Fenway Park

Wait! It’s Almost June? I Miss Baseball

As a kid growing up in Baltimore I was a big baseball fan. Still am. Often if I’m just scanning through the channels I default to the MLB Network.

When my TV career was ended, I was home nights for the first time in my professional life. That was different for my wife, who after ten days looked at me and said, “OK, the only rule is we’re not going to watch baseball every night.”

So I guess I’m still a big baseball fan.

Recently they’ve been running classic games on TV and the other day I stopped to watch Dave McNally, a pitcher, hit a Grand Slam for the Orioles in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series to beat the Reds. I hung around to watch the first couple of innings of the 1971 All-Star Game. I was fixated on the talent in the game.

Vida Blue started for the American League and faced Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Johnny Bench, all future Hall of Famers, at the top of the National League order. I counted no fewer than 25 future Hall of Famers in that game. And I realized, wow, I miss baseball.

Apparently, I’m not alone.

“I miss it. I miss watching baseball, I miss trying to figure out a trip to Atlanta or Tampa,” former Suns owner Peter Bragan Jr. said this week. “I want to go see that ballpark in Pittsburgh.”

Baseball has been in Bragan’s whole life, literally, since he was born. His is a baseball family from his uncles through his father, his own college career at Southern Alabama playing for former Major Leaguer Eddie Stanky and into his days of minor league ownership.

“You have no good idea when they’ll come back. Maybe July? Maybe with just a quarter of the fans,” he said when I asked about the uncertainty of the game being played. But then he reminded me about one of the threads that runs through the game.

“I miss the game terribly, he said. “But the greatest thing about baseball is ‘hope springs eternal.’ All baseball fans have that in their DNA.”

I’ve been told feeling nostalgic during this pandemic time is normal. But I’m not nostalgic for baseball of a bygone era. I just miss baseball. I glanced at a calendar the other day and said, “Wait, it’s almost June?”

Growing up in the game, with a college and an 11-year Major League career, followed by running a baseball academy and coaching his own son, Rick Wilkins has been around baseball since he can remember.

“I’ve never not had a baseball in my hand for more than a month in my life,” he said.

“It’s a marker and a measurement of time for me,” he explained this week. “My rhythms seem to be a little bit off. I’m used to having spring training, Opening Day, the first half, the All-star break. My timing is off.”

A pitcher for the JU Dolphins and now president of the university, Tim Cost agreed.

“I live by when pitchers and catchers are reporting,” Cost said of matching the calendar with the game. “I miss baseball in our lives terribly. It’s a great right of spring. When is Opening Day? The second week of July is the All-Star break. It marks time.”

When I asked my former dentist Dr. Ron Elinoff, the biggest baseball fan I know, if he was a little out of sync without baseball, he just laughed.

“Not a little, I’m a lot out of sync. Particularly growing up in New York,” he said.

Ron knows more about baseball than anybody I’ve ever met. Most of my visits to the dentist were dominated by baseball talk. A picture that hung on the wall in his practice even helped me answer a Stump Sam question once.

“We had three Major League teams in New York when I was growing up,” he said, recalling his roots in the game. “We’d cut school to go to Opening Day, Tuesday was Ladies Day; the games were in the afternoon.”

Marking time through the game started when Ron was just a kid in Brooklyn, long before a stint in the Navy that included service in Vietnam found him stationed at NAS Jax.

“April we really looked forward to,” he explained. “Days were getting longer. My grades went down. April and May it was hard to hit the books we were so thrilled to be at a game.”

Elinoff has been visiting the Dodgers in Spring Training since 1980 and has followed them to Arizona since they moved to Glendale eleven years ago. He’s one of about 10,000 fans who saw the last Major League Spring Training game played. Ron was at the Dodger game on March 11th, shortened to 6 ½ innings by rain. The next day they called the games off.

“I was there for five straight days of baseball and to see John Shoemaker (the former Suns manager). So I flew back Friday. Coming back the Brazilian baseball team was on my flight to Atlanta. They were out there trying to qualify for the World Baseball Championships. We all weren’t sure what was going on.”

Both Elinoff and Cost talked about being at a game, the lack of a clock, and the symmetry of the field, the game itself.

“Basketball and football are built around massive personalities,” Cost explained. “Sometimes baseball is seen as not of this time, but the beauty of the game is how much is going into every matchup per at bat, per inning. Pitcher against hitter, fielder against runner, catcher against base stealer.”

Elinoff agreed. “There’s no sport you can appreciate as much as baseball by being there,” he explained. “TV is fine, but you can’t visualize what the players are doing. It’s like a ballet going on, there’s artistry to it. The cutoff man, the catcher running down the first baseline to back up the first baseman.”

“Just to watch them chalk the lines and see the green grass,” he continued. “The grounds crew working, getting the mound ready. I really miss that. If you show up for just the Star Spangled Banner, that’s not enough.”

Ron and his wife Susan have made the trip to Cooperstown for the last thirty years for the annual late summer induction ceremony. He knows the city will suffer since there will be no ceremony for Derek Jeter this year, perhaps expecting their biggest crowds ever.

As you can tell, Elinoff and Cost are big baseball fans. Elinoff eventually bought ten season tickets to Dodger games when they were in Vero Beach and set his professional calendar around spring training games in March.

“I’d look at the spring training calendar in December and go to my book and block off the days I’d be in Vero. I’d take the kids to Sunday games and a guy’s trip to the Wednesday games,” he said, marking time through the game.

When Cost was the Executive Vice President of the Aramark Company in Philadelphia they ran more than twenty stadiums in Major League Baseball. It was his job to check on the stadiums, meet with the owners and make sure things were going right. He always had great tickets. At home at Phillies games he’d make a walk to the upper reaches of the stadium to find a parent and a child together and give them his tickets right behind the screen.

“The more you give to the game, the more it gives back,” he said, somewhat wistfully. “I’d be in a coat and tie so they knew I was somebody official. When I’d escort them down to my seats, to just see the look in the kid’s eyes to be that close to the game . . . it was fantastic.”

I caught up with former Major League pitcher Brett Myers right as he was heading out to practice with one of his three sons this week. Between his 12-year career and working with his kids, Brett couldn’t remember the last time he went this long without a baseball in his hands. But he didn’t mind it.

“When this thing came through we had a chance to do some different things,” he said. “We kind of took it as our summer. We’ll be back into it with lots of travel ball.”

Myers is generally concerned that young players are asked to “overthrow” their arms when they’re young, so forcing them to rest through this shutdown might be helpful in the long run.

“This whole thing gave me time to breathe. My older boy has had tournaments on the weekend since August. We cancelled our nine-year-old’s season just go keep their arms safe. Some parent weren’t happy but I think it’s the best thing to do.”

Throwing batting practice is a natural thing for Myers to do with all of his sons teams, sometimes four times a week. He hasn’t done that in a while and it gave him some new perspective.

“I just threw for 2 ½ hours just yesterday,” he explained of the first day they were allowed back on the field. “That’s one of the things I think about. If I’m sore, what are they going to feel like?”

There’s currently a debate as to whether baseball will have a Major League season this year. Wilkens, Myers, Cost and Elinoff all have differing opinions on how that can, or even should happen.

“It’s tough for the major leaguers,” Myers said. “They can’t take a chance to get hurt. They make a financial decision. How many guys are throwing bullpens? They’re not facing live hitting. Who knows how they’re going to come back.”

“If the issue is really the health of the players it doesn’t make sense,” Elinoff said. “Are 24 year olds going to get on the bus in their uniforms, go to the hotel, shower and stay there? Of course not. My hope is that it’s conveyed as a health issue and not as a money issue. If it’s a money issue, then they’re in trouble.”

Cost hoped the games would return but with a renewed idea.

“I hope it comes back in a form where they rethink how they’re presenting the game. Maybe more afternoon games, a chance to bring more kids and more young people to the game.”

“There’s no families out on the weekend, no kids playing, it’s just bizarre,” Wilkins said of the absence of the game. “It’s a Wilkins family way; the boys play baseball. It’s strange. It’s part of the fabric of who we are. It’s no good, not being able to go to games and watch kids grow as people and as players. There’s no other way to say it, it’s something that needs to be there. I just miss it.”

I used to say when I was asked to speak at banquets that baseball is the game that best emulates life. It’s an individual performance as part of a greater team goal.

That’s never been truer than now. We’re all in this game together, marking time. Let’s keep doing our part.

For The Last Two Months . . .

You might have to tilt your head a little, and maybe even squint a bit, but it appears there is a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel we’ve been living in.

It feels like forever, but it’s been about two months since the first calls from politicians to try and “flatten the curve” mandating we have smaller gatherings that eventually led to the “stay at home” guidelines issued by the city and the state.

We’ve seen hundreds of celebrities on television and on social media telling us “we’ll get through this together, and we’ll come out stronger on the other end.”

So with an optimistic eye toward that end, will we be stronger? What will we look like anyway? Besides our hair looking like something out of the ‘70’s, gyms and parks have been closed, social distancing has been in place and people’s routines have been upended.

As we look back on the past two months, what did we do? Did you fulfill your goals to lose weight, learn a new skill, or do those things you’ve been putting off? Which direction did we take our lives, our fitness and our mental health?

“From a clinical standpoint, the world is turned upside down,” Frank Palmieri a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, explained this week. Palmieri has been walking more and doing more yard work with his free time and doing many of his professional tasks by video conference. But he understands how the coronavirus is a constant presence in the back of everybody’s mind.

“We’re constantly aware of the danger of something being wrong. The whole situation can be depressing. There’s a constant drumbeat about what we have to be doing with schools, work and staying apart. That can make people confused and disoriented.”

Anytime I go out, I see more people walking or running or riding their bikes than I have in the last thirty years. Some of that might have to do with the sidewalk project in Mandarin nearing the halfway point of completion but there are people getting out and doing stuff who haven’t thought about walking any further than to the refrigerator in years.

One of the people trying to manage the pandemic is Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry. He’s always been visibly engaged with the fitness level of people here in town as well as his own. What did he do?

“Molly and I got a Peloton for each other for Christmas so that couldn’t have been better timing,” the Mayor said this week. “I’ve spent a lot of time on that and I’ve been running some.”

Curry’s son Boyd has been lifting weights in the garage, and the Mayor has joined in.

“I get about 45 minutes in each day, and the mental health aspect is great,” he explained, noting it’s a family affair. “My daughters Bridget and Brooke are running in the evenings. And Bridget does a virtual dance class a few times a week.”

Curry had gone to a plant-based diet at the end of last year and was pleased with the results. But in the last two months he admits, his diet hasn’t ben great.

“Even though I’ve been working out I’ve gained weight. I want to get back to it,” he said. “I’ll tell you this though, when I’m coming home from work it’s great to see the neighborhoods in the evenings have families walking together, jogging, riding bikes, walking the dog. Lock down doesn’t mean don’t leave your house, it means get outside and be smart. I’m really proud of how people have handled this.”

With the NFL still operating, albeit virtually, Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone has still had his share of work responsibilities. He’s moved his entire office to his home and has tried to keep a routine, which he said was initially tough. But he added there’s been an unexpected silver lining.

“You get back into a family situation, as tough as these times are,” Marrone said. “We’ve been a lot more fortunate than a lot of other people.”

Both of Doug’s parents worked when he was young, so having dinner together was a family tradition, a time to catch up. He’s had a chance to do that with his own children.

“With three teenagers they’re always running out,” Marrone explained. “We’ve tried to take advantage of that. We’ll look back and hopefully understand, but if you’re looking for a positive, you can find things you appreciate.”

Marrone has caught up on some reading and has tried to stay in front of planning for mini-camps and training camp if they happen at all.

“I don’t want to be scrambling,” he said.

As somebody who jokes about his weight on a regular basis, Doug laughed when I asked him about keeping on schedule.

“I was on this big kick trying to help all of the local restaurants early on, so that didn’t help my diet,” he said with a laugh. “But I’ve gotten to that point last weekend where I have to get my stuff together. Normally we’ll be on the field and running around. But sitting at a desk doing virtual meetings? That’s not going to cut it.”

Former Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts has been juggling his professional and family life from home like everybody else. Marts is the Athletic Director at Harvest Community School and has been preparing as if there will be athletic seasons next year. At the same time all of his children are home, making for some challenging logistics.

“I’m enjoying my kids being home because I never expected to have this time,” Marts said of having his college age children back under one roof. “But we did have to come up with a family strategy how to survive with everybody in the house together.”

Marts partitioned off his garage, with one half acting as a gym and the other as a podcast studio.

“We’ve had college exams, podcasts and Tik-Tok videos going on all at the same time,” he explained.

Staying fit is something Marts and his family has paid attention to for the last two months. His son Gavin is back from the Naval Academy and has been designing body-weight workouts for the family. Lonnie says he’s been lifting in his garage and trying to walk a lot.

“I kind of over-did it with walking and my knee started swelling up so I had to back off,” he said adding that he’s maintained his weight with a little fluctuation. “But what’s the new normal? With gyms and parks closed we had to find something.”

That knee-swelling Marts experienced isn’t unusual according to Matt Serlo, the Master Physical Therapist at PT Solutions in Ponte Vedra. A lot of those “home gym remedies” have resulted in more calls to his clinic.

“I’m happy that people are doing that,” Serlo said of the uptick in many people’s activity level. “But I’ve gotten a lot of calls in the past few weeks from patients who’ve said, ’I think I over-did it!”

While his doctor referrals are down about 50%, in Florida you can see a physical therapist without a physician’s referral for thirty days. So he’s seen more “walk-in” business.

“I get calls saying ‘This is sore, I twisted this or I wrenched that’, I’m hearing a lot of that,” said Serlo who has kept his own routine up, getting in a workout at least three times a week in the morning before seeing patients.

I checked back with Jane Alred of First Place Sports and Phil Foreman at Champion Cycling here in town. With all of this new activity, demand for them is up.

“Our maintenance requests continue to go way up,” Foreman said of the service at their three stores. “We’re also selling a lot of bikes. We’ve literally run out of some bikes. Some bike deliveries were shut down in Asia so they’re eight weeks behind.”

More women are buying bikes than men and because of that their most popular bike could now take three months to deliver. Beach cruisers and comfort bikes are flying out the door.

“I’ve been in this business for thirty eight years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Foreman said. “We’re just calling it ‘Groundhog Day.’ We’re pedaling as fast as we can from open to close.”

And the stress fracture in Phil’s right foot isn’t getting much better.

“I’m on my feet all day, doing repairs,” he said. “I’d love to be out riding my bike.”

At First Place Sports, their four stores were closed for six weeks but they’ve stayed busy.

“We did curbside and virtual fittings,” Alred said. “We were delivering shoes, painting buildings, pressure washing sidewalks, doing inventory. Our online is more robust.. Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize. Our stores have never been cleaner.”

Because of hospital closures, Jane’s previously scheduled foot surgery was put off for about a month. Her injury had limited her to walking 2-3 miles a day after being an active runner most of her life. And the combination of the coronavirus shutdowns and her foot problems had her focus on other habits.

“I’m much more cautious about what I eat,” she explained, adding that she’s been doing non-impact workouts on a Precor machine she bought her husband Doug for Christmas.

“I’ve been reading more, maybe watching Netflix at night. I get a little stir crazy. Sometimes I don’t want to get off the video calls I do for work during the day because it’s like the only human contact besides Doug.”

And no matter what happens with the re-opening of the stores and the economy, Alred believes she’ll be permanently changed.

“My new normal will be things like grocery delivery. I don’t know when races will start up again. I’m not sure I want to be around large groups of people right now.”

Two common threads emerged from the people I spoke to this week: Weird dreams and sometimes a feeling of the “blahs.”

“People who are optimistic by nature would find this strange,” Palmieri explained. “We are so used to going through our day automatically. We don’t have to think about what we’re doing. This compels us to think about every place we go, every person we talk with. We’re not relaxed. The process of change is uncomfortable. Every thing you do takes more mental energy.”

My guitar playing has gotten better. That’s what happens when you practice every day. My chainsaw and power tools have gotten a workout. I’ve been back on my bike after a hip replacement.

I got on the scale the other day, with plenty of trepidation, and I’m two pounds heavier than I was in mid-February. While that’s disappointing, at least it’s not the ten I thought it might be. And I think I know why; I had too much fun in the first month of the “stay at home” order. So that’s something I can fix.

I hope.

Where’s Shad?

In these “social distancing” times, it’s pretty normal to not see some people you’re used to seeing.

But where’s Shad?

In a literal sense,
I’m sure he’s working on one of the myriad of forty-plus companies he owns. The last time we saw him was in a picture during the NFL Draft, sitting at a table with his son Tony, apparently at his home in Illinois in their den, basement or office, watching and working on the Jaguars draft.

But I thought he was conspicuously absent from the Jaguars landscape this week when it was confirmed that the International Series for the NFL was cancelled for 2020. As the “face” of the International Series for the league in the last seven years and with two games scheduled in London this year, it’s a big move for the Jaguars to play all eight of their regular season home games in Jacksonville.

