A long time ago, a decade to be precise, I founded this place. This is my retrospective on Big Cat Country, the last 10 years of my life, what this site and this team means to me. It is also a chance for me to say thank you to everyone who's put their eyes on this site or their fingers on a keyboard to write for it. Some names, dates, times, and places are fuzzy. Any mistakes in the below are mine and mine alone.
On Friday, August 25th, 2006, this humble website premiered. Ten years is a long time in online years. For me, the last decade represents great growth and change. Big Cat Country began as a side project while in college in DeLand. Bored while studying political science, I started writing Jaguars related posts at Stampede Blue. My first one, if memory serves, was a bombastic claim that Rashean Mathis "always" owned Marvin Harrison. Mind you, I knew nothing about watching film, the value (or non value) of box score stats, or anything about blogging. Brad Wells, the then host over there, took my argument to pieces, but welcomed me to use his site as a place for my Jaguars writing.
This was early in SB Nation days. Way back when SB Nation sites ran in the sidebar of DailyKos. There were twelve NFL blogs when I started posting. Because of Brad Wells and Stampede Blue, Big Cat Country became the thirteenth. Before bigger market teams like the Giants, Jets and Redskins, the Jaguars had a home online. I recall the SB Nation leaders, whose name escape me now, asking me to send them 10 site names and they would pick the one they liked best. I'd kill to know what the other nine were. I remember Big Cat Country as one of the last ones I came up with. I don't remember if it was one I liked.
This was also the weird era of sidebar link sales, which died at Google's hand a few years later. It was a nice source of drinking dollars for a college student. Tip of the hat to those who sent a few dollars my way for posting a link or three in a sidebar.
For context, you should remember how barren the internet was for Jaguars fans in 2006. Vic Ketchman ran the daily question column at Jaguars.com, which was still one of the better official NFL sites. For those of you with good memories, this was toward the end of the "cap hell" period of Ask Vic. Where the doomed Colts fell to the same fate as the early 2000's Jaguars. This was never to be. I need to be fair, Vic was kind to me and Big Cat Country. Gave us a reference or two online. Was always happy to talk to me. May have nudged the team a time or two to recognize that we're out there.
Anyhow, to my knowledge, there were no other Jaguars blogs. There were lengthy writers on the Jaguars Message board, a place I rarely visited. But as for a blog, dedicated only to the Jaguars, this was the first. And I had no clue what I was doing. I just re-read my first post and realized that I misspelled "Las Angeles". Twitter was only a few months old (March 21, 2006). Facebook was still a college thing, for the most part. And Big Cat Country was out there, trying to create a home for a fanbase that was not receiving much coverage.
JagNation.com came around at about the same time. Charlie and (I hate myself for not remembering his name) were wonderful to partner with. We did online radio, shared content, and one time got in deep shit with the Jaguars for live-radio-streaming training camp. It was great to have a partnership approach rather than adversarial.
It took five minutes three days a week to compile the two or three articles a week from the national press that alluded to the Jaguars. The NFL, while popular, had not yet conquered the internet. In a small little way, Big Cat Country would have a role in that. Emphasis on small. But more on that later. The internet was not a good place to be if you were a Jaguars fan. Then, we were going to move to L.A., no matter what. London was not a thing yet. References to tarps dominated the conversation.
So I started. I remember the first regular season game I "live blogged", against the Dallas Cowboys. Byron Leftwich threw for 237 yards and upset the Drew Bledsoe led Cowboys, 24-17. I remember asking my best friend in the world, if I could skip our fraternity chapter meeting (Sigma Nu) to "work on my website". My colleagues in Chapter were none-too-pleased that I was skipping the meeting to watch football. I remember skipping a night class the following week to watch the Jaguars beat the Steelers on Monday Night Football. This was a thing that used to happen to the Jaguars.
Yes, there was a time when the Jaguars were on prime time against a team that was not the Titans. I know that sounds crazy now. I promise you, I'm not lying. Just wait, it'll come back.
I skipped something. My credentials. Why the hell should I have founded this site? My mother, long and short of it. She's the football fan of the family. She bought 4 season tickets as soon as they went on sale. They were in the top row. There was nothing behind us but a concrete wall and a fast way to get to the parking lot below. We used to cut up pool noodles and put them on the seat backs, then lean against the wall. Security would tell us to get down, but one day an executive with the team, who's name is long forgotten, told us that it was OK and to enjoy the game.
My mother took me to both Regency and the Avenues to try and get every autograph of every player when they did a double signing before going off to training camp. We were first in line at Regency and last in line at the Avenues. I'm looking at that ball right now, sitting next to my desk. This was an expansion team, and I'm sure nobody on that ball made it anywhere, but I'll never forget the adventure of getting those autographs.
