MOBILE, Ala. -- The City of Mobile is primarily known for two things – its pride in local traditions and the appreciation of college football. So it is somewhat noteworthy that this year’s Senior Bowl falls on the opening week of Mardi Gras, a carnival that Mobilians will quickly point out originated in the Port City and not neighboring New Orleans.
There is increased buzz, locally, for the 64th Annual Senior Bowl too.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Senior Bowl appeared at risk of leaving Mobile for another city, once believed to be Jacksonville or Miami. But Mobilians, including several Senior Bowl executives, fought to keep the game on the Gulf Coast and the event has grown tremendously over the past few years.
The economic downturn of the last decade wasn’t kind to the game. What had been a sellout every year in the 1990s and beyond ended in 2009 when the country entered its first recession in decades. The ultra-blue collar Mobile family couldn’t renew the commitment especially given the lack of star power with top prospects declining to attend as to not damage their draft stock.
Local fans responded by not purchasing tickets and choosing to attend the festival parades instead. The burgeoning TV coverage of the event that began with ESPN and is now dominated by the NFL Network didn’t give locals much incentive to brave the cold either.
But this year’s event feels a little bit different. The Senior Bowl has started to address some of key concerns of both fans and players this season. The most notable is the inclusion of four-year graduating juniors to the event. For the first time ever, the Senior Bowl has invited two juniors in Syracuse’s Justin Pugh and Alabama’s DJ Fluker.
It’s no coincidence that Fluker graduated from nearby McGill-Toolen High School. The strength of the game, at least locally, as often depended on the star power of local talent. Fluker is a displaced Hurricane Katrina victim who moved to Mobile after that storm decimated his neighborhood.
He embraced the city and the city embraced him back, especially after signing with Alabama and leading them to two National Championships during his three-year tenure in Tuscaloosa.
It’s the perfect storm for the Senior Bowl to return to prominence in Mobile this year. The buzz surrounding the festivities is higher than it has been in quite a while. The Senior Bowl staff, now strengthened by the addition of locals like former Browns GM and current Alabama radio analyst Phil Savage and Rob Lehockey, has already put some of the pieces in place to make this game distinctively Mobile.
Prior to Sunday’s introductory press conference, Savage spoke at length about his childhood in Mobile and the accessibility of players for photographs and autographs. His staff has opened up the field for autograph sessions following the practices and will send players to 16 local schools on Thursday to generate excitement for the game amongst the youth of Mobile.
The game has spent most of its life in Mobile -- all but one year in fact. Now with a stadium lease that runs through at least 2015 and the support of the people, it appears to have finally found a home here.