The NFL from Overseas, Pt. I: How I Became a Fan of the Jaguars and the NFL

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"Editor’s Note: As many of our readers know, Zoltan writes about the Jaguars from halfway across the world, in Budapest, Hungary. He is as knowledgable and as passionate a Jaguars’ fan as anyone I know and he has been an important part of Black&Teal for a long time now. His unique experience of the NFL and his insight into how the league is experienced in Europe is a revealing and intriguing story. Part one covers Zoltan’s personal story of discovering the Jaguars and NFL, Part two will look into how the NFL is experience abroad – we hope you enjoy."

This is the first part in a series exploring the popularity and perception of the NFL in foreign countries. Let me begin with my personal story of discovering American professional football and the Jacksonville Jaguars, as one of the many fans who follow the league from the other side of the ocean. I think mine is a good example why the game is becoming very popular here, in Eastern Europe.

I am first and foremost, a major fan of sports. Like many Europeans, I love soccer; Hungary has a rich history of many legendary soccer teams, but have been less prestigious on the world stage for the past 25 years or so. I love Formula 1 racing, tennis, biathlon, handball, and almost anything and everything athletic. For me, the NBA was “it” for a very long time, when it came to major league American sports. Hey, it was the Jordan Era and the “Dream Teams” that America assembled for each Summer Olympic Games were built on big names and over-the-top flashiness. But in the end of the 90’s, I saw on a twenty-minute long show on German TV around midnight about a very interesting sport called (American) football. My first NFL game was Super Bowl XXXII, where the very-seasoned John Elway led the Denver Broncos to a gutsy victory over the Green Bay Packers in the final minutes. I barely understood much of what I saw, even though I had a thorough comprehension of German (the language it was broadcast in) and was able to follow along with the commentators. But there was something I kind of liked about this sport. In 1999, one team’s name caught my attention. – the Jacksonville Jaguars. I thought, “quite a funny name for a team”,  but I saw that they were very good. Almost every time I tuned into the weekly highlight program, I saw the Jaguars chalk up another win. I still remember bits of their handy defeat of the Dolphins and Dan Marino in the playoffs that year, whose name was still plenty famous in Europe and Hungary. Ironically, Mario was more well-known here because of his cameo role in Ace Ventura, which is funny, but true (he is more known for being in Ace Ventura and Bad Boys II, than as an NFL QB). But as I watched the Conference Championship games, I slightly remember Brunell & Co. losing for the third time that season to the Titans. Back then it was something I found moderately interesting; if that were to happen now, eleven years later, my heart would be completely broken. But I do remember very clearly the Titans falling just short in Super Bowl XXXIV and that the difference between them winning and the Rams winning was literally only a few inches. That game, along with the peculiar Jaguars name, was what first sparked my relationship with the sport.

For the next season, the German TV station decided not to show these 20-25 minute long highlight programs anymore. In fact, they didn’t show the NFL at all. Because I had very limited internet access at this time, I knew very little about what happened in the NFL; quite fortunately, as I did not have to witness the very bad final years of the Coughlin era. The only games I saw were the Super Bowls on Austrian National TV: I saw the Ravens dominate the Giants, I saw Tom Brady earn his first championship ring (which was very impressive, as the Austrian commentators kept describing the Patriots as huge underdogs, and I saw the Bucs defeat the Raiders with their superb defense. I also remember the halftime shows very well. The most memorable was of course in 2002, when U2 performed “Where the Street have No Name”, in honor of the 9/11 victims, but I remember all of the MTV-produced halftime shows as well, with Sting, Shania Twain, No Doubt, Aerosmith, and N’sync.

In 2003-2004, my relationship with the NFL began evolving in a big way. In the fall of ’03, I made a very important discovery – one that is oftentimes a blessing and oftentimes a curse – the Internet – and in 2004,  Super Bowl XXXIX between the Panthers and the Patriots, became the first Super Bowl hosted live by a Hungarian broadcasting network (Sport TV). What a big game to debut in a brand new market, huh?!? I clearly remember DeShaun Foster’s long TD run in the 4th quarter and of course, Vinatieri’s legendary kick. Although they showed the half time show, it was not shown in its entirety, so Hungarian viewers missed Janet Jackson’s infamous “wardrobe malfunction”, although I saw this on the Austrian channel, because I wanted to see the full show. The game itself featured great drama started the boom in Hungary toward the NFL. In the next season, Sport TV started to show two games each week , a 4 o’clock (EST) Sunday afternoon game and Monday Night Football. No Jaguars games made it onto the network the first year, but they mentioned them often, especially when a Colts game was on. And since I was checking out the online world quite often during that time, I started to look after the Jaguars. I found and my NFL mentor, Vic Ketchman, and I started getting to know the players on the Jaguars roster.  Back in ’99, I didn’t even know who Brunell, Boselli, McCardell, Fred Taylor, Jimmy Smith, Searcy, or Brackens were. I knew that the Jaguars had an elite defense, because the commentators often proclaimed what huge defensive threats  Henderson and Stroud were. I was happy that “my team” had something special in the NFL in that era. I followed the Jags that season and their narrow failure to reach to playoffs, despite their last-minute push at the very end of the ’04 season. But I said, “9-7? Looks promising…”

That offseason, my attention spread to other places until the Jaguars picked things back up in the fall. I didn’t read Vic daily until the season started up, but the exciting events of 2005 quickly caught my attention.The Jags were a playoff caliber team (mostly because of the cupcake schedule they had that year) and they battled the NFC West and beat the Seattle Seahawks, that year’s NFC representative in the Super Bowl. They also beat the Super Bowl winner, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and pounded on division rivals Tennessee and Houston, who were pretty bad that year. I followed the Jags as closely I could and then two big things happened for me in the same week. The first was I wrote into “Ask Vic” for the first time and my question made the column – I asked a Garrard question and cited experts in Hungary who thought the Jaguars could beat the then-undefeated Colts in Alltel Stadium. My question was the next-to-last in that day’s column and Vic showed his infamous sarcasm on the final question, which was about Matt Jones possibly filling in for an injured Byron Leftwich, responding “Even the guy in Hungary knows Matt Jones isn’t a quarterback”. But the bigger thing was the Hungarian  Sport TV showing the first full Jaguars game ever – their loss to the Colts at Alltel, where Indy dominated the entire game, but were almost foiled by a last-minute Jags comeback in garbage time. That was huge for me, even with the Jaguars loss in the end. In that year, I saw one more Jaguars game, the playoff bloodbath against the Patriots, and what was possibly the biggest mistake of the Del Rio era – starting the injured Leftwich instead of a red-hot David Garrard, who led the team into the playoffs.