I remember the missed field goal. I remember the flyover. I was 12 years old and couldn't convince the family that driving to the stadium at midnight or whatever time was a smart decision. I remember when the Bills and Broncos went down. I remember Woody Paige and the column who united a city against all things Denver. I remember Dan Marino's last game. I remember taking a French foreign exchange student to his first NFL game. I remember learning that Bloody Mary's are adult drinks. I remember Mom wanting to stay in our seats during blowouts and bad losses. I remember the old AFC North and our seat neighbors who wore their Steelers gear when they came to town.
This is not to wave the "first year fan" flag. To be honest, I felt more connected to the people behind Bold City Brigade and Teal Street Hooligans than anything else. Even though I've never met any of them, as far as I'm aware. No, the Jaguars fandom torch passed to an amazing group of vocal and passionate fans that outclassed anything I recall from the early years. To be honest, I've dropped by a tailgate of theirs and wished that I was a part of it. I've never circled up, or chugged fireball. I know who Uncle Chaps is, but never met him.
Anyhow, I digress again. Let's get back to the story.
Big Cat Country let me do some cool things. Things that, while maybe not always first, or even legitimate, were memories I'll never forget. Here is a short list of real things that happened.
- "Borrowed" media credentials for NFL combine. I took a last minute flight to Indianapolis, used a borrowed press pass (this was 2008 and things were far less intense) and hid in the back of the media room, "blogging away". I met Michael Wright, then with the Florida Times Union, and I impressed him with what I was doing and my hunger to get in that room. I cut Peter King off while asking then coach Jack Del Rio a question about Marcedes Lewis. I was one of 4 people at a small table asking Colt Brennan tough questions about his dismissal from the University of Colorado.
- Drinking with Mike Tice. At the same combine, I adopted a strategy of going to the hotel bar where the coaches and players were staying. This was the primary season in 2008 and my background is in politics. Coaches and staff wanted to talk politics. I had a deal with the bartender to alternate vodka soda's with just sodas. This led to many interesting conversations, alcohol fueled, none of which was report-able. But a little bird told me that Mike Tice and I enjoyed a round of shots. The headache and forgotten trip back to my hotel lead me to believe that it's true. Maybe.
- Interviewing Jack Del Rio. If there was a "Hall of Internet Firsts", I can take the title of "First Blogger to interview a sitting NFL head coach". Coach Del Rio's agent reached out to SB Nation because Jack wanted to talk to the fans without moderation. At the time, I was working for a U.S. Senate Campaign in Florida. The only rules, as I can remember, was that the interview could not be abridged or modified, and that it was to be 15 minutes. Time makes things blurry, but I know that I spoke with Coach for almost an hour, with my headphone in one ear, the other on the mic of my recorder. He answered anything I could come up with. And went on and on. While I'll never compare myself to any real sportswriter, the questions were no softer than anyone else’s. It also became much harder for the Jaguars to ignore Big Cat Country.
- New York City and the NFL Draft. Most of this story has nothing to do with the Jaguars or the Draft. Brad Wells and another blogger from the Broncos site and I went to try and cover the 2008 draft. We weren't successful, though we did have a remarkable time spending the first round at the ESPN zone in times square. After the 7th pick, I went outside to smoke (a habit I've now quit for almost two months). I came back to find out that the Jaguars had traded up for Derrick Harvey. I'd like to think I was smart enough to know that was a bad idea, but I was never much of a hot take writer.
- Collin, Jonathan, and Terry. And Zoltan too. I needed help and a few folks came out and joined the site. I've not spoken to any of them in years. I last saw Terry at a Jaguars/Colts game in 2010, the one with the last second field goal to win. Terry, by the way, wrote something nice about me that I didn't know or didn't remember him writing when I left Big Cat Country. All three were good writers and good fans and I'm sorry that I failed to stay in touch.
- Screwdrivers, cheese fries, my mother, and Springfield MO. Believe it or not, there are few sports bars that feature Jaguars games in Springfield Missouri. So while I lived there, I'd trek down to the nearest one, right when they open at 10 am, ask for a TV near an outlet, and camp out. I'd start drinking screwdrivers and listening to the local radio stream and hoping that maybe this week's game was the one that the Jaguars broadcast was the bar broadcast.
Back to the story.
Life got in the way. Much like I had to stop writing this to join my client for a drink (note, rest of article is a bit more lubricated than the first half), my professional life began the process of ending my time with Big Cat Country.
I work in politics. Those who have been around awhile know the extent of said work. It's a field where an employee having a voice off message is a problem. But that's not why I left Big Cat Country. I left Big Cat Country because I lost my fire. I was never a take guy. I was never a film guy. I was never a sophisticated analysis guy. I was never going to be a drive links and push the story. I also was nowhere near Jacksonville. I didn't have relationships with the fan groups, the press, the team, etc. I also couldn't work my day job and have energy left to write about the team, day in and day out. I lost the desire. The blog became work. I couldn't manage the workload. It got to the point where I couldn't even watch the games anymore.
