Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Russell Crowe’s Rugby Adventure

I really didn’t know what to expect when I was invited to the press conference that Russell Crowe was holding at UNF. The Academy Award winning actor also holds a majority stake in the South Sydney Rabbitohs, a National Rugby League team in Australia.

When my friend Spinner first brought the idea of bringing Crowe’s “Bunnies” for an exhibition game here in Jacksonville in January I wasn’t sure what to think. Spinner has been the single driving force behind the Jacksonville Axemen and all things Rugby that have been going on in town in the last couple of years. He’s a big thinker but I thought this might be a little “big” even for his thoughts. It’d be like bringing the Yankees to Sydney for a little game against the Yomimuri Carp. That all changed when I walked into the press conference in the soccer locker room at UNF.

They know what they’re doing at UNF when it comes to putting on meetings and pressers. Crowe was sitting at a long table at the front of the room, alone, with South Sydney jerseys all draped neatly over the front. Behind him, the wall was decorated with more “Souths” paraphernalia. “RC” as he was referred to in the emails, was dressed in Rabbitohs gear, sweatshirt and hat and was speaking calmly and plainly about his team’s appearance in Jacksonville.

“I like the temperate climate,” Crowe said when asked what attracted him to Jacksonville as a place to play this game. “And the facilities are very nice here, plus it’s my preference that the fellas stay at the beach which will be like home.” “Plus, they already have a history with Rugby here, (UNF) they know the game,” he continued.

I’ve been to a lot of pressers with actors or musicians who were totally lost when asked any questions of substance. Crowe was the exact opposite. The more complete the question, the more thoughtful the answer.

There were about 30 people there, journalists, photographers and dignitaries all to talk to, see and have their picture taken with one guy. Some questions were about his movie career, some were about his ownership of the team. Some were about the team itself, and even of his athletic career.

“If I had played Rugby league mate, I wouldn’t have had an acting career,” Crowe exclaimed as he pushed his nose to the side and pulled his ear out perpendicular to his head.

As I said, I didn’t know what to expect, but this was very un-Hollywood. No pretension, no primping, no preening. No rehearsed responses.

He answered questions until they were exhausted, then stood and chatted with everybody within earshot. If he was on a schedule, he didn’t let on. He didn’t have a whole bunch of handlers. Just a few security people around making sure somebody didn’t get out of hand.

That is one of the unique things about Jacksonville anyway. We don’t get too jacked up over celebrities. We like it here, they like it here, great, let’s get something to eat, is our attitude.

Spinner made a point to bring “RC” over and introduced me. He looked me in the eye with a firm handshake and repeated my name. He was more Arnold Palmer than John Travolta that’s for sure. And when he hung around and talked with Tom McManus and I for another 10 minutes, I was sold. If it was an act, it was a damn good one.

Somebody asked me afterwards if I was star struck, even for a second. I laughed and said, “No, not even for a second, but when he was standing next to me and answering a question Tom asked I was looking at him and it dawned on me ‘This guy was in Gladiator!” Not that I didn’t know that, but the whole time I was talking with him as just another guy, not the Oscar winner in the movies. That’s Palmer’s charm, and Crowe has some if that in him as well.

(By the way, he’s a bit bigger than you would think, nearly six feet and not skinny.)

During our conversation he told a couple funny stories, laughed at our comebacks and seemed to be enjoying himself. “We’ll let you go,” I said, sticking out my hand to say bye. “If you come back early for the game, let Spinner know and we’ll go have some fun,” I threw in just as “guy talk.”

“You’re on,” Crowe immediately responded with a laugh.

McManus and I walked out the back door and headed for the parking lot. About a half dozen UNF students were gathered outside, having heard that Russell Crowe was here.

“Is he coming out,” one called to me as I walked by.
“In about a minute,” I answered.
“Do you think he’ll talk to us?” she asked without desperation.
“If he sees you and doesn’t have to go anywhere, he’ll probably come over,” I said gauging Crowe’s mood inside.

And as if on cue, “RC” stepped out of the door of the building, walked to his car, saw the students and kept walking over to them. “Hi there,” he waved. He signed all of their autographs, took all of their pictures and asked as many questions as he answered.

