I was born and spent the first 18 years of my life in Savannah Georgia. That meant my team was the Atlanta Falcons , who played their first season the year I was born. The Falcons were the only NFL team in Georgia. There is no other term that could be used other than “suffering ” when referring to Falcons fans. But I stuck by them. I followed their progress through the good times and the (mostly ) bad .
Through circumstances beyond my control (translation…an evil woman), I was forced to move to Jacksonville Florida in 1992 . I reunited with family and prepared to start my life over as a Floridian. Within a few months, terms such as “backward -ass ” and “one horse town ” dominated my conversations. I hated this city. I would work my tail off to get back where I belonged . . .in Georgia .
One day changed everything. On November 30th in 1993, the NFL announced that Jacksonville had been granted an expansion team which would kick off in 1995. I was intrigued to say the least. I had never been in the middle of such excitement. Hell . . .I had never bought even a Falcon’s cap yet here I was dropping a couple of hundred bucks for swag and season ticket reservations. THEY HAD NOT EVEN PLAYED A GAME ! ! !
Tom Coughlin was brought in to coach and he was perfect. This was an expansion team. It would be made up of rookies, cast-offs, and players on their last legs. You needed a coach who knew how to whip guys in shape, yet also could treat them like men. Coughlin was that man.
The expansion draft, which usually only yielded over-the-hill expensive veterans or underachieving young talent, brought the Jags OG Jeff Novak, CB Dave Thomas, LB Brant Boyer, OG Eugene Chung, WR Desmond Howard, SS Harry Colon, WR Willie Jackson, and QB Steve Beuerlein. All these players started and contributed.
The 1995 rookie draft was also very fruitful. OT Tony Boselli, RB James Stewart, OT Brian Demarco, LB Bryan Schwartz, and QB Rob Johnson were inspired picks that helped keep the team young and athletic.
Coughlin brought in some amazing talent via trade and off the street. QB Mark Brunell was a draft day trade. Free agent signings included TE Pete Mitchell, WR Ernest Givins, PK Mike Hollis, DE Joel Smeenge, DE Jeff Lageman, and punter Bryan Barker. They also signed the player who would become my favorite player of all time , Jimmy Smith.
All that was left to do was play the games. The Jaguars had four wins that inaugural season against 12 losses. The thing about that team though was that they never gave up. Aside from a surprising 44-0 egg laid in Detroit, they were in contention most games that season. They weren’t as talented as most teams they lined up against, but they were the better conditioned with a lot of heart.
The day the Jags had me hooked for the rest of my life was October 8th, 1995. It was the sixth game of our inaugural season and our third home game. Their record was 1-4. The Jags were coming off their first franchise win at the Houston Oilers and were feeling good about themselves, though winless at home. The division powerhouse, the Pittsburgh Steelers, were making their first visit.
I had attended the first two games in my assigned season ticket seat. I had reveled in the tailgating, the spectacle of a real NFL game, and the heart-swelling fly-overs by the Blue Angels after our nation’s National Anthem. A friend had called me earlier in the week and asked if I’d like to see the game with him in the “Club seat ” area. “Let’s hang with the rich folks, ” he said. I gladly accepted and was nervously anticipating the game all week.
The Steelers were three and two at that point but everyone knew they were the team that would come out of our division. Little did we know that they would end up representing the AFC in that year’s Super Bowl.
I spent the tailgating period getting my drink on and putting on my game face. Now, let me make something perfectly clear. I’ve never liked the Steelers. Never will. Don’t like their players. During this period, I hated their lock-jawed, lispy, spits when he talks coach. I DESPISED their fans and their STUPID TOWELS. I had dealt with too many of them in Atlanta . They’re cocky, pushy, and have stupid looking mustaches. . .and that’s just the female fans.
By the third game, no one wanted to admit it. . .but we were ready for a win at home. The newness was wearing off and it was time to get BUSY! I just don’t think anyone would believe it could happen against the Steelers. Pittsburgh was even an 11-point favorite. Most Jag fans probably believed we would just take our spanking and go after the Chicago Bears at home the following week.
