titles and eight playoff appearances since 2008. He has been a season-ticket holder for the Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl in 2002 and 2020. And, though he acknowledges that basketball season interferes with following the Lightning, he is friends with head coach John Cooper, who led the franchise to the second two of the team’s three Stanley Cup victories and heads a franchise that has been among the league leaders in attendance in recent years.
Vitale, who sees a GOAT every time he checks his mirror, knows well what Tampa Bay’s GOAT Mountain selections Lee Roy Selmon, Derrick Brooks, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis have done for the region he calls home.
The four of them “represented our area with excellence in competition plus in many community events over the years,” Vitale told the Sporting News. “They certainly were awesome, baby, and solid-gold PTPers (prime time players).”
Lee Roy Selmon (Buccaneers 1976-84)
No one person turned Tampa into a major-league city, a city of consistent title contenders and frequent champions. Getting that done required rich businessmen, smart sports executives, a legion of great, memorable athletes and a community eager and properly prepared to welcome the alchemy that makes a great sports town.
Every revolution has a first shot, though, and few have had the enduring impact of Lee Roy Selmon’s arrival in the Tampa Bay area. He is continuing to influence the region’s sporting fortunes more than a decade after he left us much too soon.
“He is the iconic player associated with franchise because he was the first ever: He was the first pick of the 1976 draft, and that was before they had the expansion draft,” T.J. Rives, entering his 19th season as the sideline reporter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Radio Network, told the Sporting News. “So the original Buccaneer was Lee Roy Selmon. And it is apropos, because he is going to be forever linked as the guy that helped establish the team.
“Because they were so horrible in the beginning, but he was at the forefront of when it turned around.”
For a while there, Tampa sports fans had trouble recognizing they had entered the major leagues. Sure, the visiting teams brought to town such superstars as Dan Fouts, Walter Payton and Alan Page, but the Bucs were one of the worst expansion teams, ever, in any sport. The New York Mets lost 120 games, or 75 percent of the 1962 baseball season? That was bad. The Bucs didn’t win any games in 1976 – they were 0-14 – and none of the first dozen in 1977. That’s 26 losses in a row.
Selmon played in 20 of those games, but he averaged a sack almost every time out. If Bucs fans stayed focused on No. 63, and not so much the scoreboard, they understood their city was in the big time.
“I will tell you, we were not fans of the Bucs, because they were not a good team. But we were fans of Lee Roy. Lee Roy was special,” Katherine Smith, who grew up in the area and now covers the team as a video journalist for Spectrum Sports, told SN. “We loved him so much as a family we named one of our dogs after him!”
Years later, after Selmon had become athletic director at the University of South Florida, Smith met him at a function – and told him about about the family pooch from when she was growing up. “The look on his face was like, ‘Oh, my God — is he going to call security?’ I wanted him to know he was so beloved. And he was. He was such a bright light in the community, and not just because of what he did on the field. You would see Lee Roy all over town. He would show up at schools, visit the kids. He was such a great ambassador for the team.”
Just before Tampa Bay Coach John McKay plucked the No. 1 college football player for his expansion club, the former Southern Cal coach said he re- membered the preparation he had made before USC faced Oklahoma’s Lee Roy Selmon three years ago.
It was Selmon whom McKay selected first April 8 as the National Football League teams chose 487 players in 17 rounds lasting a record 24 hours, 13 minutes.
“I recall playing Oklahoma,” McKay said, after selecting the 6-2, 260-pounder. “We knew all about Selmon. As I recall, we ran the other way.”
—The Sporting News, April 24, 1976
Today, Smith drives to work daily across the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, a 14-mile stretch of highway through the city of Tampa that was opened in 1987 but wasn’t true completed until presented its current name a dozen years later.
Born in Oklahoma, an All-American who played with the Sooners with brothers Lucious and Dewey, Lee Roy became a Floridian-for-life after being drafted by the Bucs. After retirement, he worked as an executive at the First National Bank of Miami, then went into athletic administration at the University of South Florida. After he became athletic director, he launched the drive to form a varsity football team in 1997 and eventually get the Bulls to Division I Bowl Championship Series status within four years. He died from complications of a stroke a decade later.
His induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame came in 1995, probably overdue for someone who retired in 1984 having reached six Pro Bowls. As Canton-bound team executive Ron Wolf, the Bucs’ first director of football operations, told veteran pro football writer Ira Kaufman, “Never, and I mean never, was Lee Roy Selmon not double-teamed on a snap.”