But we never heard from Shad.

Jaguars President Mark Lamping had a statement about playing here and tickets were available but nothing from Shad. As big a deal as they’ve made in the last few years about the revenue stream the London games put to the bottom line and how important the game has become to the franchise’s viability in Jacksonville, you’d have thought Shad would have something to say.

No doubt this is a difficult time for any business owner, and Shad, I’m sure, is no exception. His commitment to his employees is always evident and laudable.

“I know where my bread is buttered,” he told me at an NFL Owners meeting when I asked where the Jaguars fit into his portfolio. “I have 20,000 employees at Flex-N-Gate who are counting on me to help them take care of their families, pay their mortgages and fund their kids education.” I was impressed by that comment because of the spontaneity and the sincerity that came through as he sat next to me. It wasn’t a canned line written by some PR department.

So I’m sure he’s fully immersed in trying to keep his companies and employees fed and clothed and back on their feet as soon as possible.

But we need some of that. From him.

Even some kind of “Hey, we’re sorry we’re not playing in London but wow, it’s just great to be able to play those games in front of our fans here at home,” would have been great.

Owning an NFL team is a different venture than owning any other kind of business. You’re going to make money as the owner; the only question is, how much? And nobody has much of a problem with that.

But there’s a raw, visceral connection between a town and it’s football team. And here in Jacksonville, a working-class city, that connection is even more primitive. Part of it is being a “football town” and part of it has to do with the nearly two decades long chase for an NFL team.

And part of that connection has to be with the owner. We had some of that with Wayne Weaver. He lived here, you’d see him around, at restaurants at charity events. His philanthropy is unparalleled. Shad has also been very generous with his many donations both personally and through the Jaguars.

But we need more of him.

I told Weaver many times he was the most under utilized promotional tool the Jaguars had during his ownership. He usually laughed me off. But I believed that then and I believe that about Shad Khan as well.

When Shad bought the team and took over in 2012, we couldn’t get enough of him. Every appearance was sold out; every comment was dissected for meaning and nuance. His spontaneous cameo in a “Gangnam Style” video went viral immediately.

We haven’t seen that Shad in a while.

We’ve seen him at games and official events. He’s involved in the political and development landscape with several proposals for a Shipyards and Lot J development. His yacht the “Kismet” is parked in the St. Johns downtown. He usually stays at the beach when he’s in town. He’s a presence here.

Since he’ll be 70 this year, maybe he’s turning some things over to his family? Maybe we’ll see more of Tony than in the past as fans of the Fulham soccer club have seen? I doubt that. Shad has too much vitality to step away from what he’s built. And he has too much of a sense of responsibility to the people who count on him.

If he showed up here in town now he might have to undergo a 14-day quarantine based on the Governor’s order. So we don’t want that. But if we’ve learned anything in these pandemic times it’s how easily accessible everybody is by video at a moment’s notice.

I don’t expect him to open a Twitter account like Jim Irsay of the Colts. Nor do I expect him to dance on the sidelines with an umbrella like Tom Benson of the Saints used to do. But some more of the Shad who danced with fans in the parking lot eight years ago would go a long way.

There’s a video of Shad being interviewed on the Jaguars website dated the beginning of February. He talks about how paramount it is to win on the field. He’s obviously a fan and somebody who has learned a lot about football. But he also talks about winning “off the field” with the development of Daily’s Place and the money invested in the stadium. He outlines the plans to help develop downtown. And he says, as he has often, ‘judge actions not words.” And added, “If Jacksonville is growing, it’s better for the Jaguars.” When asked about his slightly different role with the team he said, “there’s a fine line between abdication and delegation.”

I like al of that. So this isn’t so much of a complaint as a suggestion. We want to see more of you Shad. A quick video of encouragement in these tough times from a man of your stature would go a long way. Comments from your surrogates are fine but our connection is with you.

With your backstory, if there’s anybody who knows how the common touch is a powerful tool, it’s you.

Use it.

Draft Shows What Jaguars Think of 2020

“Read your article on the draft today,” my friend ‘Wooly’ texted me last Sunday. “Really liked it but thought you were holding something back,” he added.

It’s not that I was holding anything back, I told him. But the Jaguars clearly have their own ideas about how this team should be built and what it will be able to do.

And you can agree with that or not.

“I think you have to expect them to lie,” season ticket holder ‘Ghost of Chuck’ said as we talked about what the Jaguars said they were doing and what they’re actually doing.

While ‘lying’ might be a bit harsh, there’s no question that the days and weeks leading up to the draft are a time of, let’s say ‘disinformation’ in the NFL.

When you look at what the Jaguars did with the draft and what they said afterwards, it gives a pretty clear picture where Head Coach Doug Marrone and General Manager Dave Caldwell think this team can compete.

When asked if he thought about taking an offensive lineman with the ninth pick in the first round, Caldwell gave a direct and pretty revealing answer.

“We did, but the one we may have considered was probably gone at the time.” In the top eight picks before the Jaguars were on the board, the only offensive lineman taken was Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, a tackle, selected fourth by the Giants.

Cleveland took Alabama’s Jedrick Wills, another tackle, right after the Jaguars at the tenth spot. Tristen Wirfs another tackle from Iowa went 13th to Tampa Bay. Southern Cal’s Austin Jackson went to Miami 18th, Cesar Ruiz from Michigan and Isaiah Wilson of Georgia were also taken in the first round.

So elite offensive linemen were available in this draft, but the Jaguars didn’t select any at that position until Ben Bartch from Division III St. John’s of Minnesota in the fourth round. Bartch looks to have great potential but even the Jaguars admit he’s a ‘project.’

Clearly this draft and the renegotiated deal they made with Andrew Norwell sends the current Jaguars offensive line a message: “You’re it, get better.” Doug Marrone admitted as much.

“I think we have some good competition behind those guys right now,” Marrone said while the draft was going on. “Will Richardson, we have to get him locked him into a position. Tyler Shatley has done a good job for us I think those players have a lot on their plate to make sure they improve. We’ve said that. We really think they’re going to make a big jump.”

In other words, as my friend and colleague Mike DiRocco said in response to a question about the lack of offensive line picks, “They clearly have more confidence in the offensive line than you or the media do.”

Caldwell didn’t use any of his “ammo,” as he put it, of twelve picks to move up or back to get the players they wanted. According to him, they didn’t have to.

“We didn’t acquire picks to get less players, we acquired picks to get more players, and like I said there were so many players that we liked that at the end of it, we were like, ‘I wish I had a couple more picks in the seventh round.”

He admitted they’d have been happy to take wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. in the first round if they didn’t think he’d be there when they selected in round two.

“Should we go get Laviska?” Caldwell said about the conversations in the draft room when wide receivers started coming off the board. “We thought about it and I think we just said, ‘Let’s stick to the philosophy of this year’s draft. I’m not saying that’s every year’s draft. Next year, it may be different.”

A deep receiver class and Shenault falling “by the wayside a little bit,” allowed the Jaguars to wait and take him with the 42nd selection.

“If by chance he did go,” Caldwell said of his contingency plan, “We had enough players there where we would have felt good about possibly trading back and still getting one of the players we liked.”

Getting better up front on defense was a big priority; Caldwell said it helps him sleep at night knowing there are guys on the roster who can rush the passer. Marrone also likes the size they now have up front.

“Well the No. 1 identity that we have been talking about is the identity to be able to stop the run. In order to do that, you have to be big up front, you have to be physical and you are going to have to be able to tackle. That is something that has hurt us. That is something that we have put a priority on.”

Part of Marrone’s vision of what kind of defense the Jaguars can have relied on getting a “Number one type corner.” Either Jeff Okudah or C.J. Henderson would have fit the bill and when Henderson was there with the ninth pick, they didn’t hesitate.

“He is a big guy. He can play against guys that have speed, he can play against guys that are big and try to outmuscle them,” Marrone said, explaining why that position let’s them do so many things elsewhere on defense. “At the same time, we want to be able to cover on third down and let our rushers go.”

At quarterback, Marrone said Gardner Minshew would be the guy behind center if they rolled the ball out there right now. And Caldwell said they’d look at signing a veteran QB in addition to selecting Jake Luton from Oregon State in the sixth round. It’s the third year in a row the Jaguars have used their sixth round selection on a quarterback.

Based on Marrone’s “no drama” emphasis, the Jaguars aren’t going to sign Cam Newton and Jameis Winston said he wanted to get a “Harvard education” by signing with New Orleans. Now that Andy Dalton has been released by the Bengals, his logical connections to the Jaguars through offensive coordinator Jay Gruden make him an easy choice if he’s willing to work for a reduced rate. And former Jaguars QB Blake Bortles, a Caldwell 1st round draft pick, is still a free agent. Before you say that’s crazy, as sturdy and athletic as Blake is, couldn’t he fit a Taysom Hill kind of role for the Jaguars?

When asked if he’d told Leonard Fournette’s agent to tell Leonard to prepare to play in Jacksonville this season, Caldwell gave a quick, “No,” and didn’t elaborate.

But he gave some insight into how the Jaguars seem to think they can move on, if necessary, without Fournette, and with the guys they have and not address running back in the draft.

“I think maybe it’s misunderstood of how we feel about the other guys we have in our room besides Leonard and Roc(quell Armstead) and Devine (Ozigbo),” Caldwell explained. “And those are two guys that as you look down, you start to get into the fourth, fifth round, and you’re like, ‘Do we like these guys better than Rock and Devine?’ And the real answer is no.”

Regarding the Yannick Ngakoue situation, Caldwell said they’d welcome him back with ‘open arms.’ He also noted that there weren’t any offers for Yan from other teams, mainly because of his long-term contract demands. Expect the Jaguars to be willing to let Ngakoue sit if he doesn’t sign the franchise tender. That would be really dumb on his part. As I’ve said, he’s getting bad advice.

What kind of team will they be?

“Young, smart, tough. Guys that love football,” Marrone said. “Everything that we’ve talked about, not a lot of stuff going on that’s going to distract them, a bunch of guys that are excited for their opportunity, appreciative. These guys want to go to work. They want to play.”

“You’re never going to come out of a draft completely satisfied. But this is about as satisfied as we’ve been,” Caldwell said in summary. “We feel good about the players we got and filled some needs.”

Agree or disagree with what they’re doing, the Jaguars brass are true believers in their vision. They got the players they wanted, and the kind of players they wanted and expect to compete now. Not rebuild, not ‘roll into it’ but compete in the AFC South if they have an NFL season in 2020.

Jaguars Get What and Who They Wanted

There’s always been a two-way discussion for NFL teams about the college draft: Do you pick for need or just draft the best player available?

For the Jaguars this year they were picking for something different: No drama.

Head Coach Doug Marrone stressed that point several times leading up to the draft and the Jaguars followed through, picking players who aren’t bringing a lot of baggage to Jacksonville.

“Is it big? Absolutely,” Marrone said of getting rid of any drama surrounding the Jaguars. “Is this something that we’ve stressed? Yes. But we were able to do that without sacrificing the talent or potential.”

They call these types of players “high-character guys” in the NFL. There is a theory that you need some “low-character guys” on your team to win in the league just to keep the other team honest.

This year, the football staff and the personnel department had a plan and they stuck to it. The draft was deep so they felt like they could not only get the player they liked but the kind of player they liked as well.

“So our goal was, ‘we have 12 draft picks, we don’t want to be flippant with the picks.’’ General Manager Dave Caldwell explained. “It’s easy to be like, ‘I have 12 picks, so let’s use this pick to trade up and trade that,’ but let’s just let the draft come to us and still get talented players that fit our culture, fit our locker room and that can come in and compete at a high level.”

There are team captains all over this Jaguars draft. Ten of the first eleven players selected by Marrone and Caldwell were named captains in college. The eleventh, Davon Hamilton (who might have the biggest arms you’ve ever seen) played on the defensive line at Ohio State where Chase Young was the captain but was described by Gene Smith, the Buckeye’s Athletic Director as, “A Sunday kind of guy. He’s disruptive. He’s smart. I love Davon because on top of everything he’s a great human being.”

So coming out of this draft, even if the Jaguars don’t win, you can have them all over for dinner.

“When they’re good players and they’ve been good in the locker room and they’re good on these college campuses and in their community, and then really what that means is now you can coach football and whole focus can be on football,” Marrone explained.

The Jaguars had specific needs, but he wanted players to come into the locker room not worried about their “brand” or their Instagram account. Marrone was looking for workers. He personally talked to college assistants about what kind of workers and teammates potential draft picks were, looking for a specific type of player to come to Jacksonville.

“I really believe that when you don’t have a lot of things going on on the outside with this person or that person or whatever it may be, and you can totally focus just on football when you’re in the building, you have a chance to be a pretty good player,” he added.

That’s not to say they didn’t address their needs, or give up on getting talent either. This draft was so deep at the positions the Jaguars were looking for they could get the guys they wanted without a lot of jumping around. Marrone was quick to say the Jaguars didn’t “settle” on anybody. He claims the players they took early were the highest rated players on their board.

“That is the one thing. I don’t want these players from a situation of, ‘Well, you know what. Jacksonville went ahead and they took two guys that are really great guys, but they may not be talented,’ Marrone said. “We feel that we have gotten great talent, guys that can produce at positions that we needed, but we did not have to go and take them [out of position]. They were the highest rated players on our board when we were going to go and pick.”

And Marrone even leaned on some of his current players when deciding whether a potential draft pick would fit with the culture he’s trying to build. He talked to Jawaan Taylor about C.J. Henderson. They were teammates at Florida. Same with D.J. Chark and K’Lavon Chaisson at LSU, and he was happy with the answers he got.

“There’s players in our locker room that know these players, and that’s important for me to get a sense of, ‘Hey, are these guys going to fit? Are they what we’re looking for?’ Marrone said of his internal research.
“They understand the challenges we have as a team. ‘How are they going to be there?’ I was very comfortable with that. I couldn’t be happier about where we are right now. Who we’re bringing in, we still have that responsibility trying to create this locker room.”

Prior to the draft, Caldwell said that his twelve picks gave him some “ammo” to move around and get the players the Jaguars wanted. So we anticipated some fireworks. That just didn’t happen. The draft unfolded just about how everybody predicted. No big surprises.

“I haven’t been reluctant, I just felt like we had options at every pick,” Caldwell said after day two.

Every time the Jaguars were getting close to their pick, Caldwell said he was ready to make a trade to move up to get who they wanted but he didn’t need to.

‘”Okay, well there’s two picks to go and we feel good about three players or five players,” is how explained what happened. “So there’s no real need to trade up. There’s been enough players that we like. I think sometimes patience pays off.”

This collaboration between Marrone and Caldwell has worked well: at least at getting players and the kind of players the Jaguars wanted. You can disagree with what they’re doing, but they’re building the team they think will work. The model of everybody reporting to one football czar, didn’t work, at least from a personnel perspective.

Marrone told everybody what kind of team he wants the Jaguars to be and the coaching staffs and personnel department worked together to find the players that would fit that model.

Caldwell says the idea they presented to Owner Shad Khan about how to build a team after Khan fired Executive VP Tom Coughlin has worked.

“The process has been really good and it’s been really seamless and enjoyable on my part with our coaching staff and our personnel staff,” he explained. “Good dialogue where everyone can speak freely and not be judged.”

I’ve often thought that the Jaguars should reflect what kind of people live in Jacksonville. Like the Steelers reflect Pittsburgh, the Bills reflect Buffalo and the Ravens reflect Baltimore: Tough, hard working, “I don’t care who gets the credit let’s just get the job done” kind of guys. You know, the anti-Jalen Ramsey type.

This draft seems to have accomplished that. Now let’s see if they can play.

A Complicated Draft, In More Ways Than One

There are a lot of moving parts for any NFL team when it comes to the yearly college draft.

This year there will be even more moving parts as the NFL will conduct the draft virtually with everybody, from GM’s, scouts, coaches, medial staff and anybody else with input to a team’s pick meeting via video conference. NFL organizations will use Microsoft Teams to communicate. The Jaguars expect to have everybody who is normally in the draft room on that call. From there, all thirty-two teams will use WebEx to be in touch with the league. If it all crashes, they’ll pick up the phone.

So it’ll be a complicated process, seven rounds over three days with the first round this coming Thursday. There was some lobbying for more time in the first round and even more picks and honestly in this environment, it sounded like whining.

Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell wasn’t part of that carping chorus. He said he’s pretty comfortable with the mechanics of how it will happen this week. There won’t be any time problems making trades in the ten minutes allowed in the first round according to Caldwell but he did say, “I might have to see if my left hand is as good as my right to get something done in the later rounds.”

Teams have all kinds of questions as they go into the off-season and prepare for the draft. Decisions made in the draft can impact franchises for years.

