I’ve been thinking about Blake Bortles a lot lately. Seven years ago, we went from drunken dear friends to two ships passing in the night. We’ll get to that though. Much like our friendship in bloom, the collapse of the Jacksonville Jaguars seemed to come out of nowhere. It happened so quickly that it’s hard to remember how great they were, how much potential they had, and how brutal their decline truly was.
On January 21, 2018, the Jacksonville Jaguars found themselves 10 minutes away from the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. They’d torn through that season with an absurd defense plus a devastating ground attack, and it had worked well against the Patriots through the first 50 minutes of the AFC Championship.
It all came to a crashing halt during the fourth quarter thanks to Tom Brady, Danny Amendola, and a Jacksonville offense that couldn’t get things going. But hope remained despite the defeat. This team would be back and not let that one moment spell their demise. You, dear reader, know far better. They fell apart.
The AFC Championship loss led to offseasons of roster shuffling, the front office upsetting stars like Jalen Ramsey and Yannick Ngakoue, replacing one mediocre quarterback with another mediocre quarterback, and multiple warnings from the NFL Player’s Association. It happened so quickly that it can be hard to remember how good they were in 2017 — how they had a legitimate shot at not just playing in the Super Bowl but winning it. While this episode of Collapse details the Jags’ downfall, it’s a reminder of the better times — a reminder of just how much needs to go right just to get close.
And that’s why it has reminded me of my tumultuous relationship with Blake Bortles. He ghosted me.
We were both in Los Angeles for work. Bortles (or Blake, as I call him) a recent top-5 NFL Draft pick. Will (or me, as I call me) a burgeoning video producer. The NFLPA brought us together as I was helping SB Nation film segments with various rookies from the 2014 class. Our actual work with Blake was fine, nondescript; done in five minutes and on to the next rookie. Jadeveon Clowney stood out for being genuine and cool. AJ McCarron stood out for making even a chat about tattoos boring. Blake fell somewhere in the middle, but the best friendships often do. The magic doesn’t show itself off the jump.
That night we went to a dinner hosted by the NFLPA. The food was good, the bar was open, and Walt Jr. from Breaking Bad was there. He plays no part in this story other than to remind you to expect the unexpected when the NFLPA throws a party.
It is with that in mind that I saddled up at the bar with some dear co-workers for an unknown amount of time. Soon enough, a well-tanned 6’5” beacon emerged. We kept our hopes capped off at a quick conversation, a chance to shoot the shit with this embodiment of football’s future. We quickly learned that SB Nation had made a far greater impression on Blake than we realized.
He remembered working with us at the previous Super Bowl doing a portable gameshow. Our chests puffed up at making any sort of lasting impression on someone so tall. Instead of asking him where he bought pants that fit his long body, I played it cool. The fireworks flew. We shot shit and then some. It’s easy to forget that folks like Blake - whether professional athletes or awesomely tall people - are just like us. He spoke about how working with us, hanging out with us at that bar, that’s what he found fun. We became proxies for his buddies back home, a fresh breath among the stink-mouths that those media car washes often are.
Our chat could’ve been 10 minutes long, it could’ve been an hour, but as the event began to close he floated a preposterous idea: one of us should take his number.
Maybe we were all rushing for our pockets. Maybe I had already been named tribute. Within seconds I had a new contact in my phone (I’d need to correct the spelling in the morning). We told him about our plan of going to a honky-tonk bar around the corner from the hotel we were all staying at. Blake said to give him a call and he’d join. We were all eager. We were excited.
And then we were alone. We waited for Blake at that bar as country music shook our stools. A couple of unresponded texts, a few unanswered calls, we convinced ourselves he’d show up. A voicemail recording with his voice confirmed Blake gave us his real number, but hearing that Floridian voice in this context brought the opposite of joy:. Not joy. For the first time in my life I could hear the sadness masterfully hidden within country music. But at least when Garth found himself in low places he had friends there. More like Garth Braggart.
Pride in shambles, we called it a night. But in the morning, my hangover was paired with the gut-rending realization that we’d have to work with Blake again. That day, the rookie class went to the Rose Bowl to show off their new jerseys for the first time. Our gameplan was simple: show off the players having a good time, leave with no one from SB Nation having puked on the field, and don’t be weird to Blake.
Thankfully, he was as cowardly as us. We left the matter at some playful ribbing, then remembered that sometimes the best friendships are the ones that only remain a “what if?” When mentioning this to my friends from work, their faces hid their agreement with looks of disgust — likely just the hangovers. I suppose you could say my relationship with Blake, just like the Jaguars, had a short moment of glory followed by a rapid collapse. Sad, sure, but beautiful? Eh. Everything comes to an end, and all you can hope for is you meet your downfall with dignity and grace.
Oh and then I called him at three in the morning ahead of his first professional start.