It might be cliche but the season of thanks is upon us and as usual it gave me pause for thought. Considering the earthly toil that the Fates have cast to some it is good to be reminded that we have, at the very least, friends, family, job or health for which to be thankful.
For the lucky few cities which have an NFL team there is that "giving back to the community" benefit that comes with the business. You may have recently seen an example of this through Greg Jones's work at Hubbard House.
What many fans get from their team is a sense of civic pride, but more so an opportunity for fellowship. It may be something as grand as game day tailgating or as simple as a day spent on the couch. My focus has always been on it being a time to spend with my family, as I'm lucky enough to have a wife, teen son and young daughter who enjoy the sport and specifically the Jaguars.
This is one of my stories.
Through friendships I have been able to attend three Jaguars away games: all in Baltimore. I can tell you the stadium is nice, the fans are relatively unimposing and the Jaguars have lost all three times. In 2001 it was Jacksonville blowing a late fourth quarter lead, losing 24-21 to the defending Super Bowl champions. 2002 saw Mark Brunell throw three interceptions, one late, giving the Ravens a 17-10 victory. Finally in 2008 a dispassionate Jaguars team fooled us into thinking a win was possible early on, only to completely disappear the final three quarters in losing 27-7.
Each time the dynamic of who I was with made more of an impact than the game itself. The first was a weekend with my wife that included a terrific evening in Annapolis. The last was the entire family which included a Christmas dinner with my friends and their family.
But it was the second trip, in 2002, that will forever stand out.
My friend Dennis, who we always stayed with, had a connection that would give up his tickets for one Ravens game a year. As in 2001 our seats were front row end zone, last seats on the row so that directly to our left was the Baltimore Ravens band. Having lived in Baltimore during 1970's I grew up with the tradition of the Colts and the Redskins. A full band, to me, has always added an greater element of passion to the event. Not taking anything away from our D-Line but if you've ever been to a college game you know the impact of a strong brass section.
That Year I brought my six year old son, Evan, who had just started playing Pop Warner football and was beyond excited to not only be going to an away game but also to be flying. The friends we were staying with did not have children, nor did the other couple who would always be part of our visit, but they made sure the two days were filled with attractions directed at my son's entertainment. Since it was close to Halloween that included a Saturday night haunted hayride. It was a moment in time when you appreciate the sacrifice your friends will make.
Sunday morning found us up early to beat the commute. We would take the Metro Subway since parking is at a minimum and stadium placement fosters an impressive traffic challenge. Evan was sporting his teal Fred Taylor jersey, though he wore it with trepidation knowing he would be surrounded by purple in black, and in such close quarters.
Having a young child at an away game tends to soften the stares and language directed at you when your a fan of the visiting team. The year before a drunk kid got in mine and my wife's face. My friend Sean, knowing my short fuse for such confrontations, immediately intervened. But on this crisp Sunday morning the train was filled with conversation focused on how wonderful it was for a father and his son to be at away game, along with sincere wishes that Evan had a memorable experience.
It probably didn't hurt, that unlike the previous year, the Raven fans weren't brimming over with confidence in their sub .500 team.
The sentiment on the subway continued into the stadium as we walked through the tailgaters. If you haven't been to what is now M & T Bank Stadium, the north side of the stadium is akin to the walk college players take on game day. It is relatively narrow and lined with folks selling merchandise, food and beverages. It can be a tight squeeze and teal really stands out against a sea of purple.
At the end of the walk, and right before you entered the stadium, was a part of the trip I had been looking forward to. A Johnny Unitas statue was being inveiled today and though I doubt Evan had any appreciation for the significance of this, for me it was important. The player my father said was the greatest to ever play was being honored and in doing so allowed me to share some NFL history with my boy.
We hadn't told Evan where the seats were and the closer we got to the field the more his face lit up. As we sat down his head swiveled as if wanting to leave his body for a close up of every aspect of the venue.
Our timing for entry could not have been more perfect. The Jaguars players were in their pre-game warm ups; close enough to see the focus in their eyes. We sat down and were greeted with handshakes by those around us, asking how old my son was and if we were from Jacksonville.
As we became familiar with our surroundings I watched one of the coaches begin to walk towards us. My first thought was that he would stop at the lineman running through their drills. But he continued on as if they were the opposition and stopped right in front of our seats.
Assistant Coach, and Defensive Coordinator, John Pease asked my shy son if he was really a Jaguars fan and where he was from. He offered his hand to me and I explained we were up from Jacksonville to support the team. My son began to soften a bit and told Coach Pease that he was a real fan and than he played offensive tackle for his Pop Warner team.
When it was time for coach to rejoin the team he thanked us for coming up and then handed my son a practice ball they were using. It may have belonged to Brad Meester as the only writing on it, beyond the branding, was his number.
By now the seats behind us had begun to fill and I could hear folks from rows back shouting how cool that was. Evan received multiple pats on the back. It didn't matter that the team would go on to lose a close game. I was able to experience something timeless that would forever be a link in the bond between father and son.
That ball has since accumulated other markings. Jack Del Rio, Mike Peterson and Josh Scobee are but a few names that appear along side the number 63.
To this day I get choked up thinking about that weekend. My son, now 16, made his own memories playing football at the Pop Warner level as well as middle school ball, winning the first division championship with James Weldon Johnson. He was the only 7th grader to start (he played linebacker) and won defensive player of the year in 8th grade, suiting up at left defensive end.
Presently his loves are rock climbing and mountain biking. He tells me he might go out for football or lacrosse in 11th grade.
Regardless of his sport of choice we still attend games at EverBank and watch them from our home when the Jaguars play. My son and I couldn't be closer and a significant part of that bonding is credited to what happened at 4:12 pm on November 30, 1993. Now that my daughter is old enough to appreciate and understand the game I look forward to what I'm sure will be memories just as emotional and important.
It would be criminal to leave out that my wife is just as grateful.
When I grew up it was baseball which brought fathers and their children together. For some, football has become that medium. It isn't a requirement and there are numerous families out there who are close because of music, camping or any number of other activities. For me, a football fan, I am so thankful the NFL made the decision to give us a franchise.
It is more than just a game.
- Brian Fullford