What did they do in free agency? What specific needs to they have? Do they want to get younger? Can they fit players under the salary cap? Are they rebuilding or just reloading for a playoff run?

That’s why when Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell said, “We want to hit on all twelve,” when asked about the big number of draft picks he has on Thursday, he might have been giving a standard answer but he might also be thinking that’s exactly what the Jaguars need to happen to be competitive. “We want to make every one of them count,” he added.

The Jaguars don’t have one of those questions to answer. They have all of them. And not much time to find solutions.

“If we went to play right now and Gardner Minshew is our guy, I’m excited about that,” Head Coach Doug Marrone said. So they appear to be confident enough in Minshew that quarterback with their ninth pick doesn’t seem like a possibility.

While saying he feels like he could line up and play with the guys on the roster right now, Marrone was excited about the draft possibilities.

“Do we want to add players? Absolutely,” he said. “We are going to have a great opportunity to do so in this draft with 12 picks. My personal philosophy is you can never go wrong with taking who you view is the best player.”

Marrone was also open to developing a team based on the talent available, and not the other way around.

“We want to get playmakers and make them make plays,” he said. “When you put a player on the field as a starter, you’re saying ‘I have confidence in that player.’ Am I happy with Gardner,? Absolutely.
A lot depends on how Gardner progresses. If he’s hot, we’ll roll with him.”

And he hammered home the point of what kind of team he expects the Jaguars to be in 2020.

“We’re going to be a younger football tem. Team concept, not a lot of drama,” he said, emphasizing the ‘no drama’ point again. “Great teammates and guys in the locker room.”

As you might imagine, teams rehearse what is going to happen on draft day, coming up with all kids of scenarios in their own mock drafts leading up to that day. They feel like they’re prepared for any eventuality.

Last year though, was pretty unique.

“We ran over a hundred scenarios in our draft room,” one senior Jaguars personnel official told me, “and not once did Josh Allen fall to us.”

Perhaps that was a bit of hyperbole since Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell denied that this week saying, “There were a few scenarios where Josh fell to us.”

Either way, they were surprised, and fortunate when the player they considered one of the top two in the draft fell in their lap.

You can tell when that happens for a team by the amount of time it takes for the previous pick announcement to be made and when the “pick is in” graphic comes up on the screen. Last year, it was almost immediate.

This year the number of players in the draft the Jaguars consider elite is a little higher.

“Four,” Caldwell said without hesitation when I asked him how many players in the top nine this year he wouldn’t hesitate to take if they’re still available when the Jaguars are on the board. You’d figure that Joe Burrow and Chase Young would be two of them.

Overall, the Jaguars have the draft split by offense and defense.

“Offensively you can get a good player late,” Caldwell said. “Defensively there’s a big drop off and there’s not as much depth.”

It’s apparent Alabama Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is the lynchpin to what happens in the first 20 picks in this year’s draft. Some teams covet him; others aren’t convinced, based on his injury record that he can hold up under the pounding an NFL quarterback must endure.

One thing seems certain: If there’s a run on quarterbacks in the top six or seven, one of the four players the Jaguars would like to have at nine will still be there.

With two picks in the first round the Jaguars have plenty of options and lots of possibilities. Caldwell said he’d let it play out in front of him. If all of the players they like are gone early they could trade back.

Or if the exact opposite is happening, the Jaguars could go in the other direction.

“If you are sitting there at No. 9 and No. 20 and there is only one guy you like left at pick No. 5,” Caldwell said. “You might have to use some of that ammo to go up and get the guy that you want.”

He added that the Jaguars have worked some scenarios to trade up or back and have been in touch with GM’s across the league to discuss some of the possibilities.

Just a couple of years ago, Caldwell didn’t hesitate to call Jalen Ramsey when the FSU cornerback fell to the Jaguars with the fifth pick in the 2016 draft. The Cowboys had the pick in front of the Jaguars and as soon as Roger Goodell in Chicago announced “Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Ohio State”, Caldwell was on the phone. It was a situation the Jaguars knew was a possibility, but considered it very remote. When a player like Ramsey falls in the draft, some teams might pass but others will snatch him right away, and that’s what the Jaguars thought about Ramsey that spring.

That’s why when a player of the talent level Josh Allen has does fall, some teams start to wonder why and pass while others have such high marks on him they can’t say no.

You might remember Dan Marino’s Hall of Fame career started with him falling all the way to the second to last pick in the first round in 1983. He was the sixth quarterback taken after drug rumors scared teams off. It’s why the Packers took Aaron Rodgers in the first round with Hall of Famer Brett Favre still on the roster. Rodgers could have been the number one pick but when the ‘Niners took Alex Smith he started to fall. Green Bay didn’t need a quarterback but they couldn’t pass on him.

In 1995, he Jaguars did the same with Rob Johnson. They didn’t need a quarterback; they already had Steve Beurlein and Mark Brunell. But after the first day, Johnson was the only player left on their board they thought would be picked in the first three rounds. Tom Coughiin considered him borderline first round talent. They took Johnson, who won an important game for them a couple of years later in Baltimore, then traded him to Buffalo for the draft pick that eventually became Fred Taylor.

One thing that wasn’t evident during their pre-draft conference call was panic. Neither Caldwell nor Marrone seemed under undue stress or pressure although Shad Khan seems to have given both men one year to get this right. They didn’t have and telltale paranoia that usually shows itself when decision-makers are under the gun.

So good for them, and let’s hope they have a little luck. They could use it.

Author’s Note:

I wanted to just take a second here to give you a sad update on two people you might have read about in this column over the last year.

My friend of nearly forty years, Sharon Siegel-Cohen lost her battle with ALS last week. Sharon was a newscast line producer when I first arrived in television here in Jacksonville in 1981. We became friends right away as I got my feet wet and she helped me learn about the city. She was so talented, she was promoted out of that position quickly and moved on to stations in Atlanta and Tampa before coming back to Jacksonville in a management role. Because of her promotions and moves we didn’t work closely together at our jobs but we became close friends. Sharon was about the kindest and most easygoing person I’ve ever met who also kept one foot firmly planted in reality. I don’t know that I ever heard a cross word out of her and she was such a superb judge of character that just one tilt of her head was all you needed to know. Her fight with ALS seemed supremely unfair but I never heard her complain and she always kept her wry sense of humor. As said in her obituary, which she wrote, “I am lucky to have had a wonderful life. My final wish is to find a cure for ALS. Lou Gehrig was diagnosed in 1939. It’s time to find a cure.” Sharon was only 62 years old and I’ll miss her terribly.

We also lost Jim Frey last week. Frye had a lifelong career in baseball with a storied minor league playing career and even more success as a coach, manager and GM during stops in Baltimore, Kansas City and Chicago. Frey spent most of the year in Ponte Vedra near his family after retiring and when he found out I was from Baltimore, we spent a lot of hours talking baseball and the Orioles. An avid golfer, Frey shot his age (88) at Marsh Landing last summer. It was the 500th time he’d done that in the last 20 years. Jim was smart, a great storyteller and fun to be around. I’ll miss him as well.

Sports During A National Crisis WWII

It’s not hard to find the last example of all of America in crisis. Nearly eighty years ago, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Young men enlisted and were sent off to fight. Every other American was asked to do the same as now: Stay home and do your part.

“Everything came to a halt,” ten-time Grand Slam tennis champion Tony Trabert said this week. Trabert will turn ninety this summer and remembers, “It was all focused on the war effort.”

It’s the last time a national crisis has had this kind of impact on American sports, or America in general. The NFL has stopped any face-to-face contact and will hold its draft later this month in a full virtual environment. Every team’s brain trust will stay home.

This was supposed to be Masters Week. Instead, they announced they’d try and play The Masters the second week of November due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s the first time they haven’t played The Masters in April since WWII when the tournament was cancelled from 1943-1945.

They cancelled The Open Championship this week in the UK. The last time that happened was also during WWII from 1940-1945. And the same with Wimbledon and the French Open. They’ll try and play the PGA Championship, originally scheduled for next month, in August. The PGA only missed one year, 1943. The Rose Bowl was played in Durham, North Carolina in 1942 and the Florida Gators didn’t field a football team in ’43.

I asked my Dad if he remembered what was happening to sports in American during the last national crisis during WWII. As an eleven year old, he and some friends were recruited to sell Pepsi’s at the 1944 Army-Navy game in Baltimore.

The game had been moved to Baltimore from the Navy campus in Annapolis to accommodate the unprecedented interest in the matchup billed as the “Game of the Century” between the service academies. They were the top two ranked teams in college football and this game would determine the National Champion. Nearly 67.000 fans bought war bonds to be eligible to buy a ticket to the game. They filled Municipal Stadium in Baltimore and raised $58 million for the war effort.

As the youngest child of immigrants who had barely ever been out of his neighborhood, it was easily the largest gathering my Dad had ever seen. The size of the crowd scared him so that he “put the box of Pepsi’s down and ran away.”

“There were certain things you couldn’t get, like butter. And you had to be inside by dark every night,” Sam Sr., who turned eighty-seven in February, recalled of life in an East Coast port city during the war. “There were neighborhood ‘wardens.’ They had a badge and a whistle. You had to be inside and pull your ‘blackout shades’ down with no light coming out of the sides.” Government authorities were leery of a German bombing attack and wanted the cities on the East Coast dark at night.

There were no blackout shades in Cincinnati but Tony Trabert remembers some things being in short supply.

“Butter and meat were rationed, we had shortages with anything and everything that had to do with the war effort,” Trabert said this week.

“I remember listening to Joe Louis’ fights and Reds games on the radio,” Trabert recalled. “But I also remember the battles being reported, hearing about fighting Rommel in Africa and D-Day and all of the names of the battles in the Pacific, places like Okinawa and Guadalcanal.”

Trabert returned to Europe less than five years after the war at the start of his tennis career and the remnants of the battles were still apparent.

“I played a doubles exhibition in Berlin with Bill Talbert in 1950 against two Germans, (Gottfried) von Cramm, a great player (a three time Wimbledon runner-up) and a guy named Saas. Von Cramm was a real gentleman player who got into trouble in Germany because he wouldn’t cooperate with the Nazi’s. I remember we played at the Red and White Club had steaks for dinner. But you’d look out the window and as far as you could see there was rubble. When we went to Wimbledon we had to bring our own steaks. They still had some rationing nearly five years later.”

Professionals didn’t rule the sports landscape at the time, outside of baseball and boxing. Joe Louis ended up not fighting as the heavyweight champ for four years during WWII. As a Sergeant in the Army, he fought ninety-six exhibition matches in front of two million troops.

Five hundred MLB players went off to military service during WWII but baseball kept playing. The game was deemed non-essential in WWI so Commissioner Kennesaw “Mountain” Landis wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt asking for advice. FDR responded the next day in what has come to be known as the “Green Light Letter.”

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going,” Roosevelt wrote. He thought that baseball could be a source of relaxation for American workers, “Baseball provides a recreation which does not last over two hours or two hours and a half, and which can be got for very little cost. And, incidentally, I hope that night games can be extended because it gives an opportunity to the day shift to see a game occasionally.”

Different parts of the country had different experiences as the war effort took over daily life.

“I was up in Kentucky at that time, I remember stamps and you couldn’t get much gas,” Eighty-eight year old Herb Peyton said this week.

There wasn’t a lot of interest in sports in Kentucky at the time outside of Western Kentucky University football; The Hilltoppers stopped playing from 1943-45. The Kentucky Wildcats basketball team from Lexington did go to their first Final Four in 1942

“I do remember there were a lot of opinions on the war,” Peyton recalled, his memory sharpened by his love of reading WWII History. Peyton remembered people were on both sides during his years pre-teen leading up to the U.S. entering the conflict. “Lindberg led the people who didn’t want to get involved. Roosevelt didn’t like that. Of course, all that changed after Pearl Harbor. It motivated everybody.”

My late friend Arthur Smith would have been eighty-eight this year. He was the player personnel director for the Jacksonville Tea Men in the NASL but also served as the color commentator on their TV broadcasts when I did the play-by-play. When we traveled together he would regale me with stories of what life was like in England, without sports, as the war raged in Europe. He ran home from school each day to be inside by dark.

“We’d played in the street,” he once told me, recalling soccer games as a kid in his hometown of Retford, England. “But we’d have to stand on the side of the road when the tanks came through.”

Retford is between soccer hotbeds Sheffield and Nottingham in central England and only seventy miles from Manchester. While national competitions were called off, regional matches were set up, oftentimes with guest players who were stationed nearby.

Manchester United’s home stadium, Old Trafford had been requisitioned as a military depot and was bombed by the Germans in 1941. Manchester City offered their home ground at Maine Road as an alternative and both clubs played there through the war and for the next eight years. Talk about resilience!

Smith also remembered running into the “bog” next to town to survey a freshly downed German fighter plane. “We were trying to get some Perspex (Plexiglas),” he said. “It was worth something.”

Arthur’s mother-in-law had a very different experience in the small town of Americus, Georgia. Growing up, there were always “half-rubber” games in the streets with a broomstick as a bat and people listening to baseball on the radio, but that all changed in December of ’45.

“Things got pretty quiet,” ninety-four year old Sybil Crawford said of life in her town when the country went to war. “They still had high school sports but all of the boys went off to fight,” she added this week. “It stayed pretty quiet until the British boys showed up.” British aviators were learning to fly at the Souther Field training base nearby.

As a young teenager in Grove City, PA, former PGA Tour Director of Information Tom Place remembers very well when US citizens who were staying home were asked to do their part.

“There were rations on gasoline and just about everything else,” Place, who was born in 1927, said from his home in Ponte Vedra this week. “We had Oleo instead of butter. You didn’t think much about it, you just did it.”

Gasoline was rationed with “A,” “B,” and “C” cards depending on what people needed at the time. The “A” card was for business owners and down to the “C” cards for general use

“A couple of my pals had a car we called the “hunk of junk,” an old Studebaker,” he remembered. “My friend Rick worked at a dairy farm so he had an “A” coupon for gas. He’d stick that in the window and we’d fill up. Just kids acting like kids.”

Place heard about Pearl Harbor when he and some friends were headed to the store to buy some more BB’s to play with in the fields around Grove City. He had two older brothers who went to serve but at home he was doing his part.

“I was a ‘messenger’ with the rest of the kids when we’d practice for possible air raids,” Place said. “There was a diesel engine plant close by that we thought could be a possible target. They’d blow the siren and everybody would head to the basement of one of the two banks downtown. I even had an armband.”

Keeping some sense of normalcy, Place remained a big sports fan as a teenager during the war, listening to the Pirates on the radio and said he ‘vaguely” remembered when they called off the Masters and the other golf majors in ’43. “There wasn’t much going on,” he said. He also remembered listening when the Steelers and the Eagles merged to form the “Steagles” to keep playing in the shrunken eight-team NFL in 1943.

Anxious to join the war effort, he enlisted in the Marines when he turned 18 in 1945 and went to basic training at Parris Island and then to Camp Lejeune in California.

“They told us from the start we were going to the invasion of Japan and it would be tough,” Place said of his days as a young Marine. “I was at Camp Lejeune when President Truman dropped the bomb and probably saved my life,” he recalled.

“I was on a train on my way to Des Moines as a 15 year old to play a tournament,” Trabert remembered, from his Ponte Vedra home. “I saw a bunch of people jumping up and down on a street corner. I asked the conductor when he came by what all the commotion was about and he said it was V-E day.”

While it took some time, things eventually got back to normal. Sam Snead went to Scotland the year after the war in 1946 and won The Open Championship at St. Andrews, beating Bobby Locke by four shots. George Halas returned from the Navy to coach the Bears that same year to the NFL Championship and the LA Rams became the league’s first West Coast team. Ted Williams was back in a Red Sox uniform from the Marines and was the American League MVP leading Boston to the AL Pennant. Stan Musial also came back from the Navy in ‘46 and was the NL MVP. The Cardinals won the World Series in seven games.

So it might take some time, but we’ll get back to normal. For now, let’s just do our part.

Boselli Battles COVID-19

When his best friend Mark Brunell talks about Tony Boselli, he says he didn’t like him much at first.

“He thought he was the best player on the team,” Mark says. “Which he was.”

“And he thought he was the toughest guy on the team,” Brunell usually continues. “Which he was.”

I can attest to Boselli’s toughness. Having known him for over 25 years, I’ve seen his toughness as a football player during his career in the NFL That toughness continued when I’d see him in the gym once his career ended. A different kind of toughness showed itself when he emerged as a community leader in the political arena. He values toughness in his current role as an analyst for the Jaguars radio broadcasts and nationally on Westwood One.

But no level of toughness prepared him for his latest battle with Covid-19.

“I don’t know if I ever was like I thought I was going to die,” he recalled this week. “But I remember having the conversation with myself: ‘I don’t want to die here.’”

That conversation with himself happened for Boselli while he was in the ICU at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. After a few rounds of golf the weekend The Players was cancelled, Boselli started to feel bad on Monday, March 16th. He thought it was just a cold.

