There’s a bit of irony this week as the NFL football team from Jacksonville is visiting in the city of Baltimore. That’s because it’s happening nearly 40 years to the day since the NFL owner from Baltimore started threatening to leave town take his team to Jacksonville.
That’s the start of the story that ended with the NFL awarding a franchise here in 1993. The beginning was on August 15, 1979 with “Colt Fever.”
That night in August of ’79, I was mad at Jacksonville
You might know I’m a Baltimore native, born and raised. I still root for the Orioles. I was a Colts fan growing up and when then-owner Robert Irsay visited Jacksonville threatening to move the Colts here, I wasn’t happy.
I was working in Charleston, South Carolina as a sportscaster and I thought Jacksonville and Mayor Jake Godbold were way out of line trying to steal the team from my hometown. I scoffed at the idea on the six o’clock news that night. Little did I know that it was Irsay I should have had the problem with and not Jacksonville or Jake Godbold.
After negotiations with the city of Baltimore to build a new stadium broke down, Irsay started a tour of the country, claiming he was looking for a new home for the Colts.
A local Northside businessman, Doug Peeples, President of the Northside Businessman’s Club, took it upon himself to invite Irsay to Jacksonville. Irsay accepted and planned to spend two or three days here. Everybody knew he was using Jacksonville, Los Angeles and other cities as leverage to get Baltimore to build a new stadium. Jake Godbold didn’t care about the Colts’ owner’s motive. He got involved and put his campaign machine in motion to show Irsay around.
“We had a lot of things planned for Irsay being in town,” Mike Tolbert, the man who ran Godbold’s campaign for mayor and his biographer recalled this week.
“Jake asked me at the final planning meeting for Irsay’s visit, ‘What have we left out?’ and I said, ‘The people who just elected you,’” Tolbert said.
The plan to entertain Irsay in town included a trip to Ponte Vedra, a ride on the St. Johns in yacht, lunch at the River Club and a bunch of other high-end stuff.
“But nothing for the people who were going to buy the tickets if the Colts came here,” Tolbert said. “Everybody who was going to host Irsay said it wouldn’t work. It would be embarrassing. Nobody would show up. They were groaning in the background. But we decided to invite everybody down to the Gator Bowl to let Irsay know, ‘We want the Colts.’”
And with that, Colt Fever was born.
“I was really nervous about it,” Jake Godbold recalled. “I was nervous as I could be. I didn’t know if anybody would show up. Everybody thought maybe three or four hundred people might be there and I’d be really embarrassed.”
But for the promise of a free soda and a hot dog, fifty thousand people showed up on a hot August evening at the Gator Bowl. The soda was donated, so were the hot dogs. Since the stadium’s official vendor wanted nothing to do with Colt Fever, Jake’s friends from his recent Mayoral campaign got together and did the cooking. Another ten thousand couldn’t get in the stadium so they sat in their cars listened to it live on the radio.
“We didn’t think anybody was going to show up. We only had four or five JSO officers there. No ticket takers really,” said Tolbert.
After just five days of planning, Irsay flew into the Gator Bowl in a helicopter, landed at the 50-yard line and greeted the fans that Wednesday evening. There were some speeches made, a bunch of back-slapping and waving to the crowd followed.
When it got dark, they turned the lights out and 50,000 fans lit matches donated by Winn-Dixie and distributed at the gates by the volunteer youth group from the downtown department store May Cohen’s. And a chant of “We want the Colts,” reverberated through the stadium and into downtown.
“There were a lot of tight throats and I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house,” Godbold recalled.
“Irsay was a delightful guy, a colorful guy,” he added. “He was a big guy, like a big Teddy bear, always laughing but he had tears in his eyes, he was impressed. I got really choked up.”
While the Gator Bowl hosted two college football games each year and the occasional pro football exhibition, getting it up to NFL standards would be a huge undertaking.
“Irsay put his arm around me as we walked under the stadium and told me, ‘Jake, we’ll have to do something about this place’” Godbold said remembering the reality of renovating the Gator Bowl. “He was a steel guy. He told me we’d have to tear this place down. I knew it would be a long process to get a team to play here.”
Five years later, Irsay snuck out of Baltimore on a snowy night, moving his team to Indianapolis on the promise of a new, modern stadium.
But Jacksonville had made its mark.
“We got more out of him than he got out of us,” Godbold said. “I knew we had done something nobody thought we could do. I couldn’t believe all these people were coming out in the middle of the week. I knew we had done our job and the people had responded.”
Godbold was amazed that the story was picked up nationally and had created a buzz. At a meeting the following week in Washington at the White House to discuss funding for the people mover, Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan wasn’t that interested in talking about the people mover.
“He had been playing tennis, walked in, and got a cold drink,” Godbold said with a laugh. “Then he sat down and said ‘Before I talk to you about a damn thing I want to know how you got 50.000 people in the Gator Bowl the other night.’”
“We didn’t expect Irsay and the Colts to come here, but we showed what we could do,” Tolbert said. “That night lit the fire that turned the town around. Jake had only been in office six weeks. That takes a lot of guts to pull that off.”
“I knew that night if we could hold that spirit, we could accomplish anything, it was very emotional.” Godbold added. “We needed an uplift more than we needed a team. I was more interested in what we could do for the city than getting a team.”
“The tenor in the town and the tone changed,” Tolbert explained. “Anything he could do to put Jacksonville on the stage was his goal. The Tea Men (from the NASL), the Bulls. Fred Bullard probably doesn’t consider Jacksonville for the USFL if Colt Fever didn’t happen.”
And the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars certainly wouldn’t be visiting Baltimore this week.
(Author’s note: A full accounting from the founder of “Colt Fever,” Mike Tolbert ,can be found in Tolbert’s book, “Jake!” available at local booksellers and online.)