And then there was the call. SB Nation. Calling me to say "blog more or give it up". And I knew exactly what to do. I reached out to Alfie, alluded to the idea, told SB Nation I knew who should replace me.
I didn't even say goodbye. That was the worst part for me. I built something that I cared about and then cut it from my life without looking back. I couldn't. I've always been an eyes forward person. A day is a week, a week is a month, a month is a year, and then six years are gone and I've not written a damn thing. Alfie and company have done such a great job that it wasn't necessary. People knew who he was and they knew that he was going to take this blog into places I never could.
We're not close, Alfie and I. I think I've only met him in real life once, at the Jacksonville Airport. He did the right thing and took the blog his way. I'd have done the same thing.
I regret not saying goodbye. Always have. This blog and its commenters, as well as the other SB Nation writers were a big part of who I've grown into as a person, however imperfect. I've gone through a lot since leaving this blog. I've married and divorced, moved to Upstate New York, built my own business, built a new life and began the process of setting up for what's next, whatever that may be. I'm optimistic though, lots of good things coming my way and I know that I'll be in good company.
Big Cat Country was my first draft at finding my voice as a person. No matter how bad the writing was, how not-hot the take was, no matter how silly the topic, it helped me address the fear. By "the fear", I mean the feeling inside you that pushes you to be successful. The fear that pushes you to build something, the fear that makes you say yes to the interview with Del Rio, even though you're scared you'll embarrass yourself and the company. The fear that you'll screw up your finance plan and the campaign has to lay off staff. Big Cat Country was my first introduction to the fear, and what I learned from there has mattered to me as much as any experience I've had in my life.
It was never just a blog to me. It was never just a website. There were those in my life who thought it was a crank project. There were those who could just never understand what it was that I was doing. And there were those who just never understood what the hell anyone was doing when they rooted for the Jaguars. This blog, despite my absence, is a daily part of my life. More important, it's a part of my story. From the small talk of a tiny role in the sports writing world to the thrill of building something, this blog means more to me than I realized. From when I sat down at my computer a few hours ago to now.
It's amazing how that works. You realize how you feel about something after spending so much time taking it for granted. I've been thinking about the last couple of years of my life. How something that's so clear and obvious in retrospect can be missed. How you realize that something right in front of you can mean so much to you. How you can treat something you care about dismissively. Then you think about it. Then you go have a drink in the middle of it it at your favorite bar, maybe on the back porch, then you start to realize that something that's been a part of your life means so much more to you than you ever could have realized.
Another thing this blog taught me (other than HTML, which our current generation seems to get to ignore) was that it's so important to tell people how you feel about them. Life is too fucking short. I met some amazing friends and associates through this process and then vanished. How many amazing things did I miss out on by not responding to an email or a text. How many doors closed because I was too busy with a campaign. I walked away from a blog that I cared about and didn't even tell the readers I was going. It's not right and I regret it. No more regrets. . Tell someone you've not talked to in a long time that you miss them or you want to reconnect.
The Jacksonville Jaguars are more than a team to me. They're a constant in my life in a shifting and changing world. No matter what, no matter how depressing, no matter how frustrating, I can always count on fall Sundays to have something to care about. There's always a draft or a training camp ahead. I don't have a poetic definition of fandom; I don't put athletes or owners on pedestals. But my love of fans transcends all. Even Patriots fans. Caring about something says something. There are outliers of awfulness. There are terrible people everywhere. But caring about a team means something.
Living in Upstate New York, I know quite a few Bills fans. You want to know fandom, hang out with those folks. Not the #billsmafia twitter crew, but ones in real life. Watch the 30 for 30 on the four falls of Buffalo. I'm not saying they're better or worse fans than anywhere else, but you find the right one, a smart one, someone who gets it, you can see in them what we see in ourselves. Something to care about and bring people together. In good times and bad.
That's why I built Big Cat Country. A place for fans to come together, talk about the team, talk about life, talk about the world. I was never going to be the smartest writer in the world. I was never going to have an opinion about the 5th round cornerback pick. And when I tried to, I was unsuccessful. But where I'm most proud, the thing that I wanted more than anything else, was to build something that people wanted to take part in. And looking at what I did, and what Alfie built on top of it, I'm nothing but big smiles and proud.
Thank you. Thank you for reading. Thank you for commenting. For those who read and don't comment, thank you. I'm that guy too. Alfie, thank you for taking my side project and making it into something real. To SB Nation, thank you for giving me a voice. To Brad Wells and Stampede Blue, even though I hate your team, thank you for the chance to even start this. To my family, thank you for bringing me along to games even when I didn't know what was going on. And everything else you put up with that I threw your way. To the Jaguars fans, thank you for you.
10 years. Wow. What a ride.
-Chris "River City Rage"