Farewell to the great Tom McEwen

TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s a sad day in the land of the NFC South.

Tom McEwen, one of the men who helped build this division, has passed away. The long-time sports editor and columnist for The Tampa Tribune was 88.

This one is hitting very close to home because McEwen was the man who gave me my first full-time job in this business. He also gave me a lot of career advice throughout the years and, most important of all, was a great friend. My decision to leave the Tribune for The Charlotte Observer in 1999 was made on McEwen's dock after a lengthy conversation with the greatest mentor of all. When I got hired by ESPN.com, McEwen was one of the first people I called and he was thrilled that I was moving back to Tampa.

For those who don’t know the back story on McEwen, he was the point man on Tampa Bay’s effort to get an expansion team. He fought hard to keep the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay when it looked like they might be moving in the mid-1990s. He also was instrumental in bringing the Super Bowl here four times and getting Raymond James Stadium built.

But don’t think McEwen was just an advocate for Tampa Bay. If you’re a fan of the Saints, Falcons and Panthers, you owe this man some gratitude because he helped your teams along the way. McEwen was a power broker in NFL circles and he encouraged the league to give franchises to Atlanta and New Orleans because he knew that putting other teams in the south eventually would help bring a team to Tampa Bay. He also pushed for Atlanta and New Orleans to host Super Bowls.

When Jerry Richardson started trying to get an expansion team for the Carolinas, he found a friend in McEwen, who went to bat for the team that became the Panthers. McEwen also did a lot in bringing hockey’s Lightning and baseball’s Rays to Tampa Bay.

It’s a tragic day and my heart goes out to Tom’s wife, Linda, and their family. It might take some time, but I’m going to try to focus on all the positives I gained from knowing Tom.

One recent one comes to mind. Saint Leo University, my alma mater, is home to “Tom McEwen: A Tampa Bay Treasure’’, an exhibit of McEwen’s memorabilia. I had the honor of picking up the memorabilia at McEwen’s house and driving it up to Saint Leo.

I’ve always been a pretty confident driver. But that 45-minute drive was the most nerve-wracking of my life. The cargo in my car that day included photos of McEwen with the likes of Johnny Unitas, Bear Bryant and George Steinbrenner. It included autographed footballs and hand-written notes from Steve Spurrier and Roger Goodell.

It also included Tom’s Red Smith Award. That’s the highest honor given in sportswriting. I put that in the passenger’s seat, locked the doors and drove as cautiously as I ever have. I’m not sure I exhaled until we got everything under lock and key at Saint Leo.

The cargo I was carrying that day was precious and I’m glad I can stop by Saint Leo and look at the memorabilia and think of Tom. But I don’t need the visual reminders to recall all that was great about Tom.

He’ll never really be gone. There are thousands of people who were impacted by this great man and we’ll all carry pieces of him for years to come.

Tom’s legacy was built over the course of many years. Now, it’s time for that legacy to shine brighter than ever.