When one student named a town in South Africa where she was from he said, “I know it. I’m not an American. I know geography.” It was a remark made in fun so standing in front of him I piped up, “What, Americans don’t know geography?” with a smile. “When I come back, want to have a test,” Crowe slyly said as he signed away. “You’re on,” I answered and thanked him for his time. “Cheers mate,” he responded with a wave. “See you in January,” he finished like he meant it.

The game is the weekend before the Super Bowl at UNF. The team will be here for about 10 days and there’s rumor that Crowe’s band might also make an appearance. Tickets are limited and can be purchased through the Jacksonville Axemen website.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Stop Picking Sides

I keep hearing stories about Byron Leftwich and whether it was the right thing to do to cut him and go with David Garrard. “Is Leftwich happy?” is the over riding theme. The answer is: “Who cares?”

I don’t have any beef with Byron and I didn’t have a huge opinion about whether he or Garrard should have been the starter all along. (But I did write in this column the week before the draft that the Jaguars shouldn’t take Leftwich. It’s in the archives.)

But he’s gone and somehow, his talent and ability to move the team, let alone stay on the field and avoid injury, is blown way out of proportion. “Now that he’s with the Falcons, he’ll be a star,” is how one fan put it to me while I was waiting in line last week at a restaurant.

Really? So he’s automatically changed? He’s more nimble? He has better mechanics?

He’s in the next phase of his career in a different city and a different conference. Bob Petrino is a big passing game guy so maybe the system in Atlanta will suit him. But if they think Joey Harrington isn’t mobile enough, Leftwich is a statue in comparison.

No question he didn’t like Jacksonville and he didn’t get along well with Jack Del Rio but did those things hold him back from being a superstar? I don’t think so. I always thought he was OK. “Stop telling me he’s Namath,” was my standard line. “There’s probably 10 guys in the league I’d rather have than him and I’d probably rather have him than 10 other guys in the league. He’s OK.”

But stop thinking about Leftwich and whether it was the right thing for the Jaguars or not. He’s gone and he’s not coming back. In fact, Jack Del Rio staked his career as the Jaguars head Coach on cutting Leftwich and putting Garrard in the game. If the Jaguars aren’t a playoff contender this year, Wayne Weaver will be scanning the lists of potential head coaches for 2008.

And James Harris will be gone as well.

I’ve often wondered how different Garrard would be if he was given the same opportunities as Leftwich, a first round pick. Would he have tried so hard last year that he couldn’t get out of his own way? I’m not sure but given a little rope, we’re going to find out. In the first two games, David’s played well but hasn’t been spectacular. That might or might not happen, but for now, the quarterback situation isn’t the issue.

There’s an undercurrent that also drifts through the fans attitude toward cutting Byron and keeping Garrard: David’s not black enough. I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous things but that’s about the most spectacularly ignorant thought process I can even conjure up.

Both Leftwich and Garrard were popular teammates, perhaps David a little more popular because he was the backup, which is pretty normal. Leftwich is a kid from D.C. and hasn’t changed. He’s a bit lazy with his speech and it cost him in endorsements. That and some unreasonable demands when he first came to town, looking for money that nobody had when he was first shopping himself around. It’s rumored that the Jaguars asked him to take some speech lessons, which he refused to do.

One teammate told me, “He’s a weird dude.” “How so,” I asked. “Who do you know wears sunglasses in the locker room at 7AM?” Ok, a little idiosyncratic, but I wouldn’t call that weird. Maybe it was a bit of a rough night. I’ve been told that Leftwich had a few of those on his resume as well. But of course, all of us have at one time or another.

So how can Garrard win the fans support, even those who thought he should be gone and the team should have stuck with Byron. Or even Quinn Gray.



That fixes everything.

Mark Brunell has iconic status in Jacksonville but he was somewhere in the middle of the quarterback pack even in his heyday. But in ’96 and ’99 the team won and #8 was at the helm.

