As the Christmas season unfolds, families will gather this week, many of them coming to North Florida for the holidays. A professional stop for Navy veterans and football players in Jacksonville often has led to those two groups staying here, living here and raising families here.
“It starts with the friendship of the people in Jacksonville,” Commodore John Leenhouts (ret) said of Navy vets picking North Florida as their home. A recent job change as the CEO of the annual Sun ‘N Fun Fly-In has taken him to Lakeland but Leehouts calls Jacksonville home. He had several stops with the Navy but said there was never any question he’d live in Jacksonville once his career was over.
“It’s the positive attitude. You start with the friendships that you build. Not just your Navy buddies, but also your neighbors, the people you knew working there. It’s a friendly city, a nice city that has nice southern hospitality.”
That “southern charm” is a common thread among the comments made from those who could have lived anywhere.
“I was 23 years old, newly married, and the whole community adopted us.” Jaguars great Tony Boselli said. Not just football friends but actual friends we just met.”
Boselli grew up in Colorado and played college football in Los Angeles but moved back to Ponte Vedra when he retired.
“First of all, my wife’s from California, so she loves the weather and the beach,” he added. “When we left for Houston I thought I’d never come back, I was mad,” Boselli said of being exposed in the expansion draft to the Texans. “But every time we came back to visit, it felt like home.”
Former Georgia quarterback Matt Robinson grew up in Michigan and Atlanta and had professional football stops in New York, Denver, Buffalo and Portland but his time in Jacksonville convinced him this would be home.
“I liked it here right away when I signed with the USFlLBulls in ’84,” Robinson said. “I liked the small town feel with a bit of the big city. Atlanta before what Atlanta is now.”
It takes a year or so for North Florida to reveal itself to you, but move to town, work hard, get involved with some charity work, stay out of trouble and you’ll fit right in.
”The people are fabulous, it still has some southern charm,” said Boselli. “The weather is not extreme, you can play golf year ‘round. Still slow enough you don’t feel like you’re in a major city but good restaurants and great outdoor life.”
Four of Boselli’s and his wife Angie’s five children were born in Jacksonville and raising children here was noted as a real plus for staying.
“I was raising my daughter and this is a great place to do that,” Robinson, who lives in Mandarin, added. “The people are nice, the lifestyle is great. Plus there were good jobs here. There’s nothing I didn’t like about Jacksonville.”
Growing up in New Orleans, former Jaguars linebacker Lonnie Marts had pro stops in Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Tennessee befor signing with the Jaguars. He and his wife Gionne decided Jacksonville is where they wanted to raise their five children.
“I stayed here because I have this big family,” Lonnie said. The climate isn’t that different from New Orleans where I grew up.” The city is low-key and it’s growing.”
Marts felt a sense of welcome right away, everywhere he went.
“When I walked into the locker room Ben Coleman, Tony Boselli, Mark Brunell and James Stewart said, ‘Great to have you here.’ I went to buy a house and sitting across the table from the seller and she told the agent “I want them to have this house. It would be a joy to have them raise their family in this house.’ I thought, ‘Is that’s what it’s like around here?’ We stayed friends with them, talked all time. The people are great!”
The weather, no state income tax, the beach, the people and that southern hospitality all were on everybody’s list as to why they stayed.
“It’s not just one particular thing,” Leenhouts added. “One particular thing wouldn’t keep all those people in one area that’s so diverse.”
After 11 years in the NFL, former Jaguars Center Dave Widell could have gone back home to New England or any of the other three stops in his pro career, but decided Jacksonville was home.
“We didn’t know where we’d end up, but after Atlanta, but I knew I was done with football. We came back for my son’s birthday, went to the beach, put our feet in the sand and said, “Jacksonville is our home.” I had radio opportunities, I had a small business but either way we loved Jacksonville.”
“Jacksonville makes it very easy to choose it,” he added. “The river, the ocean, the weather. There are so many choices and options for people here to stay.”
Boselli summed it up for everybody this way:
“Work might take me away for a period of time, but we’ll always call Jacksonville home. I know I’m from Boulder but I tell people my hometown is Jacksonville.”