Pictured left to right: Sam Fuld, Johnny Damon, Jon Gruden, Allison Jolly, Phil Esposito, Jeremy Foley
Jon Gruden, the coach who brought a Super Bowl championship to Tampa Bay, highlighted the Class of 2016 that was inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame in a Nov. 15 ceremony at the TPepin’s Hospitality Center in Tampa, Fla.
Joining Gruden in the class was two-time NHL MVP Phil Esposito, World Series champion Johnny Damon, former University of Florida AD Jeremy Foley, and Olympic sailing gold medalist Allison Jolly.
In addition, Oakland A’s outfielder Sam Fuld was named recipient of the Hall’s Fame for Fitness Award, for his work with children dealing with juvenile diabetes. Fuld created the T1D Sports Camp, which uses a sports environment to educate and teach children how to deal with their disease.
“The Hall has always sought to recognize the state’s brightest and best sports figures and without question this class is one of the most impressive in our history,” Florida Sports Hall of Fame President Barry Smith said. “From MLB, NHL, and NFL champions to an Olympic Gold Medalist to a man who deserves a vast amount of credit in building one of the nation’s premiere college athletic programs, this class is the very definition of special.”
Gruden, who grew up in the Tampa area, joined the Bucs after a three-year stint as head coach of the Oakland Raiders. in his first season in Tampa Bay, he guided the Bucs to a division title. Tampa Bay would then run through opposition in the playoffs, before dispatching the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII, 48-21.
In his acceptance speech, Gruden recalled how he loved growing up in Florida and how as a kid he dreamed of either playing or coaching the Bucs. Gruden added how much he “appreciated the honor” but wanted to use the opportunity to challenge everyone in the room to fight for youth sports.
“Across America they are cutting sports at all levels and even getting rid of gym classes and recesses and I am telling you that is a huge mistake,” Gruden said. “Sports teaches kids valuable lessons like teamwork, discipline and the importance of working for a common goal and it’s something we should be encouraging more of not less.”
A native of Canada, Esposito was one of the top players in NHL history. But it was after his playing career that he earned Florida Sports Hall of Fame status. It was Esposito’s dogged pursuit of a franchise for the Tampa area that proved to be a tipping point in bringing the NHL to Florida.
In the two decades since Esposito served as an administrator in helping build the Lightning into one of the most successful sports franchises in the country.
In his induction speech, he spoke of his passion for the sport. “All I ever wanted to do was play hockey,” Esposito said. “And then when I retired from the NHL that was taken away from me. It dawned on me I had to do something else with my life.”
Esposito spoke about hatching his idea of bringing professional hockey to Florida. “I became close friends with Henry Paul, the son of the legendary baseball executive Gabe Paul and because he lived in Tampa, I asked him if he thought hockey could work in Florida. Henry looked at me and said ‘People in Florida like football, they like boxing, they like wrestling, and they like auto racing because of the crashes. It seems to me you got all of those things going for you in hockey.’ It really made me feel I was on to something.”
In a professional baseball career that lasted lost 20 seasons, Damon collected more than 2700 hits and helped both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees to World Series titles. A three-sport star at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Damon also played a season with Tampa Bay, helping that team to the playoffs.
Damon told the crowd that the honor was special to him because of growing up in Florida. “I remember going to Tinker Field and being so excited about seeing players like Kirby Puckett and Cal Ripken and I knew right then and there that I wanted to be a professional baseball player,” Damon said. “It’s not often that you get to live your dream.”
He then thanked his family. “I know my dad would have loved to see this moment and I know how proud my mother is right now. Growing up I always wanted to beat my older brother regardless of what sport we were playing and I remember that he always pushing me and encouraging me to be my best. I can’t thank them enough for helping me reach my goals.”
Foley is widely credited with building the Florida Gator program into one of the finest in the nation. He was the only sitting athletic director to see his program win multiple national championships in both football and basketball.
In all, his teams claimed 27 national team championships and more than 100 SEC conference titles.
“To be honest, you really don’t get involved in the athletic administration to win honors and being from New England I’m a little star struck to be on this stage with guys like Johnny Damon and Phil Esposito,” Foley said. “But I am certainly thankful and humble to be recognized. We were able to accomplish a lot of great things at the University of Florida but it wasn’t me it was a team effort. We were blessed with great coaches and a great staff but more importantly we had outstanding young men and women who played for the University of Florida.”
Jolly, a Florida State graduate, won two intercollegiate sailing titles. In 1988, she made the US Olympic team and captured a gold medal in the 470 Class Sailboat.
Jolly said that she was accepting the honor not for herself but for the sport. “Florida is surrounded by water on three sides and sailing is becoming increasingly popular,” Jolly said. “Sailing has always been my passion and I am thrilled that at the recognition this event is bringing to the sport.”
Fuld, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child, spoke about dealing with the disease and how he got involved in helping children. “Every day is a struggle. I have to prick my finger eight times a day and take insulin injections six times a day. Even then you constantly worry about where your blood sugar levels are. In 2011, I was invited to visit the new diabetes center over at the University of South Florida and that’s when I got the idea for the camp. We are now up to 10 sports and helping 200 kids each year and I promise you we will keep doing this until we find a cure.”
After his speech, Fuld graciously accepted a $3000 donation from Florida Sports Hall of Fame to support his camp activities. The addition of the five new inductees brings membership in the 56-year Florida Sports a Hall of Fame to 248.