Selmon was the right end on a 3-4 defensive alignment, and even through all of that attention from blockers, was able to record four double-digit sack seasons – including his eighth year in the league. His dominance helped the Bucs escape that early despair and become the NFL’s most impactful defense by 1979, their fourth season in existence. He was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year. The Bucs made it all the way to the NFC Championship – they brought the conference title game to Tampa, which previously had nothing bigger in town than a Mets-Yanks exhibition.
“Time has marched on, and the diehard, 50-year fans of the franchise know Lee Roy more,” Rives told SN. “But he was a dominant player, and really – this was understood from the beginning – he was a great face of the franchise even on those bad teams.”
|Defensive Player of the Year||1|
|Sacks||78.5 (all-time Bucs leader)|
Derrick Brooks (Buccaneers, 1995-2008)
He was born in Pensacola. He went to college 200 miles east along the panhandle, in Tallahassee. Through an instance of serendipity and football foresight, he was selected in the NFL Draft by Tampa Bay, which another 300 miles south. Derrick Brooks played every home game of his Hall of Fame career, from high school to the NFL, in the state of Florida.
And he would have it no other way.
“The Bucs released him in 2009. They were rebuilding. They dumped Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Ike Hilliard and some other veterans, and they were going to go young. That’s just the way it was in 2009,” Ira Kaufman, columnist for JoeBucsFan.com after years covering the team for the Tampa Tribune, told SN. “Brooks had some teams reach out to him. Bill Belichick was interested, a few other places … the Saints. He said: No, I’m done.
“He didn’t go anywhere. He stayed right here in Tampa.”
In 14 regular seasons with the Bucs, Brooks appeared in 224 games. We will save you the anxiety of doing the math on that: 14 years X 16 games = 224.
“He never missed a single game,” Kaufman said.
“He was cerebral, had incredible work habits, did extensive film study. He was a superior athlete; he had great quickness, great speed. He played the weakside linebacker in the famous ‘Tampa 2’. So he worked off the right shoulder of the right defensive end, which was Simeon Rice for much of that time.
“And he roamed all over the field. I mean, all over the field. You never knew where Brooks would end up. He could end up in the middle sometimes. Sometimes he could end up on the left side of the field. He was great at breaking down the plays before they happened.”
How good is Brooks?
Most personnel men agree he is the best player the Bucs have, more consistent than defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the 1999 Associated Press defensive player of the year and the player whom the Bucs chose 16 spots ahead of Brooks in the 1995 draft.
“We don’t go against a better player in our division than Derrick Brooks,” says Packers general manager Ron Wolf. “He’s the kind of player each and every team dreams of having.”
Though Brooks is a three-time Pro Bowl player who has gained the respect of his opponents, he isn’t as commonly appreciated as some of his peers. The most acclaimed line-backers usually are players like Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas, who terrorized quarterbacks, or intimidators like Dick Butkus and Junior Seau. Brooks is a different breed, more greyhound than Rottweiler.
—The Sporting News, July 31, 2000
There were six outside linebackers chosen for the NFL 100th Anniversary team in 2018, and just being included on that short list ought to tell you what a magnificent player Brooks was between 1995 and 2008. It’s him, Lawrence Taylor, Jack Ham, Ted Hendricks, Bobby Bell, Chuck Bednarik. Talk about elite company.
Brooks was chosen for 11 Pro Bowls, was All-Pro five times, was AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2002, the year the Bucs progressed from four playoff losses in five years to defensively dominant Super Bowl champion. That year’s Bucs were so good on D they won with a quarterback, Brad Johnson, who had entered the league as a ninth-round pick. They were so good on D for a number of reasons, but it started with No. 55.
“Brooks was great from day one,” Kaufman said.
He was a Pro Bowler by his third season. And by 2002, that magical year, Brooks led the Bucs with five interceptions – three of which were returned for TDs – and 118 tackles, 88 of them solo. He rarely needed help to get a ballcarrier onto the ground. He added a fourth touchdown that season on a fumble return.
Brooks became a Buccaneer for a number of reasons that began with his size: only 6-0, 225 pounds coming out of college. In his first draft as Bucs general manager, Rich McKay was fortunate to see Hall of Famer Warren Sapp fall to the No. 12 overall selection. And then McKay executed a trade with the Dallas Cowboys to pick up a second first-rounder at No. 28, which he used to select Brooks. That’s one quick way to launch a Hall of Fame defense.
“I was doing sports radio at that time, a live draft show on that day, and the calls – we were taking call after call after call. The Florida State fans erupted,” Rives told SN. “This was a tremendously popular pick with their fan base. I think it’s not an exaggeration to say that’s one of the most important sequences in the turnaround of a franchise – and what the franchise has become for almost 30 years — was that draft that day. And Brooks was the key part of that.
