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Mayor Curry on Board With Sports

It was over forty years ago when Mayor Jake Godbold decided that Jacksonville’s image needed burnishing and the local citizenry needed their spirits lifted. He chose sports as a vehicle to promote city pride and invited Baltimore Colts’ owner Robert Irsay to town for the now-famous “Colt Fever.” Godbold was unfairly dubbed “Mayor Jock” because he was right: Sports can lift the spirit of a town and a professional sports team helps put a city on the map. His dream was realized in 1993 with the NFL awarding a franchise to Jacksonville and the city has flourished ever since.

Along with getting rid of tolls and the stench from the paper mills (once dubbed “The Smell of Money”) sports has been an integral part of North Florida’s growth from less than 500,000 people in 1980 to more than 1 ½ million residents.

Current Mayor Lenny Curry, now starting his second term, sees sports as a big driver for economic growth and creating a positive quality of life in North Florida

“The economic piece is important, these events drive bed tax, sales tax, they’re huge economic engines,” Curry said this week.

“But for me, sports is part of my ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ effort in the next four years,” he added. .

Curry’s not naïve about the deep divisions on either side of different roads and rivers in Jacksonville. He calls ‘One City, One Jacksonville’ “a fragile idea” that needs to be cultivated.

“We have a lot of work to do be one city as a people,” he explained. “But where we’ve come together is around a crisis like the hurricanes or around sports. Regardless of background or where you live, we all get together behind sports in town.”

On that he’s right.

A high school baseball and football player who was also on the weightlifting squad, Curry has run “The Gate” nearly 20 times and most mornings can be found in the Y before heading to City Hall.

He was eight years old when Colt Fever happened, “But I remember the USFL,” he said with a laugh. He famously watches the NFL Network’s morning show religiously and that network is regularly on one of the TV’s in his office.

He coached his son’s peewee football team before he went to middle school this year. Sports, fitness and recreation are not just a political platform: They’re a part of his life. And he wants it to be a part of yours as well.

“We put $150 million in the budget for infrastructure,” he noted. “And a lot of that is for sports and recreation.”

Curry would like to see bike trails expanded and more parks as part of everyday life in Jacksonville.

“When I coached my son, we practiced on city fields,” he explained.

The Mayor was there last Tuesday night when the city hosted the annual Florida/FSU baseball game at Bragan Field and helped celebrate Mike Martin’s 79th and final game in Jacksonville.

“FSU’s (football) is coming back here in late August, Georgia/Florida brings in $30 million to economy each year,” he said. “Anything where the numbers work, anytime we can do anything around sports an entertainment. It comes back to people being together.”

There’s a sense of urgency in Curry’s voice, knowing he only has four more years as Mayor to get things done. With sports, he’s focused on “leveraging” what’s already here and bringing in new events with broad-based appeal.

“We feel a sense of urgency,” he said. “You’ll see some pretty aggressive stuff. My first year in office we got Daily’s place done right away.”

Curry says his office is “aligned” with the Jaguars and owner Shad Khan. He’s been instrumental in acquiring the funding to take down the Hart Bridge ramps near the stadium to help facilitate Khan’s vision of the Shipyards and the Lot J entertainment complex.

“Shad’s relationships as an international businessman bring a lot to the table,” Curry explained. “And he loves Jacksonville.”

As Mayor, Curry is on board with Khan’s desire to bring the NFL Draft to Jacksonville and Daily’s Place. He went to the draft last year in Dallas and was asked to spend some time with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“So we’re on their radar,” he explained.

One bonus for Curry’s time in office is his relationship with the PGA Tour and The Players Championship.

“They heavily supported my re-election,” Curry said of the PGA Tour and Commissioner Jay Monahan. “I know it’s in St. Johns County but I think of it as a ‘City of Jacksonville’ event. The city and The Players have had a better relationship in the last four years. All I see from them is an intention to be unified and branded.”

As with any term-limited politician, Curry’s first four years were part feeling-out process, part accomplishments. In his next four years, he hopes to take steps toward downtown to make it presentable residents and visitors alike. Khan’s plans for the area around the stadium and a Four Seasons Hotel on the river are part of that vision.

“We have opportunities to leverage what we have,” he said of the future. “There’s so much we can expand on”

“The first four years have been a turnaround,” he explained. “We’ve solved the pension, we’re financially stable. We have the financial wherewithal to do things around sports. So stay tuned.”

