The Jacksonville Jaguars have a fan base that has been battered and bruised through the years. The latest instance revolves around everyone's favorite third-string quarterback, Tim Tebow, who was released by the New York Jets last month. The Jaguars' front office made it clear they were not interested. "I can't envision a scenario where Tim Tebow is a Jacksonville Jaguar," new general manager Dave Caldwell said at his introductory press conference.
"Even if he's released," he said with a grin.
That hasn't stopped the crazies from continuing to harass the Jaguars about how they need Tebow. Like the ridiculous petition to have President Obama force the franchise into signing him. Or the ad by an ambulance-chasing trial lawyer from Orlando, Fla. in which he promises to buy a box seat if Shad Khan gives "our guy" a chance.
It was like poking a bear and making Duval, the county of Jacksonville and the one-word call-sign for the entire community, more and more angry. People from Jacksonville are a proud bunch. We're proud of Duval County and the bear doesn't like being poked. Growing up as a fan base in the Twitter Age has done something powerful. It has united fans. It's made Duval -- on Twitter, in the stands and among Jacksonville fans -- a thing.
But how did Duval go from just a county to "Duuuuuuuvvvvaaaaaaaal?"
In the beginning there was Jacksonville, and then the NFL created the Jaguars and the fans rejoiced.
I was just 11 years old when the NFL awarded the Jaguars to the city in November of 1993, but I could already sense the excitement in Duval County. It was almost like you could physically touch it. Jacksonville had long been the tease city in the NFL, the city other owners would use as leverage to get a new stadium built or renovations completed to appease lease requirements. Like fools, the city bought into the lie that Jacksonville could wind up with an NFL team and ended up suckers each and every time until the NFL finally decided to expand in the early 1990s.
Robert Irsay once infamously landed a helicopter in the Gator Bowl as Jacksonville attempted to lure the Baltimore Colts away. It was a dog and pony show, and Jacksonville was left wanting. In the 1980s, Jacksonville tried to lure the Houston Oilers, going so far as to create "Jacksonville Oilers" banners throughout town.
Jacksonville even hosted exhibition football games and was home to both World Football League and United States Football League teams. The USFL team, the Bulls, was considered one of the strongest franchises in the league when it existed, setting the league attendance mark in its first year of operation and even posting two crowds greater than 70,000 in the old Gator Bowl.
Jacksonville showed the powers that be that they could support a professional football franchise if just given the chance. That hope was almost abandoned when the ownership group named Touchdown Jacksonville! failed to come to terms with the city and its bid was withdrawn. The group still had the backing and support of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, though. They got back into the bidding and finally agreed to renovation terms with the city. To further prove their commitment and cement their bid, Touchdown Jacksonville! went on to sell 10,000 premium seats in just 10 days.
"I didn't know anything about Jacksonville when I got drafted in 1995," former Jaguars offensive tackle Tony Boselli, the team's first-ever draft pick, told me when asked what he thought about Jacksonville before coming to the Jaguars. "Living on the west coast pretty much most of my life, [I] had been to Florida, been to Orlando, Miami but didn't know anything about North Florida or Jacksonville. I remember when they were announced as the 30th franchise at the time you kind of ask, 'Well, where's that?'"
Not many thought Jacksonville deserved a team. The city is essentially comprised of six towns. There's downtown, which reeks of coffee from the Maxwell House factory, encompassed in blocks of underdeveloped and old buildings by the river. Then you have the north side of town near the airport, riddled with crime and the smell of boiling mash from Budweiser. The beach area over the "ditch" operates as its own separate city entirely. The dreaded Orange Park area is a good way to spend two hours in traffic trying to get to and from somewhere else. And then you have the hip crowd of Riverside, a mix of young poor kids and rich pretentious adults, and the hilariously normal west side and south side.
"I don't think a lot of people paid much attention to what was going on in Jacksonville," current Jaguars president Mark Lamping told me when talking about his time as the Sports Director for Anheuser-Busch back in the early 1990s when St. Louis was also vying for an NFL expansion franchise. "I think Jacksonville played it exceptionally well."