“He was more of a leader than Warren Sapp. He was more of a glue guy, in addition to being a great player. And they built around him. The culture changed.”
In the years since retirement, Brooks became connected with former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who has a home in Tampa, and they founded the Brooks/DeBartolo Collegiate High School in 2005. The NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year in 2000, Brooks is involved in numerous charity and business activities. He does a podcast with Kaufman during the football season.
Being a Florida guy, though, for Brooks does still mean being a Florida State guy at heart.
“I got my start at the Tampa Tribune. I was at a practice, and they were going to have open locker room, and the reporter I was working with at the time was like, ‘Hey, I need you to go get a comment from Derrick,” Smith told SN. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, I do not like Derrick Brooks.’ Because I’m a Florida Gator, and Derrick Brooks used to kill my Gators. But he becomes one of my go-to football players, the nicest guy on the team. Every once in a while, in Florida-Florida State week, he’d wear an anti-Gator shirt. And part of me was like, ‘Ah, he’s doing that to mess with me!’
“I’m always amazed when people have that amount of talent, that amount of accolades, that are still so humble. Because you see the extreme spectrum with a lot of these players. They’re not humble.”
|Super Bowl titles||1|
|Defensive Player of the Year||1|
|Solo tackles||1,300 (third all-time)|
Steven Stamkos (Lightning, 2008-2023)
Steven Stamkos’ career in the NHL is far from over. At 33 years old, the current Lightning captain has shown no signs of slowing down as one of hockey’s best forwards.
So it’s somewhat crazy to think that a player who still could be around for the next five, six, seven years has already solidified himself as one of the greatest athletes in Tampa Bay history. But that’s the case with Stamkos.
Before Stamkos had even stepped foot in the state of Florida, the expectations on him were through the roof. Selected No. 1 overall in the 2008 NHL Draft, the talented center from the OHL’s Sarnia Sting immediately joined the Lightning that fall, with the entire organization thrusting him into the center of their promotions.
Joe Smith covered Stamkos and the Lightning for the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic from 2010 to 2022. He saw during those early years the kind of pressure that was put on Stamkos’ shoulders, and how he was able to handle it.
“I think all the hype surrounding him being drafted No. 1, all the ‘Seen Stamkos?’ billboards and marketing campaign, that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid,” Smith said. “He handled himself so well in those first few years.”
It didn’t take long for Stamkos to make an impact on the Lightning. He won his first Rocket Richard as the league’s leading goal scorer in 2009-10 with 51 goals. Two years later, his 60-goal campaign in 2011-12 really put him on the map, as he not only won his second Rocket Richard, but became only the second player since the 2004 lockout to hit 60 goals in a single season.
Stamkos’ goal-scoring ability was never doubted. But as he gained postseason experience with a 2011 Eastern Conference Final appearance and a run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, that’s when he began to really solidify is place within the franchise.
“He really grew as a leader and went from an elite scorer and offensive player to a complete, all-around player, sacrificing (by) blocking shots, being one of those Cup guys,” Smith said. “He’s put himself into the consideration of one of the best captains in hockey history. I think his evolution and growth over his career has been really impressive. He is one of those model leaders and ambassadors that you want for a program.”
For the longest time, the Lightning knocked on the door, but could not break through. Finally, in 2020, Stamkos and Tampa Bay reached the top of the NHL world, winning the Stanley Cup in the 2020 bubble.
For any doubters of the legitimacy of the title, the Lightning shut them up the very next season, going back-to-back with a championship in 2021. Tampa Bay was close to a three-peat in 2022, but fell to Colorado in the club’s third consecutive final.
What has made Stamkos’ career even more impressive than it already has been is his ability to battle through adversity. The Ontario native has dealt with a laundry list of major injuries throughout his career, including a broken tibia and multiple surgeries on core muscles. Nobody would have blinked twice if Stamkos’ production dipped after suffering these ailments, but he has come back better than ever each time.
“Broken leg, torn meniscus, blood clot, core surgeries, one of those injuries is hard enough, much less four or five,” Smith said. “To come back and be an elite player after those injuries says a lot about him as a player and as a person.”
Stamkos’ time with the Lightning isn’t over. He’ll be a free agent in 2024, but it would be stunning if the Lightning decided to part ways with the longtime captain.