Two days later he felt worse and was told he had been exposed to the Coronavirus. He called his doctor and got tested that day. Two days later the results showed he tested positive for COVID-19.

“When I first got it, I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, this is a headache,” Boselli said. “I didn’t think it was a big deal. I’m like, ‘I’m 47 and I’m healthy. This is going to be three-to-five days, then I’ll be back.'”

A couple of days later his “cold” lingered but the following Tuesday he says he was going downhill fast.

“That’s when I was like, ‘Holy cow … this is real.’ When I went to the hospital, I thought I was going to get some fluids and some meds. They took an X-Ray and said, ‘You’re not leaving. You’re going to ICU.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ You realize that this stuff gets out of control pretty quick.”

Things got serious when during his stay in the ICU, doctors were trying to get a handle on the severity of his condition.

“It was kind of fuzzy, but I remember (the pulmonologist) saying, ‘If we don’t get your oxygen stabilized, we’re going to have to go to the next level,'” Boselli said. “I remember laying there thinking, ‘What do you mean, if this doesn’t work?’ He says, ‘We don’t know what direction this is going to go.’

Doctors did get his oxygen stabilized and Boselli started to recuperate. After a few more days of recovery in the Mayo Clinic, he was discharged last Tuesday after nearly a week in the hospital and two weeks after starting to feel bad. He’s had additional tests for the virus and so far, the results have been negative.

During his hospital stay, Boselli was quarantined, only staying in contact with his family via text when he had enough energy to grab his phone. He credits the health care workers with his recovery. They were the only people allowed near him, wearing full protective gear.

“They were great,” Tony said with a strong sense of gratitude. “Those doctors and PAs and nurses and techs, everyone, they’re amazing. These people were absolutely amazing. Superstars.”

Having lost twenty pounds in the last two weeks during this ordeal, Boselli says he’s still weak but hopes to be back on his bike soon: his current choice of a cardio workout.

Tony’s wife Angie also tested positive but had much more mild symptoms. “She’s tougher than me,” Tony said with a smile. The rest of his family is also fine.

“I’m on the right side of this thing now but I can tell you, the thing is, it’s real,” he added as an alarm to those not heeding the warnings. “These health care experts and workers that are talking about this? They’re not making this up.”

“Take it from someone who was in the hospital and had these people working on me: They’re risking everything themselves to take care of people. It’s serious. It’s real. We need to do what people are being asked to do.”

Things We CAN Do

We’ve been told a lot over the past week what we can’t do. “Don’t do this” and “Don’t do that” have been among the myriad levels of “stay at home” mandates.

So what can we do?

Turns out, “stay at home” doesn’t mean sit in your living room eating Cheetos or cowering to the coronavirus. While this new reality, at least for the next month or so, has changed our routines, it doesn’t mean it has to completely change our lives.

National, state and local parks might be closed but thirty-eight of the forty-one boat ramps in Duval County are still open. Some kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are gathering dust in your garage. Don’t get into a pickup basketball game, but shooting hoops at the basket you haven’t used in your front yard is still allowed.

Playing golf, riding your bike, going to the shooting range, finding a creative way to work out and even just going for a walk are all still options.

“I’ve never seen so many people out running and walking,” Gate River Run Director Doug Alred said this week. Alred also owns the four First Place Sports running stores in town and says that with the guidelines to close his retail doors, he’ll keep his Baymeadows store open for call in orders. Nike has also given him permission to list some shoes online at Amazon.

“They can call in and we’ll sell them shoes, socks, whatever they need over the phone and give it to them in the parking lot,” he said. “A lot of people out don’t know of us because they’re not part of this lifestyle. We’re hopeful some people will stick with it and something healthy will come out of this crisis.”

Alred’s business is down like any other retail store but other than not needing his part time help, the full time staff has been staying busy sanitizing the store and doing other projects. Some of them were laid off Friday with Doug hoping they can qualify for unemployment insurance quickly.

“We’re constantly cleaning, our employees are wearing gloves but it’s hard to social distance when people are working behind the counter or helping customers try on shoes,” he said, adding that while at 71 years old he’s still running about ten miles a week, but keeping his distance.

Running might mainly be a solo sport and activity, but scheduled group runs and races are a part of that lifestyle. For now though, they’re out of the picture.

“If the Gate (River Run) was two days later, we’d have probably had to cancel it,” Alred said, relieved the race went off as planned.

“We’ve cancelled or postponed nineteen different runs through the first of May. Even the Run for the Pies the second week of June looks in peril. I’m hoping for the Fourth of July to start up again but I’m not sure how many people are going to want to get in a group run.”

Getting on your bike is another option. You know, that bike in your garage you haven’t ridden in years?

“Two weeks ago, people just started flooding the stores, coming in for repairs,” Phil Foreman co-owner of three Champion Cycling stores in town explained. “Rusted chains, flat tires, bikes they haven’t ridden in years.”

“I’ve had fourteen Fourth of July’s at the beach store,” Foreman’s business partner Brian Corcoran said.

Fourth of July is one of their biggest weeks of the year. Corcoran said every day for the past couple of weeks has been just like that.

“People are showing up with bikes they haven’t ridden in years. Rusty chains, flats, a whole new wave of weekend warriors. People who don’t ride their bike but four or five times a year are riding now every weekend.”

With all of that interest, “social distancing” can be a challenge but Foreman says they have a plan.

“We’ve been sanitizing the stores multiple times, during the day, especially places where the customer is touching: handles, credit card machines,” he explained.

“We’re bike mechanics so we’re always washing our hands. We wear gloves and some of our employees are wearing masks. I probably wash my hands fifty times a day,” Corcoran said.

“Sixty percent of our business now is repairs, but we’re still selling a lot of bikes,” Phil added.

“We’ve sold lots of bikes over the phone,” Corcoran echoed. “They’ll ask, ‘Can you bring it out in the parking lot?’ We’ll wipe the bikes down and bring them out. I’ve sold a bunch of bikes like that to grandparents who are getting bikes for their grandkids. I’m seeing a lot of new customers.”

Phil and Brian are doing a lot of the work on their own since about a third of their staff has stayed home, avoiding contact.

“I really appreciate my employees, they’re working hard,” Corcoran added. “We’ve just hired an out of work bartender at the beach store. Just trying to do our part.”

And while their business is flourishing, both admit it’s bittersweet.

“We want people to get out on their bikes, but not because they have to, but because they want to,” Foreman said. ”Once this is all over we want to give people encouragement to get back out on their bikes.”

Having been a Certified Personal Trainer since 2003, Melissa Kingston believes in the benefits that fitness brings her clients.

As the owner of Definition Fitness in San Marco since 2011, the “shut down” order two weeks ago presented her with twin dilemmas.

“I wanted to stay in business but I also wanted to keep my clients going,” she explained. “Mentally and physically people count on what they’re doing, fitness-wise. Plus the sense of community people have coming into the gym; they would miss that.”

To solve those issues, Kingston started posting some bodyweight workouts by email and a link to an app to schedule individual workouts. The demand has been such that she’s now using a social networking app to hold live, online classes.

“It’s evolved into an online community. The membership has been so supportive. They want to maintain what they’re doing but they’re also supporting the gym. I’ll send out a text before with the time and a code (for the app) and any household equipment they’ll need. A chair, a broomstick, a towel, a grocery bag with canned goods in them as weights. It took about a week for everybody to come back.”

Is that part of the future of her business, once this is over?

“At first I was excited because I’ve always wanted to get some things going online,” she said, clearly having given it some thought. “But I’ve found people want to come back to a place outside of their house. There’s a lot of free fitness information being posted online these days. But people want an experience they can’t get on their own. They can only get that face-to-face.”

Walking into a gun store or a shooting range for some target practice with a mask on is usually a no-no. But in these times, it’s part of daily life.

“People coming in with masks, we ask them to show us their face, then pop it back on,” one proprietor at a local range said.

Ranges are operating with social distancing in mind, using every other lane. Still, spots are limited because local law enforcement agencies have to continue training.

“We’re trying to be as safe as possible,” he explained “There are local law enforcement groups that come in to keep their proficiency.”

And if you are going to the range, you’ll have to be pretty self-sufficient.

“We don’t have a lot of ammunition in back stock,” he added. “If you don’t have the ammo, we might not have any to replenish what you’re shooting. Every vendor is depleted. Orders have gone up by 300% and vendors are down to 25% of their staff.”

You no doubt have seen lines at gun stores as part of the pandemic story. Deemed essential, they’ve stayed open but there doesn’t seem to have been any lines in town. No doubt though, places that sell firearms have seen an uptick in their business.

““We have,” said “Z” Farhat, the Sales Manager at the family owned Green Acres Sporting goods on the Westside.

“Mainly ammunition sales, but some gun sales. A lot of the gun stores ran out of ammo, but we still have plenty,” he explained. “We have a contact in Miami, so when their stores were closed, we bought the backup from him. But I’ll tell you this, we’ll be out of ammo at the end of the month if we sell it at the rate we’re selling it now.”

With all of those customers around, social distancing is a real issue there. They’re sanitizing door handles and counters and everything else they can think of all day. They have one employee assigned to do just that. And they wipe down the guns and the counters every half hour.

“We’re all wearing gloves and we’re limiting the number in our concealed weapons classes,” Z said. “All of the chairs are spaced out in the class at least six feet apart.”

If there’s a sport that creates natural social distancing it’s golf. Courses that have stayed open have gone to great lengths to protect players. One person per cart, no rakes; leave the flag in. There’s an insert in the cup where the hole is normally cut. The North Florida PGA is supporting golf courses staying open as long as social distancing is practiced.

“We’re trying to keep everybody employed,” Bruno Couturier, the Managing Partner at Marsh Landing Country Club said. “We have done more rounds of golf this three months than we have in ten years. Our rounds are up tremendously. We’ll play 30-35,000 rounds this year if this keeps up.”

Couturier said they’re running their golf and their tennis operations outside, but they’ll sell things remotely.

“We’re still trying to manage through it,” he explained. “We’ll sell hamburgers for lunch ‘to go’ Friday, Saturday and Sunday from the practice green. Breakfast sandwiches as well on Saturday and Sunday.”

Might that be something they continue after all of this passes?

“Our members have been fantastic,” he said. They like the things we’re doing. They’ve been very supportive and very understanding.”

No Sports, No Problem

I have an eclectic group of friends.

My wife says that’s because they make me feel like I’m normal. That’ might be true. They’re a diverse group for sure. One thing that binds most of them is that they’re sports fans.

They’ve all laughed at this meme going around on social media:

Day Six Without Sports on TV: I noticed a cute girl sitting on my couch. Turns out she’s my wife. She seems nice.”

Checking in with friends has been suggested as a good mental health exercise during this somewhat “homebound” time. I did that this week to see what my normal group of friends has been up to, what they’ve missed and what they haven’t missed.

“I haven’t missed the XFL, that’s for sure,” my friend “The BQ” said when I asked him about his regular TV viewing habits. “I’ve really enjoyed how the NFL free agency season has developed. That’s been fun to follow.”

The BQ is single, but says he’s also been able to fortify his relationship with his post-college age daughter during this time.

“We’ve been fishing, just sitting around talking,” he said. “That’s really been nice.”

That sentiment seemed to be pervasive through all of the conversations with my friends.

“What it’s done for me has reinforced what I think is important,” ‘Baldy’ told me this week. ‘Baldy’ is retired, has kept playing golf pretty regularly and does some day trading as a hobby.

“I realized, again, most of this doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t need more than I have. Friendships, family, those are the important things. I’ve reached out to some of my old friends from years ago, back to high school. It’s amazing the response I’ve gotten.”

Almost all of my friends said they’ve missed watching the NCAA basketball tournament on television. You might remember my friend ‘Wooly.’ We’ve been to Las Vegas together a few times, spending time in the sports books. The NCAA Tournament is a big wagering enterprise but since there are no sports, there’s no sports betting.

And if you’re somebody who likes the ‘action,’ there is no action.

“Of course I miss the action,” Wooly said with a laugh. “If that’s something you enjoy, you miss it.”

I did some checking and you could still get ‘action’ from the sports books in the UK on: Soccer in Belarus, table tennis in Hungary and the weather in England. They’ll take action on what the high wind gust of the day will be.

“I miss going and watching the golf the most, frankly,” Wooly said. “It provides a level of relaxation I don’t get anywhere else. I always try and go to The Players, The Masters, and The Heritage. All of those, I value each one I get a chance to attend.”

“I haven’t missed watching sports on TV,” he added. I miss my buddies.”

Being in a business that’s significantly impacted by social distancing, Wooly has been working more this time of year than he normally would.

“That’s OK,” he said. “Everyday I appreciate the fact that I have a job to go to. I’m in a “no risk” job. I get to go to work everyday.”

Things haven’t been as good for my friend ‘Goose,’ at least not professionally.

Goose runs a company in town that would be called a “small business.” He’s been looking forward to Congress passing the stimulus bill because regrettably, he had to lay off his entire staff this week. He’s hoping that with the stimulus they all can collect unemployment and stay solvent. Most of them will come back to work, but in his business, there will be a significant lag before he’s back up to where he was two weeks ago.

“We’re shut down, and we have to react to that,” he added somewhat wistfully. “But everybody’s going through it so it’s not ‘woe is me,’ its ‘woe is the whole country.’”

While most of his time has been focused at work, Goose has been spending some of his extra personal time redoing a condo himself, ripping out floors, replacing the ceilings. His honey-do list is longer than ever, he says. Both of his college age children have moved back home so he’s been enjoying the time with his family.

“Our kids still kind of like us at this point, so it’s been fun to hang out with them a lot more,” he said of he and his wife who suddenly have two more adults living in their house.

“Like most guys, I miss watching basketball with my son. Watching golf on weekends. I always loved watching the 10 o’clock basketball game from the West Coast. I miss going to play golf, hanging out with some friends. But we’re getting along fine.”

At seventy-six years old, “Big Beef” is still involved with his business, a very big business. He says he’s been staying home mostly, being very careful.

“I’m very cognizant of the six-foot rule,” he said. “I’ve taken it very seriously. Being in my house isn’t all that bad. We’re not confined to a small apartment in New York or anything like that.”

“Beef” says his business is still going along pretty well. Some of his customers are looking for relief and he expects the government stimulus will be able to help them.

“This isn’t an economic problem with the country so we’re still moving forward and expect a good bounce when things work back toward normal.”

With a lot of options, Beef says he and his wife decided to stay in town. He’s misses traveling and some of the day-to-day contact in his office. But staying home has given him a chance to catch up on some things he’s been putting off.

“I’ve been going through old photographs. I’m doing business from home.” he said. “Taking life easy. I’m not anxious. I go out on the golf course in the cart. We’re getting take out and eating on the porch.”

“I think things will get back to normal and people will forget about this assuming they get a vaccine,” Beef said. “It has given me a new awareness of how serious the flu and things like it can be, that’s for sure.”

On the contrary, “True Blue” thinks this will have a long-term effect on how people think and act.

“My kid’s education will be much different. They’ll finish their school year online with their teachers. It’ll change the way we greet each other. Probably a lot less hand shaking. It’ll be long and painful enough that people will remember this.”

Blue works in the financial sector so he’s been working a lot more but he and his wife have school age kids that so he’s enjoyed spending some of this beautiful springtime with them.

“I’ve enjoyed the time with my family and I don’t mind the pace,” he added. “Once you calm down from the pace of what your typical day is like, you can enjoy time with your family. I’ve certainly gained a lot more patience.”

When my friends get antsy sitting around at home, they all have the same solutions: Go for a walk, get in the car and go for a drive. Blue is even making gourmet meals, doing things that take more time when you don’t usually have the time for.

And despite the total disruption of everybody’s lives, some things go on as normal.

“I took my son to get his drivers license,” Blue said with a laugh. “That’s a real right of passage. It was awesome. Of course he said that night he wanted to go out and I told him “no way.’”

Every one of my friends said they’ve had a chance to look around, and appreciate some of the things we all call normal.

“We have to appreciate all of the things we have,” Wooly said. “ When things get back to normal, “normal” will be appreciated with a higher value. I think that’s good.”

“This is a big deal,” said Baldy, who has enough of a scientific background to know. “The world won’t be the same after this. It’ll be a better place. I hope it helps relationships in this country and internationally. We’re going to get through this and we’ll be better for it.”

What Are They Up To

Like most everybody else, I’ve been staying home, following the guidelines, working on some projects, talking on the phone with friends and tracking the progress against the coronavirus.

And just like most everybody else, I’ve had a chance to let my mind wander about a lot of subjects.

Looking back over the last month or so here in North Florida there hasn’t been a lot of good news. Good journalism revealed an underhanded scheme to sell the JEA. The PGA Tour had to cancel The Players
The Jaguars announced they’re sending a second home game to London.

And they traded Calais Campbell to Baltimore.