My friend and me headed to the club seats. They were sweet. Slightly shaded with a bar and access to mixed drinks. Shorter lines for hot dogs and more beers. Even shorter lines to remove the beer from your body! My goodness…how good do rich people have it!?!?
Funny thing happened though. The Jaguars didn’t bow to the “mighty” Steelers. If anything, they played like a team possessed. They jumped to a 14-0 lead and the stadium was beside itself.
It was then that I looked around me and didn’t feel the excitement. The kind of exuberance I would have felt with my “cheap seat” brothers. Here was an amazing moment developing in Jaguars history, and half these people were talking on their cell phones. A lot were not even looking at the field. One person even put their phone against their chest and asked if I could hold down my screaming!
I looked at my bud and said “Let’s get out of here. . .These people aren’t fans.” He agreed and we headed over to my seats at halftime. By that time, the Jags’ lead was down to ten but the defense was playing inspired football. When we got to my section, the group of fans who sat in my area were all yelling at me. “Where ya been?” and “Can you believe how great we’re playing ?” I was greeted with back-slaps and high-fives all the way to my seat.
You have to understand. When the Jags first started, you didn’t pay for your ticket. You first paid for your seat. That was your seat for the next three seasons. So it was impossible, unless you were the Unabomber, to not make friends. You gained reps. The set of four 20-something girls who all wore sexy Jag clothes and could drink you under a table. The older man who sat behind me who never addressed first year players by their name. Only “Rookie”…He said you didn’t earn a name until your second year. I was known as the “Jimmy Smith” guy. Always wore his jersey. Always yelled his name before even the stadium announcer could when he caught a pass. It was truly one of the best time periods of my life. Can you imagine going to a football game and NOT having to get up every time you needed more “liquid courage”. Someone would always yell “I’m heading up. . .You need a fresh one?”. . .It was awesome!!!
Back to the game…The Jags lead was shrinking. The fourth quarter was a series of three and outs for both teams. There were 13 punts in the game. No one seemed to want to take control. The Jags were holding a twenty to thirteen lead. The Steelers mounted a drive that stalled well into Jaguar territory and were held to a field goal to get within four points. The Jaguar faithful were sweating and not just from the heat, which was sweltering. Bam Morris, the bruising Steeler RB, was forced to leave the game with heat exhaustion. Even after receiving an IV in the locker room, he couldn’t return.
Though we were watching the lead shrink more and more, the Jags fans felt confident. Coach Coughlin had run these boys ragged. Limited water breaks. Mandatory two-a-days for vets and rookies. No shade or fans. The athletes couldn’t sit on their helmets or wear sunglasses. All of that was tough on the players, but was paying off that day.
Towards the end of the game, the Steelers got the ball one last time still losing by four points. They started driving down field. First down here. Another there. Nothing long. Patient. Methodical. Just little plays that move the chains. Eventually, after getting closer and closer to our end zone, the Jags held the Steelers to a fourth down play. With time running out, a field goal wasn’t an option. The Steelers were forced to go for it. A pass from Neil O’Donnell to Yancy Thigpen fell incomplete. Turnover on downs. Jaguars’ possession. The then newly anointed Alltel Stadium almost fell that day from the commotion.
I slapped hands with my seat mates and yelled at the top of my lungs. As the Jags performed their kneel-downs to run out the clock, I looked at my friend. We each gave a look like “Can you * * * *in’ believe this?!?” and performed the manliest hug I’ve ever been a part of. Before I knew it, there was a tear coming out of my eye. I felt as if my own son had just gotten his first hit in a t-ball game. You’re surrounded by other parents, who you have become friends with, and you celebrate together.
That’s what it felt like that day. My pride was surging and I realized that this would be a special moment I would always remember. The Jaguars became the only expansion team to defeat an eventual Super Bowl team. On that beautiful sunny day, the Jacksonville Jaguars became my team.
I will never love another.
Still feeling a tinge emotional almost 19 years later…Michael McDonald
Were you there too? Tell me what you remember on Twitter @gumbussy!