Regardless, he’s racked up quite the resume, leading the club to two Stanley Cup wins, four Stanley Cup Final appearances and seven Eastern Conference Final appearances. He is first in franchise history in goals, points, hat tricks, game-winning goals and even-strength goals, it’s only a matter of when, not if, he passes Vincent Lecavalier for the franchise record for games played, and Martin St. Louis for the assist record.
Smith put it fairly bluntly: Stamkos has been Lightning hockey since he arrived in Tampa Bay, and has already left a long-lasting legacy on the city.
“His legacy is that he’s the best player in franchise history,” Smith said. “His legacy is that he’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion. A guy that was the face of the franchise for more than a decade and carried himself with humility and grace off the ice. A guy that people would pay money to go into Amalie Arena to watch play.”
|Stanley Cup titles||2|
|Rocket Richard trophies (most goals)||2|
|Goals||515 (TB leader)|
Martin St. Louis (Lightning, 2000-2014)
Everyone admires the underdog. It’s why Lightning fans fell in love with Martin St. Louis.
St. Louis is one of the greatest success stories not just in the NHL, but in sports. The Quebec native went from an undrafted castoff to a Hall of Famer, taking over the city of Tampa in the process.
“St. Louis was one of the hardest working players I’ve ever been around, and they’ve ever seen in Tampa,” Joe Smith said. “It helped make his career go a lot longer than many people thought.”
The odds were stacked against the 5-foot-8 winger his entire hockey career. He was passed over by junior programs in Canada, forced instead to take the NCAA route, where he played at the University of Vermont for four seasons. St. Louis was never taken in any of his eligible NHL drafts, making him a free agent coming out of Vermont.
Despite being a two-time Hobey Baker finalist, he received little interest from NHL clubs. He signed with the Cleveland Lumberjacks of the IHL, a minor league alternative to the AHL.
St. Louis’ dominant play in the IHL caught the attention of the Flames, who signed him to a contract and had him report to the AHL. He spent three seasons splitting between the AHL’s Saint John Flames and Calgary, as he failed to carve out a full-time role in the NHL. He was left unprotected in the 2000 NHL Expansion Draft, however after he was not claimed, St. Louis was subsequently bought out by the Flames.
This is where Tampa Bay comes into play. The Lightning signed St. Louis to a two-year deal at the league minimum. It ended up being one of the best deals the organization ever made.
St. Louis’ first arrived in Tampa Bay for the 2000-01 season. It took a couple of years, but the winger found his footing with the Lightning. In his third season with the club, he was breaking barriers, flourishing in a league where everyone said he was too small to play in and becoming someone for shorter players to look up to.
“He played in a different game, there was a lot more punching and grabbing,” Smith said. “I think the game now that’s built on speed and skill is built more for smaller players. There was no doubt that he was a role model for a lot of players coming up, including some Lightning teammates that he had.”
St. Louis really put himself on the map in 2003-04. He led the league in points with 94, winning his first Art Ross Trophy, as well leading the league in assists with 56. His sensational regular season helped earn him the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
But that wasn’t the only hardware St. Louis earned that season. The Lightning made the club’s Stanley Cup Final appearance that season, going up against, ironically, the Flames. St. Louis helped the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup with a stellar postseason performance that included the winger scoring what Smith called the “biggest goal in franchise history.” In Game 6. St. Louis potted the overtime winner to keep Tampa Bay’s Cup aspirations alive before lifting the coveted trophy a game later.
That 2003-04 season elevated St. Louis to stardom. He established himself as one of the league’s best players, capturing the Art Ross Trophy as the league leader in points again in 2012-13. Eventually, he was named captain prior to the 2013-14 season, taking over for Vincent Lecavalier, before he was subsequently traded that season to the Rangers after 13 years with the Lightning.
St. Louis’ No. 26 was retired by Tampa Bay in 2017, and he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame the next year. Currently, he is the club’s all-time leader in assists and shorthanded goals. He is second in points and hat tricks, third in goals, power play goals and shots, and fourth in games played.
He’ll always be remembered as a Lightning great, and someone that paved the way for smaller players to excel in the NHL.
“I always think of him as the kind of guy that bet on himself,” Smith said. “Undrafted, he was unprotected in Calgary, he signed a contract with Tampa around the league minimum at the time. Always went into John Tortorella’s office and wanted to play more and backed up the talk on the ice.
“He was one of the more determined, hardworking guys you’ll ever see, and he had to be to go from that size and where he came from, to be a Hart Trophy winner and a Hall of Famer.”
|Stanley Cup titles||1|
|Hart Trophy (MVP)||1|
|Art Ross Trophy (Most points)||2|
|Assists||588 (TB leader)|