"They were certainly the sleeping giant, and they put together such a strong program thanks to the support of the public officials of the city to renovate the Gator Bowl to make it NFL caliber and their commitment to negotiate a lease," Lamping continued. "Then the unbelievable response by the fans. Everyone was surprised. I don't think anyone necessarily blamed Jacksonville certainly from St. Louis, but I think if you look back on it St. Louis was its own worst enemy. Based on what I've learned since I've been down here, Jacksonville probably would have gotten a team anyway just because of how strong a commitment this community made, and the ownership group was very, very strong."
Jacksonville may be a city of parts, but they all worked together when it came to getting an NFL team. Despite how each group seems to think they're better than the other, and despite the frictions between the city's disparate towns, Duval stuck together for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville was finally awarded a team in 1993. Fans came in droves. The 73,000-seat stadium was packed with fans from Northeast Florida week in and week out. The team on the field delivered in front of the packed crowds after the inaugural season in 1995. The initial newness of the team had not yet worn off in the 1996 season, but something magical happened at the end of the season that threw kerosene on the fledgling fan base.
The Atlanta Falcons' placekicker missed a gimme field goal against the Jaguars in the final seconds of the season finale, allowing the Jaguars to win the game and sneak into the playoffs with a 9-7 record. The city of Jacksonville then went on a playoff run that fell just short of a Super Bowl appearance. The Jaguars traveled to Buffalo, a place where no one won in the playoffs, and bested Jim Kelly in his final NFL game, 30-27. The Jaguars then traveled to Denver after being ridiculed by Woody Paige as the "Jagwads" and knocked off John Elway and the Broncos after falling behind early, thanks to some magical plays by Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith.
The Jaguars flight home from Denver took a detour when it got to Jacksonville, flying over Jacksonville Municipal Stadium to reveal 40,000 Jaguars fans waiting to greet their team after many watched the game in the stadium on the jumbotrons and stayed until the early morning.
"In 1996 when we got on that run and got into the playoffs, from coming home from the Buffalo game when we won up there, I remember coming home in my neighborhood and the streets were lined with posters and signs congratulating me," Boselli said. "And then after we went to Denver, beat Denver in maybe the largest upset in playoff history, beating John Elway and the Denver Broncos, we were all ecstatic."
"[It was a] crazy experience in the locker room after the game, and then you get on the plane flight home and everyone's excited, having a good time and laughing and then the pilot says, 'There's people waiting for you at Alltel Stadium.' You know, this was pre-9/11, so the FAA regulations were a little bit looser, and the pilot said before we land at the airport in Jacksonville we're going come in and do a little fly by of the stadium."
"And I promise you, it felt like we were 100 feet above the stadium," Boselli continued. "We came in low and you could see the fans already piling into the stadium. Then when we pulled in, and you hear conflicting numbers of how many were there, but there had to be 40-50,000 people. It was packed and it was in the middle of the night. It was just a great atmosphere and you knew, it just cemented in your mind, that these people loved football and they loved the Jaguars."
Fans cheering during 1996 playoffs. | Photo courtesy the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jaguars lost their next game against the New England Patriots, 20-6, but the magic was ingrained in Duval County. I witnessed it as a child. It was real. Jacksonville could thrive as an NFL city and would live and die with the Jaguars.
Magic is a fickle thing, though. It doesn't last forever.
After the four-year run as a playoff and Super Bowl contender, the Jaguars found themselves in salary cap trouble and began gutting the roster. The Jaguars didn't win more than seven games in any of the next three seasons, and the lack of success was reflected in the stands.
Struggling on the field and at the turnstiles, the Jaguars installed tarps over parts of the stadium in 2005, covering up 9,703 seats to help prevent looming blackouts and low attendance figures. The tarps didn't seem to help much as attendance continued to plummet. The Jaguars struggled weekly not only to win football games, but also to get the games on television, often gaming the system and buying up tickets before the blackout deadline.