The feds will get to the bottom of the JEA fiasco. There’s nothing good for fans the in Jacksonville as the Jaguars move another home game away. At least they say it’s temporary. And The Players will be back next year and I’ll look forward to that.

But I don’t think I’ll ever get over trading Calais Campbell. For now, at least, I don’t understand it.

There’s no way to replace Calais. His production on the field is easily quantified. It resulted in three Pro Bowl seasons while he was here. But his locker room presence and his off-field impact on the community can’t be measured.
Yes, he donated his time and money to local groups, but the goodwill he spread and the positive feelings people had about him, and consequently the Jaguars. are things that can’t be duplicated.

His efforts saw him named the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year for how he represented the league, the Jaguars and himself in the community. No matter whom else they send out there, Calais can’t be replaced.

Who asked about that at the stadium? Did anybody from the business side ask what else they could do besides getting rid of Calais?

From a football perspective, I hope Doug Marrone was banging on the table saying “Absolutely not” when the idea of trading Campbell was floated.

We haven’t been able to ask any of those questions of Jaguars General Manager Dave Caldwell or Marrone, yet, because of league rules relating to the coronavirus. Those rules, rightly in place, have kept the Jaguars brass isolated from the media. When a transaction is completed, the team sends it out on their website and their social platforms. The Jaguars PR staff has been in touch with the media via text and email.

It’s a good process under the circumstances but we haven’t been able to ask how some of these decisions came about. They tells us there might be some conference calls this week so we might get a chance to ask some questions.

Campbell was due $15M from the Jaguars this year. He signed an extension with the Ravens for $27M over two years. So it’s not as if he had some outrageous contract demands. But the Jaguars clearly thought the money they could save on Calais could fund what they wanted to do in free agency. They got a fifth round draft pick in return.

“With more draft capital, we’ll be prepared to acquire new players via trade or in the upcoming 2020 NFL Draft in April,” Caldwell said in a press release. “The acquisitions that we add to our team via free agency and the draft will complement the weapons that we already have on our roster, which allows our coaches and scouts to look at all opportunities to put the best possible team on the field in 2020 and beyond.”

That’s a pretty stock answer, and with the money they’ve created under the cap, the Jaguars have made some free-agent acquisitions.

Their biggest move is signing Pro Bowl linebacker Joe Shobert. Shobert is 6-1, 245lbs, so he’s Paul Posluszny. That moves Myles Jack back outside where he belongs. It’s a big improvement not just in talent but also in the personnel they have to run the kind of defense they like. It also atones for some of the strategic errors they’ve made since Poz retired.

Doug Marrone admitted as much.

“He brings an ability to tackle and diagnose plays. He’s a true middle linebacker.” Marrone said of Shobert in a prepared statement. “This gives us the ability to move Myles Jack to outside linebacker, which I feel is a more natural position for him.”

Otherwise, they’ve signed and resigned some players to fill some of the roster spots they think will be an upgrade to the 2019 roster.

But none of them are Calais Campbell. Nice players, good players, but not Calais Campbell.

So where will the leadership come from? Campbell was the undisputed leader in the locker room and showed it on the field. Gardner Minshew and Leonard Fournette will have to step up on offense. On defense, Shobert will have to quickly adapt and Josh Allen and Jack will have to be out front immediately.

“I hope all of this works,” one Jaguars insider told me.

It’s not the first time the Jaguars have made moves too early, looking at the salary cap and not paying enough attention to what’s going on in the locker room. You might think, “they’re professionals, none of that matters,” but it does. Teams that win have a culture and a social structure that’s set from the inside. Leaders are important. None has been more important than Calais.

Early on, the Jaguars let linebackers Tom McManus, Jeff Kopp and Brant Boyer go a year too early in each case. None were full-time starters but they were good stopgap players and excellent on special teams. But it was their presence in the locker room, the weight room and on the practice field that couldn’t be replaced. Younger players were cheaper but the Jaguars suffered each time when those three departed.

Same with guys like Montel Owens and even Daryl Smith. They were rebuilding the team for Gus Bradley but the locker room was set adrift when those veteran players were sent off. And wins were scarce.

There’s a leadership vacuum that happens immediately. Young players need other players to show them the way and lead by example.

When my friend Jim called the Jaguars offices this week to cancel his season tickets, the salesperson on the other end of the line said, “Can I ask why?”

“You got twenty minutes?” Jim responded.

At least the salesperson had the smarts to say, “Yeah, I get it,” as the conversation ended.

“What the heck are they doing down there,” my friend Harry said as I answered his call on Monday.

“Maybe that’ll be the headline of my column this week,” I said with a laugh.

Perhaps a better headline would be, “I hope they know what they’re doing down there.”

For their sake, and for ours.

Sam Kouvaris

We’ll Get Through This

We’ve been at this a while, you and me. About forty years actually. Mostly we’ve talked about sports, but you even embraced me when they asked me to anchor the news on television for a few years. Some of you laughed, and even said you were inspired when I used to do those silly pep talks on the radio.

So let’s talk about what’s going on. Right here, right now.

They cancelled The Players. Nobody liked that. I’m not a fan-boy for the PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan but he did the right things at the right time this week. Anybody critical of the decisions Monahan made isn’t paying attention. He made the calls about what to do in real time, and at each step did the right thing.

Monahan was talking about golf, but he was spot on about all sports when he said games “unify and inspire us.”

That doesn’t mean I like any of it. Or that I haven’t missed it.

I’ve missed seeing Rory play the weekend and try to defend his title. Like a lot of you, I like it when Rory plays well. He’s authentic, honest and without pretense when it comes to being a superstar on the world stage. He also has the swing I’d love to have, just once.

But mostly I’ve missed talking to Ferdinand, one of the security guards near the clubhouse. I only see him a few times a year, sometimes at Jaguars games, but every year at The Players. We don’t talk about much, but each time I see him, it brightens my day.

I’ve missed the small talk with the guys who volunteer behind the reception desk at the media center. I never see them outside of this week, but It’s a nice feeling to walk in there, talk about the long hours, who’s playing well, the weather, whatever comes to mind.

I’ve missed talking with John the ticket taker and Bekka, the bartender at the Greenside Lounge. Neither is from here, but they make the trip to North Florida every year to work The Players from points west and north. Neither will make the money they were counting on this week before they headed home. But both promised they’d be back next year.

And I’ve missed the time I usually spend with the former Chairmen of The Players, Buster Browning, Mike Hartley, Anne Nimnicht, Lynn Stoner and others. Just hanging out, talking about past Players and the tournament’s bright future. And I’ve missed the chats I have every year with the volunteers around the back of the 9th green.

So I’m sure you’ve missed some of the same things. The cocktails you’ve had with the same friends overlooking 17 year after year. Watching players trying to make birdie on number two, marveling at their short game. Or watching them bomb it off the 16th tee knowing an eagle could be waiting ahead.

And you know what? That’ll all come back. That’ll be there next year, and we’ll look back and marvel at how we came together and got through this tough time.

Because that’s what we do.

Not just as sports fans but as American’s and especially as people who live here in North Florida and South Georgia. We’re used to being picked on, overcoming adversity and getting things done. It’s nothing new to us.

We lean on our families, our friends and each other to get through things. I’ve seen it time and time again in our time together. Sometimes it’s when bad weather hits, other times its when we’re counted out of some competition, only to surprise everybody else.

So this is no different. The coronavirus will, we’re told, get worse before it gets better. But it will get better. We have the best minds in the world working on a solution. Politics shouldn’t have a role in this and we already know one thing: The person sitting at your kitchen table has a lot more to do with how you’re doing than some politician sitting behind a desk in Washington.

There won’t be any sports on television or live in arenas we can attend for a month, maybe longer. That’s inconvenient, and also a little weird. No March Madness? No Masters to signal the beginning of spring? No Spring Training games? It won’t be snowing anywhere on Opening Day if they start the baseball season in late April!

But all of that will be ok. We’ve got a bigger purpose that we’re working on right now. Sports have always been part of the fabric of our lives, but they don’t define us. You spend your money on cable or streaming to watch your favorite teams. Or you plunk down plenty of cash to cheer your club in person. You choose to do those things. You don’t have to do those things. You, hopefully for the short term, have more important things to do.

Like taking care of yourself and your family. Helping your neighbors. Washing your hands and doing all of the other recommended things to keep the coronavirus at bay.

I like what Tom Hanks said from quarantine with his wife in Australia after contracting the virus:

“Remember, despite all the current events, there is no crying in baseball.”

So there’s not a game on the TV in the background while you’re eating dinner? Use that time to talk with your spouse and your kids. Get closer to them. Go for a walk. I’d say go to a park but Mayor Lenny Curry closed all of the public parks. He didn’t think that one through. We know to practice “social distancing.” We can go to a park without being on top of one another.

Practice your guitar. Help your kids with a project they’re working on. Fix that fence in the backyard you’ve been avoiding. Or my favorite: Go out and play some catch.

Maybe say a prayer for safety and gratitude.

Be smart. Follow the best practices for staying healthy. Hug your family.

Perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever gotten was at the summit of a grueling climb on my bicycle in Europe. One of the wives of my fellow cyclists, she reminded me several times she was German, was there at the top when I arrived, last in the group.

“I told them you’d finish,” she said. “I told them ‘He’s an American. American’s finish.”

And she was right. We’ll finish this. Together.

On The World Stage, THE PLAYERS Is Still Ours

This would seem to be a week all about golf here in North Florida. With The Players being contested at PGA Tour’s Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra, the best players in the world will be playing for the largest prize money total in golf, $15 million, with $2.7 million going to the winner.

This week involves a golf tournament. Most of the people who will go to the tournament, volunteer, or watch it on TV play golf. All of them know a lot about golf. But this week is not only all about golf.

You could call it the continuation of a love story.

Although the PGA Tour uses The Players as its signature event, The Players is still, on many levels, the Greater Jacksonville Open. Watching the golf on TV, there will be a few mentions of Jacksonville, but the focus will be, and rightly so, on the competition inside the ropes. But if you’re at the tournament, you can watch some golf, but the stories outside the ropes are more about community, giving, family, fellowship and charity.

Through years of promotion, the PGA Tour has successfully brought the tournament to the national and international stage. This year, fans outside of the local six county area will purchase more than fifty percent of the tickets sold for the week. For a while, the Tour disassociated The Players with the local fans, trying to make it a destination for golf fans from around the country and around the world. While a laudable goal, they realized that their ties with North Florida couldn’t be discounted or replaced. In the last few years, they’ve repaired their bond with North Florida. If half of the fans are from somewhere else, that means half of them are from here.

How else would an idea of bringing Arnold Palmer to town for a golf tournament that was an adjunct to a football game in the mid-1960’s lead to over $100 million donated to local charities in the next 60 years?

Most of the more than two thousand volunteers are from here. The idea of getting people together to volunteer and help run the golf tournament started here. The fact that the PGA Tour operates events to benefit charity has part of that idea rooted in the $19,000 the original GJO donated to the Junior League and their charities in 1965.

Golf brings people together.

In Jacksonville, golf brought the whole community together.

Wesley Paxson asked John Tucker, his regular golf partner at San Jose, to see if he couldn’t get a big name player for the Gator Bowl Pro-Am to raise the profile of the annual tournament. Paxson was going to be the President of the Gator Bowl and asked Tucker, only because John had free long distance calling as the District Manager of the phone company. That was a big deal at the time.

Through a series of events, and long-distance phone calls, Tucker secured a full-fledged professional golf event with an unheard-of $50,000 guaranteed prize money.

They didn’t have the money, a golf course or any idea of how to run a golf tournament.

Not a problem. They had friends.

Meeting at Silver’s Drug Store in Jacksonville Beach, Paxson, Tucker and a few friends asked a few more of their friends to get involved. They asked the Times-Union to put up the $50,000. Their friends donated everything, from courtesy cars, to rope to steel poles. They amassed a cadre of volunteers and the Greater Jacksonville Open, with a sense of community ownership, was born at Selva Marina.

Those things aren’t all supposed to happen together. But they did. If it seems like luck, the success of the GJO and now THE PLAYERS follow all of the notions about good fortune: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Add one more idea to that: love what you do and the people you’re doing it with.

With foresight unknown even to them, the GJO leadership invited everybody to get involved. They invited groups from Hidden Hills, Deerwood, Timiquana, and Ponte Vedra and all over the city.

Golf might have connected all of these people but it was a sense of community, a sense of ownership and fellowship that brought them all together. New chairmen brought new friends and new ideas. No turf guarding, no agendas except to get better every year.

The Swinger’s Tent was born. The hospitality tents grew. The gallery swelled. From $19,000 in the first year, money raised for charities in North Florida multiplied each spring.

The committees, the volunteers and eventually the Honorable Company of Redcoats, the leaders of the volunteer force, came to define what made this community special.

It became THE event of the year where the community came together to have some fun and raise money for charity.

And the PGA TOUR noticed.

Then-Commissioner Deane Beman took notice of the growing volunteer force, the interest in the tournament and the players enthusiasm for coming here and saw the perfect spot to grow the game of professional golf.

And again, the community, and not just the golf community, in Jacksonville and all over North Florida responded.

From a local event, Jacksonville’s community golf tournament cascaded into the Tournament Players Championship, the Senior TPC and eventually The PLAYERS, the signature event of the PGA TOUR. All thanks to the time, energy and commitment from the volunteers and their leadership. The sense of community and ownership of the tournament was unmatched anywhere else.

The Stadium Course was built. Beman, architect Pete Dye and champion Jerry Pate ended up in the water.
A sleepy stretch of beach called Ponte Vedra, framed by Butler Boulevard to the north and Sawgrass Country Club to the south, was transformed into a vibrant, growing community.

Want to know what Jacksonville and North Florida are about? Spend some time with the volunteers at THE PLAYERS. Listen to the Redcoats, who can recount, in detail, their years leading the tournament. They mostly talk about the other volunteers who make this all possible.

It’s best defined by the first Redcoat, John Tucker who called THE PLAYERS “a ‘WE’ undertaking.”

It’s a love story.

Author’s Note: This column, in large part, is contained in the foreword to the book “The Honorable Company of Past Chairmen” a look at each year of the GJO and The PLAYERS through the eyes of each of the leaders of the volunteers of the tournament, published by Hartley Press. It will be available in the volunteer areas of THE PLAYERS this week for $40 and at Redcoatfoundation.org. All proceeds will go to the Redcoats Foundation and their various local charities.

Billy Donovan, Still Winning

It was about two-thirty in the morning of April 3, 2007 when Billy Donovan finally emerged from the Gators’ locker room in the bowels of the Georgia Dome. Just a few hours earlier Donovan’s Gators had beaten Ohio State for their second consecutive NCAA Basketball Championship.

I had been in that locker room earlier, doing interviews and watching the team celebrate winning it all for the second year in a row. I had been in the media scrum getting post-game answers from Billy and had seen him in the big press conference set up by the NCAA.

Unapologetically, I’ve called Billy Donovan my favorite person in sports for a long time, and that night I was just looking to shake his hand and say thanks for the ride.

As he walked out he was clearly worn by the night’s activities but still beaming from his team’s success.

“Hey!” he said to me as he crossed the hall to shake my hand.

Amazingly, he was alone. No entourage, no family, no sports information staff.

“Great job,” I said as we walked down the hall.

“You know, that’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my career, “ I added.

Billy slowed down and turned to me to ask, “How so?” with genuine curiosity.

“It’s one thing to say you’re coming back to win it,” I explained. “It’s a whole other thing to actually do it.”

“That’s something isn’t it?” Billy said with a laugh.

Donovan was somebody I had gotten to know over the past decade. I had covered the ups and downs of the Gator Basketball program under his leadership for his first 11 years leading up to the national title runs.

At the time the TV station I was working for was the dominant station in Gainesville and Billy had appeared with me many times live on the early news. I was there when they lost to Michigan State in the finals in 2000 and had been in Indianapolis in 2006 when the Gators won their first National Title.

My photographer that night was Matt Kingston, my co-worker and close friend in the sports department. When we traveled together, Matt always figured out how to be in the right place at the right time to get the right shots and this night was no exception.

I noticed Matt backing up and the red light on his camera flashing as Billy and I walked into the lobby of the Georgia Dome. It’s an image that always made me smile when we needed to use it in a sportscast in the future.

I was waiting again a week ago Saturday as Donovan exited the floor after the halftime ceremony celebrating the naming of the court at the O’Connell Center in his honor. After a lot of selfies, handshakes and backslapping, Billy was making his way under the stands at the O’Dome. I was standing there, again with Matt, as he emerged with my hand extended.

“Hey!” he said with a familiarity that belied the five-year gap since I’d seen him last.

He bypassed my handshake and hugged me and said, “Wow it’s great to see you. Thanks for coming!”

“Wouldn’t have missed it,” I said as he and Matt embraced.

