The Honest, really, really true story of Rick Nafe
In his four decades of facility management, Rick Nafe hosted two Super Bowls (and served as a consultant on behalf of the NFL on nine others), the NCAA Men’s Final Four and the World Series; was the point man on the development of Raymond James Stadium, Amalie Arena (The Ice Palace) and George M. Steinbrenner Field (Legends Field), lured the Tampa Bay Bowl to the city, and stampeded cattle through the Vatican. But it was his larger-than-life presence, ability to find the humor in the absurdity of everyday life and desire to make people laugh that earned him the respect of the industry. And the list of people who claimed that he was their ‘best’ friend outnumbers the attendance at any game at Tropicana Field (which he ran for 23 years). His unforgettable smile, of course, always made it look like he was up to something. Because, well…
Born in Miami as the sixth, and biggest, of seven dwarfs, he graduated from Southwest Miami High and briefly attended the University of Miami before transferring to Florida State University in 1971, with dreams of playing football and someday playing for his beloved Miami Dolphins. After leading the 1972 Seminoles to a 7-4 record as a first-string holder of the blocking dummies, he quit to focus on his studies within FSU’s Flying Circus curriculum. Anyone who ever saw Rick in his size 16 Crocs understood why he remains the only student to ever be expelled from the school’s clown program because of oversized feet. The reality was, Rick was an early disciple of Don Ungurait, the founding Dean of FSU’s film school, and believed that if he had not chosen the career path that he did, he would have been the next Steven Spielberg. Defying all odds, the mass communications and public relations major graduated in 1975. His connection with the university lasted a lifetime, as nearly every intern he hired over his career was, shockingly, a ‘Nole. “No other candidates were ever qualified,” he said. And each one of them was required to memorize Godfather I and II. “Godfather III was like Fredo,” he said. “Dead to me.”
His first two post-college years were spent as assistant sports director at the CBS affiliate in Tallahassee, followed by three years as director of community affairs in Tampa at MacDonald Training Center, one of the country’s first preschools and vocational training facilities for children and adults with disabilities. Rick went to great lengths to find jobs for many of the people who were served at the Center. In 1979, armed with his bewitching smile and no relatable work experience whatsoever, he convinced the Tampa Sports Authority that he was more qualified than the other 248 others who had applied to be director of Tampa Stadium (“I was hired based solely on my enthusiasm, attitude and a real love of stadia. Although I didn’t know what the word ‘stadia’ meant.”) After 12 years in the role, he was appointed executive director of the Authority during a period when the city’s sports construction scene was booming. He attended his first meeting of International Association of Assembly Managers Stadium Seminar in the early 1980s, and at the 1986 meeting in New Orleans he led the charge (some would call it a revolt) to break from that group and create what became the Stadium Managers Association. He played host to every annual SMA seminar since, tirelessly making sure executives in the industry were educated, engaged and, of
course, entertained. Some of his most memorable on-stage performances included appearing as Elvis (“in the later years”), one of opera’s three tenors, a flamingo, the Great Carnac and Batman. In fact, he shamelessly embraced the saying: “Be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then be Batman.” In 2010, he was honored with the association's Lifetime Achievement Award.
In October 1996, after 17 years at The Big Sombrero watching the Buccaneers rack up the worst record in major league sports, he moved across the bay to become vice president of operations and facilities for the expansion Rays and oversaw a major renovation of what would become the Trop. His Midas touch continued, as the Rays’ existence began with 10 consecutive losing seasons. Rick’s favorite food was “fun,” and he boasted that he had never left a cannoli. He loved anything from the Rat Pack and the Beatles, even though ‘Hey Jude’ is longer than a Yankees-Red Sox game.
Despite working in an industry that required him to be gone many nights and weekends, family was the center of his life. First with his three children, Travis, Parker, and Katie, and then with his wife, Dana and stepdaughter, Lauren. He often said that kids were like the coolest Christmas presents because he could not wait to get home and play with them. His newest joy was the addition of his daughter-in-law, Alexis and two beautiful grandsons, Max and Mason. He and Dana counted the days until fall and FSU football, where they would tailgate with friends at Doak Campbell Stadium. They enjoyed traveling, boating and having parties where he always went to great lengths to make sure everyone had a good time as his quick wit drew newcomers into his circle. After he retired, he was most happy sitting in an Adirondack chair on a porch overlooking a Florida beach - either coast - trying to convince anyone who would listen that he once pulled a golf ball from the blowhole of a dying whale.
Those who were lucky enough to love and be loved by Rick will forever see his boyish smile and remember his gentle giant hands always patting someone on the back or giving a hug. “He is and will forever be the love of my life and I am so grateful for his enormous, perfect heart and the way he loved me, our family and the entire community,” said Dana.
In lieu of flowers, Rick and Dana ask that you spend more time with those you love!