An Encounter with President George H.W. Bush

Sitting in the men’s locker room in the early ‘90’s at Marsh Landing Country Club, there was a steady stream of guys coming through as usual or a weekday afternoon. I knew most of them and we exchanged the normal pleasantries as they passed through. It’s not unusual to see guys in all levels of dress, suits coming from work, casual clothes headed to lunch, golf togs for the course and even gym clothes with the fitness center nearby.

As I said, I knew most of the guys and having been on television in Jacksonville for more than a decade at the time, most of the guys knew me and greeted me by name (back when people watched TV!) So it wasn’t strange to me each time the locker room door opened for the person entering to look up and say, “Hi Sam!” It also wasn’t strange for the locker room to be empty, mid-day, mid-week, so I was the only person sitting there.

I looked up each time the door opened and said hi, changing my shoes, looking at the newspaper as I was getting ready to go hit some balls.

When the door opened for the umpteenth time I instinctively looked up ready to say hi, but much to my surprise the man coming through the door was the President of the United States, George H.W. Bush.

Just as instinctively, I stood up as he walked across the locker room, alone, and headed straight for me. In retrospect, it was somewhat surreal, since you always see the President with an entourage, that it was just the two of us standing there.

“Hi, I’m George Bush,” the President said as he stood next to me and extended his hand.
“Yes sir Mr. President, I’m Sam Kouvaris,” I said receiving his firm handshake.

“Am I in your way,” he said, glancing toward the lockers in front of us.

“No sir,” I said as I looked a the nameplate above my locker that had been replaced with one that said, “President George Bush.”

He sat down and motioned for me to do the same as he began to untie his shoes. Conservatively dressed in a blue Ban-Lon shirt, blue slacks and white basketball socks, he was getting ready to go to lunch in the main dining room at Marsh Landing.

“Did you play fast?” I asked, knowing a little bit about his penchant for getting through 18 holes quickly.

“Fast? We played in an hour twenty eight,” he said with a big smile. “Played through about five groups, even had time to walk over and shake hands with some guys on what, 13? Aren’t they building a house there?”

“Yes sir,” I answered with a laugh. “How’d you play?”

His answer was perfect. A blend of “guy talk” and humility.

“Actually pretty good, for me,” he said with a wry smile, a raised eyebrow and a mock look over his shoulder to see if anybody else was listening.

As he stood up, he reached in his locker and pulled a navy blue sport coat on, ready to head out the door.

“I’ve got to go this lunch with my host in the dining room,” he said as we walked toward the door, still just the two of us in the locker room. “I’d invite you, love for you to come, but it’s not my thing, you know?” he said in the most gracious way.

“Not a problem Mr. President I absolutely understand,” I said.

The locker room door opened behind us and the famed author Dan Jenkins walked through. Jenkins had invited the President to play golf that day and was a member at Marsh Landing.

“Sam, did you meet my friend George,” Dan said shaking hands with both of us and purposefully saying it backwards.

“I have,” I said with a laugh.

“He’s a fine young man,” the President said, motioning to me as he shook Dan’s hand.

The President noticed that I was looking at his shoulder with a mix of anxiousness and restraint.

“What,” he said, looking down at his shoulder.

“Fix your collar Mr. President?” I asked. As he had put the sport coat on, the collar rolled under as it often does.

He laughed and motioned that it was OK, so I reached over, and unrolled the collar and patted it down.

“Thanks,” he said as we shook hands again.

“I didn’t want to reach out and do that earlier Mr. President for fear one of those guys would come out of a locker after me,” I said.

He looked around, conspiratorially, and said, “You know, they would!” with a huge laugh. And off he and Jenkins went to lunch.

I found out later that the flow of guys through the locker room were members of the President’s Secret Service detail, sweeping the room. The President has his own traveling detail and the local agents augment his security wherever he goes. Maybe Dan Jenkins had set it up, but the local guys knew me and let me stay in the locker room, knowing the President was headed there momentarily. I appreciate that.

Recently I was speaking at a charity golf event at Timiquana when one of the players came up to me and said “You were hanging out with my friend George Bush at Marsh Landing a while back weren’t you?”

“That’s one of the favorite moments of my career and my favorite stories,” I answered.

“He came out to lunch and said, ‘I met this Sam Kouvaris in the locker room. Who is that guy? Everybody knows him,’ and I told him you were on TV and we had a pretty good chuckle. You made an impression.”

I hope it was a good one. I know that encounter had a big impact on me, seeing how one of the most famous and powerful people on the planet could have a common touch.

CAVU, fair winds and following seas Mr. President.