When asked over the past couple of years what my favorite thing to cover has been during my career, I’ve easily settled on the Gators back-to-back runs to the National Championship.

A college basketball team is easy to get to know. There are only fifteen players on the roster and usually only eight or maybe nine play. You get to know these guys. You develop trusting relationships. I had that with Joakim Noah, but more closely with Chris Richard. Matt and Walter Hodge were pretty tight. So we had good background on what was going on and were able to give context to the on and off-court happenings.

I told Billy that run was the favorite thing I covered in my career and recounted to him the story of walking down the hall in the Georgia Dome.

When I got to the part about “It’s one thing to say you’re coming back to win it. It’s a whole other thing …” Billy piped up loudly and we said in unison “To actually do it!” And we both had a big laugh.

“I remember that!” he said as he was squired away.

“They were an incredible group,” Donovan had said earlier that night. “Connected as a team, played for one another, highly competitive. I think that they should go down as one of the greatest teams of all time. They started off unranked and won a national championship. (Winning their first and second round games in Jacksonville.) Then won a national championship starting the season ranked No. 1 with all the expectations to do it. And they did it under both circumstances.”

Having hired Donovan early in his 25-year tenure as Athletic Director at Florida, Jeremy Foley was instrumental in floor naming project. He and current AD Scott Stricklin worked together presenting it to the University and flew to Oklahoma City to tell Billy it was going to happen last fall.

“What Billy accomplished here no one ever could have anticipated,” Jeremy said standing on “Billy Donovan Court.” “There’s probably a whole generation that thinks Florida basketball has always been on the map. He did it with an outstanding group of assistant coaches and an incredible support staff, but at the end of the day, Billy Donovan created something very special here.”

“During my time at Kentucky,” Stricklin said of his five years with the Wildcats basketball program, “I had a front-row seat for the impact Billy made, not just on the Florida program, but our league. You saw the kind of coach and person he was, and the respect he had around the country. This was just an obvious way to honor him.”

Those are big shoes current Gators Head Coach Mike White has had to fill. It could be intimidating, but While was nothing but supportive of honoring Donovan’s legacy.

“It’s a given,” White said. “To me, the way people revere him as a human being in this profession says as much about him as the games and championships he won. This is something that definitely needed to happen.”

“It’s really emotional for me, and I’m humbled and grateful for this day,” Donovan said to thunderous applause during the halftime ceremony. “When I look at my name down there, I don’t just see my name. I look at a lot of other people and their names. When you look down at the court, don’t just see my name; see your name there. You’re as much a part of it as well.”

Many of those people who were part of Billy’s 19-year run of success at Florida came back to honor him that night. From assistant coaches to former players, more than a dozen who played in the NBA, all were on hand, most to just say “thank you” for the impact Donovan had on their lives and careers.
“It’s crazy to just how great of a program he helped build and how it prospered under him,” former Gator Guard Chris Chiozza told ESPN. com. “I don’t know if there’s ever been something like this where you walk in and you see 15 NBA guys in here and we come together, we’re talking like we just played on the same team and most of us were years apart.”
Billy has continued his success in the NBA. Donovan has helped the Oklahoma City Thunder to a division title and a perennial spot in the post-season. They’re currently the 6th seed in the Western Conference but after a so-so start to the season they’ve been one of the hottest teams in the league since the first of the year. They’d won four straight and eight of their last ten going into this weekend.
“As coaches, in the end, it’s not about wins and losses,” Billy reminded everyone that night. “It’s about how our players talk about us. Those are the relationships that last and that’s what important.”
In other words, Billy’s still helping everybody win.
I do have one complaint about that night. And maybe it’s nit picking. Is the decal saying “Billy Donovan Court” too small? It’s great and looks like Billy’s signature. But maybe a little bigger?

Jake, Jax and Sports: A Perfect Match

All of Jake Godbold’s time in office happened before the Internet and cell phones. Despite that, he was more connected than most people, certainly politicians, are today.

Connected to everybody. Not just people in his party. Not just to those who voted for him. Not just to his donors or his staff.

Connected to everybody.

So without cell phones, email or the internet, that meant to get to know something about or to get to know Jake Godbold, it happened face to face.

My first face-to-face meeting with Jake was at one of his regular places, Cotton’s Barbeque on Main Street. We sat in a booth, but not in the back. A booth in the middle of the restaurant with a steady stream of admirers, friends and well-wishers. It was my first hint that you never really got Jake Godbold to yourself. Because he belonged to everybody.

He grew up here and wanted to make his hometown shine.

“If you gave Jake a chance to live anywhere in the world,” former Mayor John Delaney said at Jake’s memorial service on Thursday. “If you paid him a million dollars. Switzerland, wherever, he’d pick Jacksonville.”

When he was elected Mayor, Godbold commissioned a survey to find out what would make his town better. He wanted the people who live here to like living here.

And he thought sports would be the perfect answer.

When Colt Fever happened in 1979, Godbold put Jacksonville on the map. Nobody outside of a two state radius even knew the Georgia/Florida game was played here.

When recounting the many accomplishments of Jake’s political career, Betty Holzendorf, his former aide and member of both the Florida House and Senate, said, “He didn’t do those things for himself. He did those things for the city of Jacksonville.”

Dreaming big, Jake put Jacksonville in the game to host a Super Bowl: without a team here. As crazy as it sounds now, it wasn’t that far-fetched at the time. The NFL was cultivating all kinds of cities as potential expansion sites. They were even looking for neutral fields to play the Conference Championship games on, looking to keep weather out of the equation after Cincinnati hosted San Diego in -63 degree wind chill.

The city was invited to make a Super Bowl proposal to the league at their owners meeting in Washington in 1983. I was standing outside the door of the meeting room, reporting on the proceedings, as the Jacksonville contingent walked in. Jake was the last in line and literally grabbed me by the lapel to pull me into the meeting. I’m still convinced he was looking for somebody else dressed in coat and tie to fill out the contingent.

When the formal proposal was over, the owners gave Jake a few minutes to speak. That’s when the real pitch started. The personal pitch from Jake directly to the twenty-eight owners. Jacksonville wasn’t getting a Super Bowl, but Jake had the owners’ attention. It wasn’t so much that he charmed them, but they just liked him. Jake was easily likeable.

When the meeting broke up, Jake invited me to sit with him and his Chief of Staff Don McClure in the lobby of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel where the meeting was being held to debrief the presentation. I sat next to Jake on a couch to his right; Don was in a chair to his left. As we started talking, Billy Sullivan, then the owner of the New England Patriots, walked behind Don and said over his chair, “Hey Jake, you’re not getting a Super Bowl. Maybe you’d like to host a Jackson’s concert at the Gator Bowl?” Sullivan had acquired the rights to promote the Jackson’s upcoming stadium tour.

Jake turned to me and held his hand to the left of his mouth and in his version of a whisper said, “The Jackson’s?”

I leaned in and said quietly, “You know, Michael Jackson. Wears a glove, sings, dances.”

“You mean the kid from the Jackson Five?” Jake ‘whispered’ back.

“You know he’s not a kid any more,” I said.

“Would that be good?” Jake asked me.

“Very good,” I answered quickly.

With that, Jake told Sullivan that he’d be interested, and Sullivan invited us to his suite. When we got to the door he said to Don, and me “Would you mind waiting here?” as he ushered Jake inside.

Don and I bided our time for what didn’t seem very long in the hallway when the door opened and the Mayor and the owner of the Patriots came out laughing. Sullivan walked past us and as we followed Jake said, “We have a Jackson’s concert. They offered us three, what do you think?”

“Take them all,” I said.

And with that Jake called ahead and said, “We’ll take all three,” as we headed back to the lobby.

I peeled off to call the TV station, again it was before cell phones, and Jacksonville, Florida, hosting three concerts of the Jackson’s “Victory Tour” in the summer of 1984 was the lead story on that night’s six o’clock news.

I’d like to say that I was one of Jake’s friends and confidants and had something to do with his decision-making. But anybody who was around Jacksonville at the time would probably say the same. He made everybody he met feel that way. I know he did that for me.

It wasn’t long after I came to work in Jacksonville in 1981 that the phone at my desk would ring a couple times a week between the six and the 11 o’clock news and Jake would be on the other end. It was back when people watched local news and read the paper as their primary sources of information. Since I worked at what then was the dominant TV station in town, Jake wanted to make sure I had the story right. He didn’t always agree with my assessment of what he was doing and he let me know that sometimes when he called, right away.

“You need to be better than this,” he told long-time aide Martha Barrett early in her career. I laughed to myself as she recounted the story at his memorial service on Thursday. It was a retort I heard often from Jake early in my tenure in Jacksonville as well.

The most important thing to Jake was he was making Jacksonville better. Making me get the story right, he thought, was a key to getting people behind the ideas and moving the city forward.

So I wasn’t surprised later that year when my phone rang and the Mayor was on the other end. I could tell he was a bit agitated.

“Sam, I’ve got a guy here who says he wants to bring a football team to town and I want you to talk to him,” Jake said in a more forceful voice than usual.

It was a time when Robert Irsay had been through here with Colt Fever, John Meacham, the owner of the New Orleans Saints had negotiated with the city to bring his team here and Bill Bidwell came through looking for a new home for the St. Louis Cardinals.

So I was skeptical, and being 27 years old and emboldened by the Mayor’s confidence in me I’m sure I was nothing short of insolent to Fred Bullard when Jake put him on the phone.

“Hey Mr. Bullard, don’t jerk us around,” I remember saying at the beginning of the conversation about the USFL. And at some point I said, “It takes $13 million to get this done, do you have $13 million?” I told you I was insolent.

Bullard was extremely good-natured, answered my questions and with a chuckle gave the phone back to the Mayor. (I cringe telling that story but Fred and I have laughed about it many times since, thankfully.)

“I’ll call you later,” Jake said.

Sure enough an hour or so later, the Mayor rang back at my desk and wanted to know what I thought about the USFL coming here. They had been in existence for a year and were looking to expand. They had a TV contract and some star players and looked to be a legitimate football league.

“I think it’s real Jake,” I told the Mayor as I went through the reasons the USFL seemed to be on stable footing.

Word that Bullard was in town and that the league was considering Jacksonville as an expansion city had gotten out earlier in the day. The afternoon paper, the Jacksonville Journal, had a sports columnist who had editorialized that the Mayor should run as far and as fast as he could from the idea of a USFL team, saying it would scare off the NFL. Jake was very concerned about that.

“That won’t matter,” I said flatly. “This league looks real and the NFL will pay attention to how we do with a franchise.”

“Alright,” the Mayor said. “We’ll have a press conference later in the week.”

This was typical of the relationship I had with Godbold, and somewhere in there during each discussion he told me what was on the record and what wasn’t. I remember reporting that the city was in negotiations with the USFL and in a blend of commentary, said on the air that I thought it was a good idea.

Talks with Jake Godbold were a big part my career and I’ve found out in subsequent years that talks with Jake were a big part of a lot of people’s careers in town.

“I had a great relationship with Jake,” my friend Tom Wills said Thursday. “You could call it a love affair: Jake loved to talk to me and I loved to listen to him. What made him such a great talker was that he was a great doer.”

In my last conversation with Jake we talked about going fishing. He lamented the unceremonious way my TV career was ended but was quick to say how much he enjoyed my Sunday columns.

I hope he’d like this one.

NASCAR and Fitness? Jimmie Johnson Changed That

A few years ago my friend, racecar driver Scott Lagasse, Jr. from St. Augustine invited me to come along on his Champions Ride for Bicycle Safety, I like riding my bike, and although I was coming off knee surgery, I joined in with some of Scott’s high-profile friends from the racing community to try and help “humanize” the relationship between cyclists and cars on the road.

One of the fun things about the ride was a lap around Daytona International Speedway and a finish in Victory Lane. Fifty-five miles in, we made the final turn south; the track loomed in the distance. That means the guys in the front of the peloton of about sixty riders kicked it up a notch.

They left me behind. In bike language, they “dropped” me.

That’s when I felt a hand in the middle of my back and the rider next to me said, “Hey buddy, we’ve all been there, let’s go.” I recognized 7-time NASCAR Champion Jimmie Johnson’s voice immediately. I looked at him and I’m sure I said something incoherent. When I glanced at my computer, I noticed we were already doing 28 mph. Jimmy Johnson was pushing me, riding one-handed doing 28!

“Let’s go get them,” I said as Johnson shoved me up to the back of the pack. It was my first hint at Jimmie Johnson’s level of fitness.

Lagasse and his friends ride the “Champions Ride” every year during Speedweeks in Daytona to help raise the profile of bike and vehicle safety. Anybody who’s been riding has had an unpleasant “interaction” with a vehicle.

That includes Scott and even Jimmie Johnson. Johnson will start on the outside of Row Three in today’s Daytona 500 looking for his third victory in “The Great American Race.” He announced earlier this year that 2020 would be his final year driving full-time on the NASCAR circuit,

Jimmie has been part of the Champions Ride since the beginning. He rides or runs at each stop on the NASCAR schedule and when he’s home in Charlotte. Being in a sport where safety is part of the rules, Johnson knows safety between cars and riders is paramount.

“Safety is everything,” Johnson told me at a rest stop during this year’s ride last Thursday morning. “I think it’s the responsibility of the cyclist and the motorists to find some common ground there. That’s the key.”

Jimmie is dedicated to fitness. He ran in the Daytona Half-Marathon last weekend before the Busch Clash. “The Half turned out better than the Clash,” he joked.

In his home base of Charlotte, Johnson has started numerous fitness initiatives. He’s shared his passion with everybody.

“I’ve enjoyed my journey and I wanted to share it with my friends. I’m impressed with the community of running and cycling and triathlons,” Johnson said.

Promoting small lifestyle changes among his crew and other crewmembers in the garage, Johnson has changed a lot of the perception of fitness in racing.

“Jimmie has changed the sport in that aspect,” said Lagasse, who will drive and field two teams full-time on the Trans Am circuit this year. “Guys used to think it showed weakness. Now team owners demand it. The drivers are training harder than they’ve ever trained. Crew chiefs pay attention to it. Even kids coming up now have trainers.”

Lagasse says he used to be a basketball player and used the sport to stay in shape. About ten years ago he started riding thanks to his father, Scott Sr.

“It’s something we can do together and be competitive,” Scott said of riding with his dad, who turns sixty-one this week. Scott Sr. is a two time Sports Car Club of America National Champion who still rides. “That’s probably where some of my passion comes from. He’s a machine.”

Cars and bikes don’t mix well on the roads in Jacksonville and North Florida. There’s not enough room. Despite the vast size of our community, there are very few bike lanes. It hasn’t been part of the plan. Neither group seems to have a good grasp of the laws that govern the road. That creates tension instantly.

That’s where the State of Florida’s Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow comes in. They’re a state agency that is solely dedicated to car, bike and pedestrian safety. .

“They work tirelessly to raise the awareness that both cyclists and motorists need about how to share the road,” Lagasse said before this year’s Champions Ride. “Both groups have a shared responsibility. Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow’s mission is safety.”

This year’s ride was in honor of Volusia County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Scofield who was killed in a bike accident just outside of Daytona last June. Lagasse had ridden with Scofield in the past and credits him with the large law enforcement support the ride has year after year.

“Frank had a lot to do with the success of this ride,” Lagasse said as he presented a signed cycling jersey to Scofeld’s widow. “We’re riding his training route today.”

Despite their sponsorship agreement ending, Lagasse says he’s staying involved with the state agency to help get the word out.

“They’re emailing me at midnight to ask if I’ll be a part of an event. They’re working all times of day because they believe in what they’re doing,” Scott explained. “It motivates me to want to do more.”

Two London Games Hurts

Everything about the Jaguars moving a second home game to London stinks.

For now.

When the Jaguars made that announcement earlier this week all anybody heard was “They’re playing a second game in London, they’re taking a home game away from us”. When I talked to Jaguars President Mark Lamping later in the week he laid out the Jaguars reason why and a lot of it makes sense.

For the long term.

“We understood what the response from our fans would be,” Lamping told me Thursday. “But we have to make these hard decisions so there aren’t any questions about the future of the Jaguars in Jacksonville. “

So they’re saying that this short-term pain is going to insure the franchise in the future in Jacksonville?

Well, I like that part.

But how they just dropped the decision to play a second game in London in the middle of the week kind of out of nowhere was a strategic error by Lamping and Jaguars Owner Shad Khan. There were a lot of different ways they could’ve told us this without just one day saying, “Hey! We’re playing two games in London next year.”

Because as soon as they said that, nobody heard another word. All we heard was “They’re taking another home game from us! They’re moving to London!”

They underestimated how people from Jacksonville understand that we’re the underdog. We need to do things a little differently. We’re not stupid. Tell us why and bring us in on the process.

People outside the city have told us for years that eventually the team would move. First it was Los Angeles and since Khan bought the team it’s been London. I’ve defended Khan in the past both here and among my media colleagues when I travel. This will add fuel to their fire and diminish any argument in Khan or Jacksonville’s defense.

