Two road games in two weeks without coming home is a difficult task for any NFL team. The Jaguars have made this kind of trip two years in a row. In 2013 they traveled to Oakland and Seattle, staying on the West Coast in between the games and practicing in San Jose. Last year, they lost both games.
This year, the trip over two weeks has been bumpy from the start. In Cincinnati, the Jaguars had a couple of chances with momentum against a pretty good team but squandered them with mistakes and a turnover. Turbulence over the Atlantic Ocean at 39,000 feet ensured not much sleep for anybody onboard the team charter although some of the players might have gotten some rest. In an unusual and very well received team building move, Gus Bradley and the coaching staff, normally first class occupants on team charters, gave up their seats and allowed veteran players and starters (allocated by seniority and a sort of “lottery’) to fly ‘up front’ in the 47 transcontinental “lie-flat” cubicles available on the Virgin Atlantic Airbus 340-600. The coaches and senior staff sat in what Virgin Atlantic calls “Upper Class” sort of like a domestic first class seat in the US. While there were plenty of bumps going over and regular reminders to keep your seatbelt on (it was bumpy enough that if you weren’t wearing it you might get bounced out of your seat) one senior Jaguars staffer looked in on the players up front only to find them asleep. “Every one of them, sacked out,” he told me with a laugh.
If you’ve ever gone through London’s Gatwick airport, you know it’s a long slog to get to immigration, then off to baggage and customs. Of course, on arrival, it started to rain. While sponsors were whisked off to a luxury hotel in downtown London for the week, the team and the football staff boarded buses for the 1 ½ ride to their home for most of the week, The Grove Hotel. Outside of the city but accessable by “motorway” and the train, the Grove is a resort not unlike but smaller than the Greenbriar or the Homestead in the US. The NFL has used it as a base for one of the teams playing, building a football field for practice and erecting a temporary locker room right next to it. They also have a world class golf course that hosted a World Golf Championship event in 2006. Tiger Woods won it at 23 under par.
Of course when the team pulled up to the Grove, it rained a little harder.
Not to worry, the team grabbed their room keys and reported to the locker room for a quick workout and a ‘meet and greet.’ About 100 members of the Union Jax, the UK’s Jaguars fan club, were invited to the practice to watch, shake hands and have their picture taken with the players and coaches. And it actually stopped raining for a while.
UK Jaguars fans are rabid, coming from all over the country to see ‘their team” practice. Most were in jerseys. There were about a half dozen members of the British military there as well as athletes from the Invictus Games, a competition for wounded veterans.
When the formalities were concluded, the Jaguars UK coordinator introduced Head Coach Gus Bradley to the group and said, “So Coach, if you’ll do the honors?” Bradley stepped up and addressed the group, then led them in an impromptu version of the “We Believe In Victory” chant we saw him do in the locker room after the Browns victory.
“Did you know you were going to do that,” I asked Gus afterwards.
“NO,” he quickly responded and laughed. “Absolutely not. But we talk about engaging the fans at home and here as well. What better way to do that? Our fans are great and they’re growing. At home and here. They’re great!”
The players met with the coaching staff, went over the Cincinnati game and had the rest of the day off. Most took advantage of the bus provided to take them into Central London. The coaches worked on the game plan.
On Tuesday the players split into groups and went into the surrounding community to meet with local fans as well as students and military veterans. More than a dozen went to the NFL’s “Play 60” event in the nearest town and worked with 8 and 9 year olds on “American Football.”
“These are real American football players and they’re teaching us,” one young girl told us with wide eyes and real astonishment.
“You have to tackle and sometimes ‘budge’ somebody,’ one boy explained. “Yes, budge’ he emphasized apparently incredulous that you’d actually take somebody to the ground and it would be OK under the rules.
The rest of the day was the players day off, with most going into town and the rest playing ping pong, PlayStation in the players lounge, or just resting on the grounds of the Grove. A couple played the golf course and reported it was “spectacular.”
The team will start practice with “Competition Wednesday” and stay at the Grove through Friday afternoon. They’ll then transfer into London for their Saturday walk-thru and the game Sunday against the Cowboys.