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.