It was so bad during the 2008 season that even the Jaguars mascot, Jaxson DeVille, caught on fire during a game, a perfect symbol for the state of the franchise at the time. The Jaguars were playing the hated Tennessee Titans in a mid-November game, taking a 14-3 lead into halftime. At one point during the game, Jaxson ventured too close to some pyrotechnics on the sideline, and his head caught on fire. I remember seeing him from the press box.
It took him a minute or two to notice, but he was on fire. How perfect.
There was the embodiment of the state of the Jaguars franchise.
Jaxson eventually went back into the bowels of the stadium to wrap his head, returning to see the Jaguars take the lead on the Titans. But just like the team's mascot, the Jaguars went up in flames on the field after halftime, losing 24-14. A second-half meltdown set in motion a four-game losing streak as the team ended the season 1-6 to finish 5-11 on the year.
After a trip to the NFL playoffs in the 2007 season and a disappointing 2008 season with poor ticket sales, then-owner Wayne Weaver decided to let the blackouts happen. The Jaguars were already the butt of relocation jokes, but now there was substance to them. The multi-year ticket contracts that many Jaguars fans signed to lock in prices expired without renewals, and attendance dipped below 50,000 per game. Jacksonville Municipal Stadium was a ghost town on Sundays, with entire sections virtually empty.
I remember in the 2009 season, after deciding that the press box view wasn't for me, returning to my seats in the stadium. After the first couple of home games, however, I realized I didn't need to sit in my seats in the upper deck. Hardly anyone was there. It was a ghost town. My wife and I decided that we'd just sit in the lower bowl with a friend of mine and his father. There was no one else around, so who would care?
And that was the problem: no one cared. While it was comfortable to sprawl out, legs up, without people complaining, it was also embarrassing. This was the team we loved, the team we fought to get. We wanted this so badly in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was being pissed away. The only people there were people my age, the college kids and the young people in their mid-20s.
Tailgating for the games that year was fun, though. It was just like spending time before college games in the area. All young people, drinking our beer, eating our Publix hot wings and fried chicken. We had liquor. We had our Publix subs. We played cornhole and ladder ball. It was Duval through and through. We knew the team was going to lose, but we didn't care.
Each week I sat in the same section with my friends in the ghost town of a stadium. The average attendance for the year was officially 49,651, but I'd be surprised if that wasn't padded by at least 10,000. The team wasn't great in 2009, but they weren't awful. By December the team was 7-5 and looked like they might make a playoff push, but they didn't.
No one came anyway.
The only game that wasn't blacked out that season was a Thursday Night game against the Indianapolis Colts. There was a pep rally, a week-long buildup to the game and events downtown prior to the game. It wound up selling more than enough tickets and the stadium was packed. I even had to sit in my actual seats.
The Jaguars still lost that night and finished out the season without winning another game.
After having all but one game blacked out in 2009, once again the talks of the Jaguars moving cropped up, citing that Jacksonville just couldn't support a team. The part that was not talked about however was that ticket sales issues weren't just isolated to Jacksonville, but were actually a league-wide issue. Jacksonville was the easy target because who likes Jacksonville outside of people from Jacksonville?
The Jaguars relaunched Touchdown Jacksonville! and Team Teal, led by Boselli, to try to rally the die-hard fanbase they knew existed. They wanted to recapture that feeling from the mid-90s when there was magic in the air, when the excitement about the Jacksonville Jaguars was palatable.
"We have a history of overcoming in this city, and we are at one of those moments again. The measuring stick of viability is ticket sales," Boselli told a crowd or roughly 500 fans on Jan. 12, 2010.
"One of the things that's always frustrated me about the perception that we've gotten with this city and our franchise is that fans don't care," Boselli told me. "There was a time when the attendance wasn't very good. I knew the fans would respond. I knew they wanted and loved this team. Since that point you can see the change, the perception hasn't changed, you still get some knucklehead national comments from the ill-informed, ignorant comments to what's going on with the fan base and their support."
Boselli was trying to recapture what Duval was all about: doing what we're not supposed to do.