I’ve heard it all when it comes to quarterbacks. He’s too short, his feet are too small, he’s not Christian enough, he’s too religious, he throws too hard and he’s scared and doesn’t want to get hit anymore. No matter what it is, everybody’s got an opinion. I’m sure it was the same in Miami when Marino was playing. Somebody had a beef with what he was doing. I know they moaned in Denver about Elway before he won two Super Bowls and even with his four titles all we ever heard about Terry Bradshaw was that he was stupid.

As for Garrard, let’s let him play. Let’s see what he is before we pass judgment. As Del Rio said when he made the change, “It’s a matter of style.” And Jack got it right. Let’s see what kind of style David brings to the table.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

To Buy or Not

There’s a lot of talk about blackouts and fan support for the Jaguars early this season. The team avoided a blackout in their opener against Tennessee, extending the deadline and selling just under 2,000 tickets in the last week.

What’s behind the blackouts anyway, I’m asked on a regular basis.

The league has their own rule that mandates that if a game isn’t sold out 72 hours in advance of kickoff then it can’t be shown on local television. It’s supposed to encourage people to buy tickets to see the game in person.

The self-imposed rule is an extension of a law congress passed in the early ‘70’s. Before that, no local games were shown on television but the lawmakers didn’t think that was fair and said if it’s sold out three days in advance, it should be on television. When that law went away two years later, the league kept it up, hoping congress would keep their nose out of the NFL’s business. And so far they have.

There are blackouts all over the league and have been for decades. Almost no games in Los Angeles were ever sold out, so they were blacked out. And in Tampa Bay, the average attendance was around 40,000 so for a dozen years or so, nobody saw the Bucs. Games are almost never on in Miami. But here in town it’s somewhat of a new phenomenon.

People, me included, bought tickets to the games when the franchise first arrived out of civic pride. We figured it was our duty to support the effort the city made to get a team here. There was a lot of buzz about the Jaguars and the visiting team as well. When the team went to the AFC Championship game in 1996, the buzz continued. But for some reason, the Jaguars never seemed to be able to capture that. When the novelty waned, the team could only count on wins to fill the stands, and as we know, it’s a cycle that teams go through in this salary cap era.

And when the games don’t sell out, a segment of the media chastises the locals for not “supporting the cause.” I think that’s really wrong. People don’t want to be bullied into buying tickets. They want to go because it’s fun and it’s the place to be. There’s a buzz. But the Jaguars for some reason have always managed to have that “buzz-kill” when it comes to the fun people want to have.

I hear too many similar stories about trying to buy tickets or bad encounters with team administrators on the phone to think that they’re all made up. I mentioned once that they should be more “pro-active” when it comes to selling tickets at training camp. On hearing that, one senior Jaguars official asked me if I wasn’t “too old to be still having my (menstrual cycle).”

A friend went to the stadium and bought club seats season tickets and was asked “Why now?” he said, “Because you cut Byron Leftwich.” “What’s your problem with Leftwich?” the ticket seller snorted at my friend.

When the announcement was made that Leftwich was being released and David Garrard was named the starter, there was a “buzz” around town. But if you wanted to buy tickets after hearing the news at 5:30 on Friday night, sorry, the ticket office was closed until next Tuesday, after Labor Day.

The next week the office was open on the weekend and in fact up until halftime but the “buzz” was gone for many people by Tuesday. If you wanted to buy season tickets but not club seats, there aren’t any of those left, a good friend of mine was told. “But we have the four packs,” he was reminded. Only to be told, “but one is just a three pack because the Indianapolis game is sold out.” “So I can buy a season ticket but I can’t go to the Indy game?” my friend asked. “Exactly,” was the curt answer? As I said, I hear too many of these stories to not think at least part of them are true.

I know plenty of people who aren’t going to a game because of the “criminal element” in the NFL. Others need some time after a Florida, FSU or Georgia game to recover. The Jaguars haven’t developed enough of their own fan base here in town yet in order to fill the stadium. They need some of the Gator, Seminole and Bulldog nation in the stands to fill the rest of the seats.

Maybe they’ll get there, maybe they won’t. But don’t tell us we must buy tickets just because. It’s a party, not a penalty.