Except Lamping assured me that’s not part of the plan.

He said he Jaguars have no plan to play a a third game in London or Barcelona or Stuttgart in 2021 or a fourth in 2022.

Right now the NFL’s commitment to London ends this year with four games in 2020 and two more at Tottenham Hotspurs’ home ground at White Hart Lane for the next eight seasons. So the league is looking at what their international plan will be going forward.

And not just for London. They’d like to play games in Germany and Spain and perhaps continue in London and in Mexico City.

But for now, for us, it stinks.

If they break ground on Lot J and the Shipyards project this year, the timeline for those projects is to be completed by 2023. So I’d expect two games in London at least until then.

Add the fact that parking at Lot J is going away for a while and it’s Jaguars fans that will bear the brunt of the burden just to get six games in Jacksonville for possibly the next three years.

If the Jaguars are telling us the truth about their long-term plan, then that’s great. This team will always be the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Shad’s charge to me is ‘Do what we need to do to have a successful franchise in Jacksonville,’” Lamping said.

And Lamping and Khan believe that, for now, playing a second game in London, along with the Lot J project, the Shipyards and Daily’s place all will create enough revenue to keep the team competitive and solvent.

Once the revenue starts coming in from these alternate sources, according to Lamping, they can decide if playing a game overseas is necessary or still a good idea.

We all know they make more money playing home games in London, so what’s to keep them from just playing more games there?

Lamping points to Khan’s commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Jacksonville and says Shad wants the team here.

“The initiatives of the Lot J project, the Shipyards, Daily’s Place, all of those are important to our long term plan for the Jaguars in Jacksonville in the future.”

I’ll take him at his word on that only because he was most accurate when he said, “There might be some short term pain for fans to ensure our long term success here in Jacksonville.”

Lamping is used to this kind of heat. He was the most vilified person in St. Louis as he negotiated for the construction of a new Busch Stadium for the baseball Cardinals. When he talked to the Governor and state leaders in Illinois, gaining leverage for the new stadium, they wanted to run him out of town. He works for Shad and Shad wants to get this done. He’s judged by the bottom line.

There are a few other things that go into the decision to play two home games in London.

One is the NFL was looking for a team to play two games there in one season to see how it went. So the Jaguars are the guinea pigs for that experiment.

Will the league and the Jaguars renew in London?

Probably so.

They like the international vibe and certainly Shad likes being able to entertain his international clients from the UK, Asia and Europe at Wembley. Who knows he may own Wembley in the next couple years?

What the NFL is lacking is teams that have the flexibility to play a home game in London. The Jaguars have that flexibility for now, most teams do not based on their stadium lease.

Which brings us to the next five to eight years for the Jaguars franchise here in Jacksonville. If we want to stay competitive as a NFL city, a rebuild or renovation of the current stadium is in our not-so-distant future.

And if we’re going to contribute to upgrade or redo the stadium, one of the negotiating points will be the Jaguars have to commit to play their games there.

Because of the Jacksonville’s small market size, it’ll take other revenue besides just sellouts.

Lamping points to Patriots Place in Foxboro as a gleaming example of what can happen. And I agree with all of that. In the end, Patriots Place makes money for Patriots owner Robert Kraft. And the same will happen for Shad Khan, long term, with his downtown projects. But the Patriots play 10 home games right next door to Patriots Place. And they win games and go to the playoffs. Lamping says once the Lot J project starts to make money it might negate a need for a second game in London.

And the timeline for that is 2023.

When the Jaguars were a competitive franchise in the late ‘90’s, winning at a .560 clip, sellouts were a regular occurrence. Since then they’ve won about a quarter of their games. But when they win, like in 2017, people show up. Look around the league. It’s no different anywhere else. For years, the Bucs had about 40,000 fans in Tampa Bay and they showed up despite how bad the team was. You might remember they floated the idea of playing half of their games in Orlando. Same for the Saints in New Orleans and the Dolphins in Miami. When the Cowboys were 1-15 in 1989, Texas Stadium was empty.

The same thing happens here: Win games and fans show up.

To use Lamping’s words, “The fans have clearly outperformed the team.”

What hasn’t happened since the Jaguars founding in 1993 is corporate growth in North Florida. I blame civic leadership for that. The population has grown and like anywhere else, a winning football team brings fans to the stadium.

But the kind of underpinning NFL owners are looking for comes from corporations and sponsorship. The fact that Jaguars games are shown on television only in parts of Florida, South Georgia and in the visitors city doesn’t give potential corporate sponsors the kind of exposure they’re looking for.

How do you solve that? A big part of the answer is winning more games.

A winning team shows up on national television, on Sunday Night and Monday Night Football. It doesn’t get flexed out of prime time.

I don’t mind playing one game in London every year. It makes a good connection with one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Khan pointed out that the reaction to the one game in London was very positive. Apparently his reference to the expected positive reaction for playing a second game there was supposed to be for the attitude five years from now.

But not for how we feel now. Because for now, it’s painful, disappointing and is hard to see as a plus.

When it comes to revenue I’m always for people making money. At some point Shad and the NFL will have to decide if it’s just all about money

I’ll take him at his word that he wants to have a long-term viable franchise in Jacksonville and it’s these other revenue streams and, for now, the second game in London that will guarantee the Jaguars have “Jacksonville” as part of their name for the foreseeable future.

Lamping said this week any kind of franchise shift is something the current Jaguars management would never consider. They want to make more money, but they’re not moving like the Chargers, Rams and Raiders.

“They have taken steps that we would not consider, but they have taken steps to fix their revenue by leaving Oakland, by leaving St. Louis and by leaving San Diego.”

Maybe this was a public relations stumble, a miscalculation by Lamping and Khan. Maybe Lot J, the Shipyards and Daily’s Place will be the genesis of a much-needed renaissance for downtown.

I know owning an NFL team is not a charity project and that Shad wants the Jaguars to make money.

And I know Shad is a competitive guy and doesn’t want to sit in the bottom 25% of revenue earners among NFL teams.

But how they rolled out this step was a strategic mistake, underestimating Jaguars fans passion here in Jacksonville. They underestimated the people in Jacksonville and what we can do, and how we’ll buy in if we believe you’re on our side. We got rid of the smell, we got rid of tolls, and we even beat the odds and got an NFL team.

They seem to lack somebody with real roots in Jacksonville to help shape their decisions. When they got the Clevelander to sponsor the pool and the North End Zone, anybody who’s been around here a while knew that wasn’t the answer.

We’re Atlantic/Jax/Neptune/Ponte Vedra Beach. Not South Beach.

Lamping is fond of saying, “Watch what we do.” Not to worry Mark, we will. We’ll be playing close attention.

Because for now, this hurts.

Boselli Denied Again

If there’s a need to prove that the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the most difficult Hall to get into, look no further than the Modern-Era Class of 2020.

While Jaguars fans are disappointed and frustrated that Tony Boselli hasn’t gained induction to Canton yet, Steeler fans and Bucs fans feel the same. Boselli was a finalist for the fourth consecutive year. The Steelers Alan Faneca has also been a finalist for four years. And John Lynch has been discussed “in the room” by the Selection Committee seven meetings in a row.

“We’ll go to Tampa and see what happens next year,” Boselli graciously told me after he was informed he wasn’t among the Centennial Class of 2020.

There’s a lot of support for Boselli among the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He’s been a finalist four years in a row and has made the cut to the final ten in the last three years. The Committee believes he was a great player. But he’s a great player in a crowded field of other great players.

This year there were five spots available for the 15-modern era finalists. Troy Polamalu had one locked up as a “first ballot” inductee. While I don’t think that should be a thing in football based on the process, it’s become a thing and it’s hurt Boselli and other’s chances for enshrinement in Canton.

And next year the numbers are difficult for any of the finalists. Peyton Manning, Charles Woodson and Calvin Johnson will be eligible for the first time. The general mind-set of the committee over the last decade is “this guy can’t wait.”

So if you put those three guys in, that leaves two spots for 12 players. Add Jared Allen to the mix as a first-year eligible and you see what I mean. Not a lot of room for Boselli, Lynch, or Faneca. Add LeRoy Butler, Bryant Young, Richard Seymour, Zach Thomas and the six other finalists from this year and the path to football immortality gets pretty narrow.

“You are elated when the candidate you advocate for gets his gold jacket and dejected when your nominee is turned away,” said Tampa Bay’s Ira Kaufman, a selector since 2005. “You can’t help but feel you could’ve done a better job making their case for a gold jacket.”

Kaufman presented Lynch for the seventh straight year on Saturday and has brought new information to the meeting every year. That can be difficult with only five minutes allotted for a presentation.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Ron Borges, a Hall of Fame Selection Committee member who presented Ty Law for three years said after Law’s selection in 2019. “It’s difficult when you bring someone back multiple times. You have to change your approach in some form or come up with some new-found statistic. But you have to be careful. You don’t want to stray too far from the basic facts you presented before.”

“While the Pro Football Hall of Fame would be the ultimate individual honor, the comments made by people like Jason Taylor, Michael McCrary, Chuck Smith and Bruce Smith as well as several others means so much and I am humbled,” Boselli added.

Those comments were a part of my presentation for Boselli this year. Without a lot of statistical comparison for a tackle, relying on the impression Tony left on his opponents and others of his era who played his position is important. And you can’t find anybody who doesn’t say Boselli wasn’t a great player and Hall of Fame worthy.

Up until this year, Hall of Fame Defensive End Bruce Smith, was reluctant to talk about his matchups with Boselli, but endorsed him just last week.

“He was a stud,” Smith said of Boselli and how he dominated him in their playoff game in Buffalo. “He gave me all I could handle. In that era of football, there was none better.”

Hall of Famers, Walter Jones, Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf all played in the same era as Boselli and all believe he belongs in the Hall.

“I used to check my game against his every week,” Jones said.

In the five concurrent years Tony played with those other tackles, it was Boselli who was named as the All-Pro 1st Team tackle three consecutive years.

John Hannah, considered the best guard to ever play the game said, “When I watched Tony Boselli play I thought he was the best offensive tackle I ever saw.”

So if everybody thinks he’s fantastic and worthy, why isn’t he in?

While it’s a numbers game as I mentioned earlier, and those numbers are dwindling with Joe Jacoby, Kevin Mawae and Steve Hutchinson no longer on the ballot, there was a log jam among offensive linemen for the past four years.

It’s happened before. We talked about Lynn Swann and John Stallworth for nearly a decade before Swann was selected and Stallworth was enshrined the next year. Same thing with Tim Brown, Andre Reed and Cris Carter. All eventually got in but it took a while.

When matching Boselli’s career against the other finalists, the only knock is his length of service. Boselli played 91 regular season games over seven years and six more in the playoffs.

There are plenty examples of “short careers” among those enshrined in Canton. Terrell Davis played 78 games. Kenny Easley 89. Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Swann, Kellen Winslow, and Dwight Stephenson all had careers that are considered “short.” But all have gained entrance into the Hall.

For some reason, the confluence of this particular collection of members of the Selection Committee, players who have been finalists, and offensive linemen also on the ballot have so far denied Boselli a spot in Canton.

One friend of mine called it “stupefying.” Some called it “baffling.”

Being in the room and listening to the qualifications of the other finalists, I understand it. I don’t like it, but I understand it. As I’ve said many times, the most frustrating thing about being on the committee are the players I have to leave off every year that I know are deserving of a bust in Canton.

So if Tony wants me back, I’ll go next year to Tampa and see what happens. I know it’s hard on him and nothing disappoints me more than the conversation I’ve had with him the last three years.

It’s tough, which will make it that much more sweet when it happens. And it will.

Boselli’s Chance

This coming Saturday in Miami, former Jaguars Tackle Tony Boselli and Packers safety LeRoy Butler are among the 15 finalists for the remaining five spots in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s “Centennial Class.” Recognizing the NFL’s 100th anniversary and the year 2020, the Hall expanded this year’s class to include 10 seniors, two coaches, three contributors and five modern-era candidates. Those modern-era candidates are the finalists we’ll talk about this Saturday, players whose careers ended less than twenty-five years ago.

A “Blue Ribbon” Committee was appointed to select the first fifteen members of the Centennial Class. The regular Selection Committee will discuss the final fifteen Saturday and whittle that group down to the final five for enshrinement in Canton with a little twist on the rules from previous years.

Normally the Selection Committee talks about players and coaches and the final five have to endure an up or down vote. Each has to get 80% of the Selection Committee’s endorsement to gain entrance into the Hall. This year the Committee will only talk about players and there will be no up or down vote. The final five will be part of the class.

It’s the fourth consecutive year Boselli has made the finalists list. It’s the first time Butler has made it “in the room.” Making it “in the room” gives a player about an 88% chance of eventually making it to the Hall.

Because it’s his fourth year in the final fifteen, Boselli has a better chance this year than Butler but I think both deserve enshrinement in Canton. I’ll give support to LeRoy’s candidacy during the meeting. He’s a four-time All-Pro and four times was elected to the Pro Bowl. He played on a Super Bowl championship team. He was on the NFL’s All-Decade team of the ‘90’s. He has a strong case for the Hall.

But it’s my job as the Jacksonville representative to present Tony’s case to the other forty-seven selectors. The Green Bay rep will present LeRoy’s case.

The Selection Committee is a group of reporters and two Hall of Fame members who are serious-minded, smart, experienced and well prepared. They’re not swayed by flowery rhetoric or great oratory skills. They’re interested in facts they might not have uncovered. They want to hear what the candidate’s contemporaries say about his qualifications, his teammates and opponents, players and coaches.

Boselli had been eligible for the Hall for eleven years before he became a finalist. Give credit to my colleague Vito Stellino, a Hall of Fame writer himself and an at-large member of the Selection Committee for jump-starting Tony’s candidacy. His off-season reminder to Committee members that Boselli’s career exceeded the length of some recent inductee’s gave Tony’s case an early push.

There’s really not much debate about the quality of Boselli’s play. Nobody disputes that at the peak of his performance, he was among the best, maybe in the top two of those who ever played tackle in the NFL. (The consensus is Anthony Munoz is the best tackle ever. Even Boselli thinks so.)

Players from Tony’s era who have made it to Canton all believe in his qualifications.

Munoz said he thinks Boselli “is one of the best offensive tackles I have observed.”

“He had the versatility of Gary Zimmerman and Walter Jones,” said John Randle, who Boselli calls his toughest opponent. “He was patient, that’s what makes the great ones I don’t see that much these days. Tony had great feet, he never got crossed over.”

Jason Taylor suffered a beat down in a nationally televised game and said recently, “ Tony Boselli wore me out! In fact, if they didn’t turn off the lights, he would still be kicking my a**. He belongs in that (Hall of Fame) box.”

Even Bruce Smith, previously reluctant to talk about his matchups with Boselli, endorsed him this week. “He was a stud. He gave me all I could handle. In that era of football, there was none better.”

Walter Jones was a few years older than Boselli but admitted he looked at Tony’s game tape each week to compare his own game.. You could call the era that included Jones and Boselli the “Golden Age of Tackles.” Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden and Willie Roaf were all in that time frame and all are in the Hall. All also admit Boselli might have been the best of the lot.

John Hannah, considered the best guard to ever play the game said, “When I watched Tony Boselli play I thought he was the best offensive tackle I ever saw.”

Boselli ranks either first or second among the tackles of his era when it comes to sacks per game, rushing yards to his side and most other quantifiable statistics. He was named All-Pro four times by different organizations and was five times selected to the Pro Bowl. He’s a member of the NFL’s All-Decade team of the’90’s despite playing only half of the decade.

So the only question about Tony is the length of his career. Seven years. Ninety-seven games including six playoff contests.

There are numerous examples of players in the Hall of Fame who played less than ten years in the league.

Well respected NFL Historian and editor of Pro Football Journal John Turney recently named his “All-
Short Career” team perhaps in reaction to the recent early retirements of Luke Kuechly (8 years), Rob Grokowski, (9 years) Calvin Johnson (9 years) and Andrew Luck (6 years).

Boselli was an all-first team tackle on offense. The other was Jimbo Covert of the Bears, recently named to the Hall by the Blue Ribbon Committee. Covert played eight seasons and 111 games. Less than a full season more than Tony.

Names you might recognize also on that “Short Career” offensive team: Jim Brown, Gale Sayers, Lynn Swann, Kellen Winslow, Earl Campbell, Terrell Davis and Dwight Stephenson, all in the Hall of Fame among others. Davis gained enshrinement in 2017 and played but 78 games in the NFL.

If you like numbers, here are some that might surprise you:

Twenty-five percent of the tackles in the Hall played less than 100 games. Thirteen percent of all players in the Hall played less than 100 games.

Pro football reference has a stat called “games as primary starter” at their position. A full 35% of the hall, 97 of the 279 players in the Hall of Fame were the “primary starter” at their position for ten years or less.