The mentality of Duval lives in the generation of Jaguars fans who were children when the team first arrived. There's a certain "If you don't like it, you can leave," mentality about Jacksonville. We like our city, with all its flaws. We like being able to play a full 18 holes of golf in January. We like being able to surf the swells during hurricane season. We like the slower pace of life in our own little-big city.
We like the fact that the flow of the St. John's River, which cuts through the heart of the city, is best described as "lazy." We like the joke that the river flows north because Georgia sucks, despite the fact that it actually flows north due to the southern drainage basin in central Florida having a higher elevation than northern Florida.
We don't like being told what we can't do and what we don't deserve.
Since that day, the Jaguars haven't had a blackout. Despite poor performance on the field, fans continue to show up in the stands to support the team, regardless of what a lot of national media would lead you to believe.
Late in the 2011 season, the Jaguars fired head coach Jack Del Rio and also announced that the team was going to be sold to Illinois businessman Shahid Khan, who'd once tried to purchase the St. Louis Rams.
Khan officially took over the Jaguars in January, 2012 and hired head coach Mike Mularkey, but things on the field didn't immediately improve. They actually got worse. The Jaguars faithful still showed up in droves, though. Despite a 2-14 season, the worst record in franchise history, the Jaguars averaged nearly 65,000 fans a game. They even removed some of the tarps to sell more tickets for half of their home games.
The Jaguars were an awful football team in 2012. I'm not even sure how they won the two games that they did. Despite the team being terrible though, fans still came and the stadium atmosphere was electric, at least until the team was being obliterated by halftime. I'm not sure exactly what it was that rekindled Jaguars fans in 2012, but something was awakened.
Maybe "Generation Jaguar" was tired of being crushed publicly. Tired of being told how bad of fans they were. Duval decided to show them, so we showed up to watch our bad football team play bad football.
The outsiders don't like Jacksonville; they think it's silly when we all chant, "Duuuuuuuvaaaaaaalllll," but we don't care. They think the city doesn't deserve a football team and it will never be a success, but we don't care. Downtown Jacksonville smells like coffee, sulfur water and piss, but we don't care. The main nightlife attraction downtown is where people get murdered sometimes. We still don't care.
"Exceptionally passionate, exceptionally knowledegable." Mark Lamping told me when he was asked about his first impression of Jaguars fans in early 2012. "You hear a lot about football here in this part of the country, and the thing that I was just struck by was how much football is a part of each any every day here in the Jacksonville area."
That's what we are.
We love it. We hate it. We don't care if you don't like it. It's what we are.
"What makes us great and what makes us different in some respects is what makes us special," Lamping told me about Jaguars fans. "This is a much-maligned market and very unfairly. I've learned it as I've begun to understand more the Jacksonville fan base, particularly that segment of the fan base that's comprised of the only team they've ever rooted for is the Jaguars. Fans under the age of 40, maybe under the age of 35, who have grown up with the Jaguars."
"This segment of the population, call it 'Generation Jaguar,' that's the percentage of our fan base who take the greatest exception to when inaccurate comments are made about fan support, in terms of what the situation is with the stadium, and it bothers me as much as it bothers fans," Lamping continued. "There is this misconception regarding fan support. I mean, all you need to do is look at this past year."
The team is coming off a 2-14 season, and it needs to be completely rebuilt, roster-wise, but the fan excitement is there because the team has been reborn and the "us against the world" mentality that Duval is all about is in full strength going forward.
We're the guy in a T-shirt cut into a tank top with shitty tattoos and jean shorts. We're the guy still wearing that tattered Tony Boselli jersey from 1996. We're the guy who waits outside the jailhouse to visit a friend on Bay Street, looking at the luxury riverfront condos across the street. We're even that guy in full Florida Gators gear and the mullet yelling "Tebow" on Sundays in the stands.
It's not going to change. It's just the way it is, and that's how we like it. The kids of Duval are now the adults of Duval. The adults of Duval decided to start showing up in 2009, and they're not going away. The Jaguars aren't just a football team for Duval anymore. It's a way of life. It's Duval, and we don't care.
That's what we are.
We're Duval until we die.