The same research lists 14 of the 30 tackles in the Hall of Famer, nearly half as the “primary starter” for their teams for ten years or less. Why?

There’s been an ebb and flow in the length of careers over the NFL’s first century. Until about 1960 it wasn’t unusual for a player’s career to be less than ten years.

There was not the same medical skill and procedures as now and certainly not the money. Guys went on to other careers. Duke Slater, a member of the Centennial Class, played nine years and ninety games before retiring at age 32. At the time he was an attorney and a judge in Chicago. It wasn’t until the very late 50’s and 60’s that careers in the NFL started to expand. Better medical attention, more money in the game. Now the trend could be shorter careers. The toll on guys bodies with a 12 month commitment, the amount of money now in the game is giving them an opportunity and for some an incentive to retire early.

So perhaps the Selection Committee will recalibrate it’s thought process when it comes to length of careers. Will they deny Kuechly, Gronkowski or Johnson entrance to the Hall because they chose to end their careers when it appeared they could still play? I would hope not. A less than ten-year career will be more the norm and not the exception in the future.

It’s still an uphill battle for Boselli with fellow offensive linemen Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson also as finalists again this year. John Lynch is a finalist for the seventh time.
Eight of the fifteen to be discussed in the room are finalists for the first time. Troy Polamalu is considered the only favorite to gain entrance this year.

While I think Tony has a strong case for the Hall, especially in light of the precedents set by the selection in recent years of players with short careers, I can tell you that in my twenty-five years on the Committee, in that room on that Saturday, anything can happen.

Pro Football Hall of Fame 2020

In my 25 years as the Jacksonville representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee the biggest frustration has been the candidates I’ve had to leave out. Each year, especially when the voting gets down to the final ten, me and the rest of the Selection Committee Members cross off five candidates who are Hall of Fame worthy.

This year the Hall of Fame is planning to induct 20 new members to celebrate the 2020 “Centennial Class.” It’s been a little confusing for fans who are used to the Hall announcing their class on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. That’s normally restricted to five Modern Era selections and three more, a combination of Seniors and Contributors.

A “Blue Ribbon” committee was chosen this year to select fifteen new members divided among ten Seniors, two coaches and three contributors.

“This was the most thorough vetting of candidates in the Hall’s history and it needed to be,” said my fellow Hall of Fame Selector Rick Gosselin. “Our charge was to scour 100 years of professional football and find the most deserving candidates who have slipped through the cracks,”

Gosselin, a respected NFL reporter and football historian was one of the twenty-five people on the Blue Ribbon Committee. Thirteen of those are on the Hall of Fame Selection Committee. Bill Belichick and Hall of Famers John Madden, Gil Brandt, Ron Wolf and Bill Polian were also part of the Blue Ribbon process.

Jacksonville’s Harold Carmichael is on the list of Seniors selected by the Blue Ribbon committee for enshrinement in Canton. His career ended in 1984 so while he was eligible as a Modern Era Candidate for my first 15 years on the Committee, he never made it as a finalist. I, and many other Selection Committee members were baffled by his exclusion.

To try and alleviate a backlog of deserving candidates, the Hall has adjusted the process slightly in the last few years. They’ve added new categories and increased the size of the class trying to keep a player, coach or contributor from “slipping through the cracks.”

Everybody, players, coaches and contributors were in the complete process competing for just five spots in the past. Of the more than one hundred eligible and nominated people on the first ballot each year, getting it down to five meant I left guys I thought were Hall of Famers off my ballot. There just wasn’t enough space.

Quarterbacks and television producers competing against each other with personnel evaluators and head coaches on the same ballot. They’ve given Contributors their own category, alternating with Seniors between two and one eligible candidates each year. Players and coaches are still in the same pool, all competing for five spots.

From the more than a hundred, down to the 25 semi-finalists, that list was pared down to 15 by remote voted by the members (now 48) of the Selection Committee. Those fifteen are then brought in “the room” the Saturday before the Super Bowl for the Selection Committee meeting. We discuss each candidate in detail. If it sounds like a long process, it is.

When I first started on the Committee the meeting started at 7AM, they served a continental breakfast and the announcement was at noon. Now the meeting starts at seven, and there’s a TV show at 8pm. They also serve two full meals.

Gosselin’s charge to “scour the first 100 years of pro football” to find deserving candidates was the mission and they accomplished it. Carmichael was among the ten Seniors selected for induction into Canton. His qualifications have always been there and on this Blue Ribbon committee he also passed the “eye test.”

The “eye test” used to be a bigger factor in the Hall selection process. It’s still part of it but the amount of information available means numbers play a bigger role.

Carmichael is certainly deserving and it was a surprise that he was selected over Drew Pearson. The Raines grad was a second-team selection on the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1970’s. Pearson was on the first-team.

Over last weekend the Hall decided to publicize the Centennial Class by announcing Bill Cowher and Jimmy Johnson as new members headed to Canton this year. Somewhat surprising, Tom Flores and Don Coryell, both finalists in the past in the regular selection process were passed over. Johnson’s career was short in Dallas and Miami but he did win two Super Bowls. Flores resume is long including Super Bowl victories. I think Coryell deserves a place in Canton because he changed the game with his “Air Coryell” despite his lack of post-season success.

Selecting Alex Karras might have been controversial in the past because of his suspension in 1963 for his involvement in gambling. Paul Hornung was also suspended that year for the same thing but was elected to the Hall in 1986, his fifteenth year of eligibility. Karras is now in as a part of the Hall thirty-four years later. The difference? Hornung was on Lombardi’s Packers who won championships: Karras played in Detroit where they didn’t win any.

One surprise was the inclusion of former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Tagliabue was one of three contributors elected despite making it as a finalist four times and not being selected. Discussions about Tagliabue have been long and heated among the Selection Committee. You could call him a polarizing figure among the reporters and players in that room. He is the only contributor candidate ever brought to the full committee who wasn’t voted in since the category was added in 2014.

The induction in Canton this August could have a distinct Jacksonville flair as Leroy Butler and Tony Boselli are both finalists In Miami. We’ll talk about their chances of joining Carmichael in the Hall of Fame next week.

Tiger Vs. Tiger Isn’t The Only Similarity

If you’ve never been to Clemson, you’re not alone. It’s a destination. You’re not going to accidentally end up in Clemson. In the northwest corner of South Carolina, Clemson is in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and on the shores of Lake Hartwell.

While the university has always been known as “Clemson.” The town was originally called “Calhoun” until the 1940’s when the name was changed to Clemson. The town is pretty much only there because of the school and Princeton Review named it the top place in their “town and gown” ratings where they rank the relationship between the school and the town.

They once shot a Burt Lancaster movie in Clemson, the producer saying they were looking for a place “where nothing was going on.”

There’s no lack of support for Clemson Tiger sports and the football team though. The university is committed to having a nationally competitive program. And the fans do their part. Their football program is bolstered by the “ITPAY” fundraising organization founded in 1934 specifically to raise money to keep the team competitive. Originally it stood for, “I Pay Ten A Year.” Now IPTAY is just the moniker: it has raised over $360 million in the last six years.

The private fundraising group keeps them competitive with schools from the Big 10 and the SEC that bring in nearly $150 million a year from television rights, bowl revenue, ticket sales and student fees as well as private donations.

“If not for IPTAY,” one donor said, “We’d be Wake Forest or Duke.” And that means no football championships.

The Tiger’s Reeves Football Complex is a $55 million, 142,500 square foot facility with the standard football training spaces and equipment but also has a barber shop, a bowling alley, a nap room, outdoor basketball court and a miniature golf course.

LSU is equally passionate about sports and their football team. This year they unveiled a $28 million renovation to their “Football Operations” facility.

They’ve been playing football there since 1893. They’ve won 16 conference championships. They crank out All-Americans and NFL players on a regular basis. They’ve won three National Championships. And, maybe by coincidence, after their first national title was claimed in 1958 (awarded after the regular season), they went on to beat Clemson in the 1959 Sugar Bowl.

In Baton Rouge they made nearly $87 million just on football in 2018 with a nine-win season. Over $22 million of that was from donations. They spent over $34 million running the Tigers football program that year. Their coaches made $14.3 million of that. They have one of the few college baseball teams that turn a profit.

Both schools call their teams the Tigers. Both football teams play in a stadium nicknamed “Death Valley.” Both of their coaches are from the South. Dabo Swinney is from Alabama, played at Alabama, coached at Alabama and got his MBA from Alabama. He’s the highest paid college coach in the nation at $9.3 million a year. Ed Orgeron is from Louisiana, started his football career at LSU. He’s been at a myriad of schools, including coaching at Arkansas, Miami, USC, Tennessee and the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. He landed his first head-coaching job at Ole Miss. He’s making about $4 million a year.

And besides their southern roots, the similarities don’t end there. Both aren’t afraid to make a change, take chances and live with the consequences.

Much has been said about Orgeron hiring Joe Brady to revamp the LSU offense and build a passing game around quarterback Joe Burrow. That decision propelled Burrow to the Heisman Trophy and LSU to an undefeated record. It’s a big leap for a coach to scrap what he was doing, what he was comfortable with and take things in a whole different direction. The last time anybody paid attention to the LSU passing game, Bert Jones was the quarterback. They’ve had Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr. and D.J. Chark at wide receiver but never produced like the Tigers did this year with Burrow.

With much less fanfare last year, Swinney was equally bold with his quarterback. Deshaun Watson helped Clemson win the national championship and his backup, Kelly Bryant, was the natural successor for the Tigers. And he played great when he got his chance, compiling a 12-2 record in his first year as a starter, won the ACC Championship and put Clemson in the college football playoffs. But four games into Bryant’s second season, still undefeated, Swinney made a change to Trevor Lawrence, a true freshman. Sure Lawrence might have been the number one recruit in the nation but still, he was a freshman! Swinney’s instinct was right as Lawrence led the Tigers to an undefeated season and the National Championship. Swinney’s move allowed Bryant to transfer and play his final year at Missouri. But it also left Clemson without a real backup at quarterback.

“My job is to make decisions that put the team in the best possible path to win,” he said last year of his quarterback move, “and after four games he was the best player.”

So boldness won’t be an issue for either team Monday night. Burrow with throw it, and run it for LSU’s Tigers. Lawrence will throw it and run it for Clemson’s Tigers. Both coaches will reach into their bag of tricks, probably more than once, to change the momentum of the game.

When they square off for the National Championship Monday night, both teams will have played one game in the last five weeks. Both won their conference championship games on December 7th, and played in the National Semi-Finals on December 28th. It’s a one-year anomaly according to the College Football Playoff Committee. There were some quirks in the schedule and venues already booked in New Orleans that pushed the game back a week. Next year, the semifinals will be on January 1st and the title game played on the 11th in Miami.

While LSU is a favorite in this game, Clemson is vying to win their third national championship in four years. That’s dynasty kind of stuff that doesn’t normally fit in the ACC but Clemson is not your normal ACC school.

Writing this column got me pretty fired up to watch the game, and after all of the talk about quarterbacks, it’ll probably be defense that decides the outcome. As good as Clemson’s defense was last year, that’s where I think LSU’s is in 2020. Many of you know that I attended Clemson and played football there as a freshman. I could say something silly like, “I’ll take the Tigers,” but it’s the Baton Rouge version that will come out on top Monday night in a lower scoring game than you might think.

Marrone, Caldwell Last Chance

There’s a lot we don’t know about Shad Khan. His ownership of the Jaguars is different than Wayne Weaver’s. It’s different than a lot of other NFL owners as well. He doesn’t live in town so he’s not part of the day-to-day operations. As one of the businesses in his portfolio the Jaguars have their own operating management, and when he needs to get involved, he does.

There is one thing we do know about Shad Khan: He’s not stupid.

If you spend any time around Shad you see that he’s a good listener. He believes in people’s expertise. He gives the people around him the tools to be successful. And he has high expectations for that success.

“We would go into meetings at the end of the year with ten ideas of things we’d need to make things successful going forward,” one Jaguars manager told me. “We’d expect to get three or four. Shad would sit there during the meeting and listen, and if you made your case, he’d give you all ten.”

But there was a catch.

“When he’d get to the door,” the manager recalled, “He’d look back and ask ‘Got what you need?’ Then he’d say, ‘Good, I expect some results.’ He didn’t want to hear any excuses.”

Khan’s thing is business. He likes the whole process of finding a business that’s undervalued, figuring out how to get it going and making it work. And he likes to win.

There are a lot of people angry or at best perplexed about his decision to keep Doug Marrone and Dave Caldwell running his football team. They’re track record isn’t great save for one year, 2017. The Jaguars winning percentage in the last decade, with the team mostly owned by Khan, is second-to-last in the league.

Which is why national pundits called Khan’s move to keep Marrone and Caldwell a “head-scratcher.” Or worse. One said Khan was too close to the situation to see what the problems are. That he was looking for the “comfortable” decision to make.

“He did what he always does. Status quo. All good. Nothing to see here. Just another occasionally sternly-worded press release,” is how he described Khan’s decision-making process.

We all know it’s become its own sport on a national level to bash Jacksonville and the Jaguars. We’re an outpost to those writers who never go anywhere other than from the airport to the Hyatt to the stadium and back. If that’s all you did in most NFL cities you wouldn’t think much of them either. But that’s a whole different story.

I’ve had friends and fans agree that they have to “blow the whole thing up” but when I ask “in favor of what?” I usually get a blank stare. And that’s what I think Khan was facing.

The trend of young 30-something coaches taking over franchises has cooled a bit with fewer “hot” candidates out there. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is a perennial name on the coaching carousel but after his short stint in Denver and jilting the Colts, other owners are a bit wary. And the question whether its McDaniels or the Brady/Belichick combination still remains.

So short of luring Belichick away for a challenge and proof that it’s not all about the quarterback, Khan could have looked at Baltimore’s offensive coordinator Greg Roman (Caldwell’s roommate at John Carroll. Also McDaniels alma mater) or Robert Saleh, the ‘Niners defensive coordinator and former linebacker coach here in Jacksonville. Neither has head coaching experience.

You could say he opted for the “status quo” but I’m looking at the other side of the equation.

These days in the NFL it’s the coaches who bring along their own general managers, not the other way around. So Shad had to make a decision on his coach first. In his meetings with Marrone, Khan was convinced that Doug was encumbered by Tom Coughlin despite their close relationship. Shad had already made the decision to move on from Coughlin as the football czar weeks before he fired him.
It was Coughlin who set a tense tone on the team, attending practices but without the daily contact with players he didn’t have any positive impact on their performance. It seems the only contact Coughlin had with players was when they found a letter in their locker telling them how much they’d been fined. Or whatever he said to Jalen Ramsey after week two this year.

Marrone convinced Khan he can change the culture overnight, and there was some evidence of that in how the team reacted after Coughlin’s firing. Especially last Sunday coming from eleven points down to bet the Colts.

“I have a clear vision of the type of communication that I want with our players from different heads of the organization,” Marrone said on Tuesday when I asked him what specifically he told Khan that would make him a better coach for this team. “I think that we can do a better job there creating a better environment.”

Without throwing Coughlin directly under the bus, Marrone let it be known that things would be different with him calling the shots.

And Khan believed him.

Doug would be easy to play for. Do your job, no problem. Step out of line or don’t perform and he’ll let you know right away. No mystery there.

Retaining Caldwell on the surface seems odd but it had to do with Marrone’s new role having some input in personnel decisions. Caldwell’s record acquiring players, even when he was making the calls on his own, is spotty. But not that different than most organizations. It’s the high profile, Blake Bortles pick that most critics can’t get past.

Marrone was quick to point out in the last two years that he didn’t have anything to do with picking players while Coughlin was there. “You’d have to talk with them,” was his answer when asked about personnel decisions. Now, with he and Caldwell on equal footing in the organization, he believes he can help make it work.

Marrone has a more global view of the whole organization than people outside the buillding would realize. He’s interested in getting everyone involved.

“It comes from everywhere,” he said when asked about change. “It comes from all the support staff in the building, to the way we’re handling the players, to the way we’re acquiring them, to the way we’re coaching them, to everything.”

And then he was very specific about how things will work going forward. He’ll decide as the head coach what kind of football team they’ll be and have input about the players who fit into that mold.

“We are talking about taking our coaching staff with our scouting staff and really putting it in a true, true partnership where we are meeting and talking and doing that and coming to decisions,” he explained. “My experience with that has been that probably 97 percent of the time, you are going to come up with a decision that is best for your organization.”

Those decisions for 2020 will be critical. Marrone’s decisions about his coaching staff, beginning next Monday will be critical. Everybody knows they have a quarterback issue looming. The offensive line needs to play better, probably with some new personnel. They need Marcel Dareus back on the defensive line and better linebacker play. And their wide receivers need to be better and more consistently open.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. But it’s not that unusual for a team in the NFL to turn it around.

This is the one chance these guys are going to get.