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Jacksonville in a frenzy over Jaguars

January 8, 1997

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ It’s strange enough that a Boeing 757 would do a flyover of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium at 1 a.m. Stranger yet that 40,000 people would be there to watch it.

But nothing about the Jacksonville Jaguars, a 2-year-old team with a career record of 15-19, comes as a surprise anymore now that the team is one victory away from the Super Bowl.

The first week of January is usually when folks wait for a warm day to sneak off the Atlantic coast so they can catch grouper or snapper. Now, they’re fishing for tickets to Sunday’s AFC Championship at New England.

``It’s been incredible. The phones have not stopped ringing,″ said Cyndi Wilkinson of Ferrell Travel and Limousine, one of three travel agencies that offered trips to the game at $699. All sold out within a day.

``The group that started going (to road games) kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,″ she said. ``We expected that, but it’s still overwhelming.″

No one expected to the Jaguars to be playing for the AFC title. And it is overwhelming.

Consider Fred Fillah, who travels the country in search of hot markets to sell sports apparel.

``We can’t produce enough shirts,″ Fillah said Tuesday as Shirt Explosion was making a new design for a Jaguars playoff shirt. ``This has got people whipped up in a frenzy. It scares me to think about what would happen if they win.″

The first Jaguars shirt said, ``Do you believe in miracles?″ That one already sold out. The next design reads, ``We believe in miracles.″

Jacksonville in the Super Bowl? Just getting to the AFC Championship has been a miracle in itself.

Two months ago, the Jaguars were 4-7 and looked like a team one year removed from expansion. There was talk of a championship team, all right, but it was directed 75 miles to the southwest at the University of Florida.

Sure enough, the Gators won their first national championship. But in Jacksonville, which has more Florida alumni than any other city in the state, that’s already old news.

``It’s crazy. You just can’t believe it,″ said Keith Smith of Russ-Doe’s Sandwich Shop, where the walls are adorned with Gators paraphernalia. ``Ninety-nine percent of the people, the minute they walk in the door it’s either `Go Jags,′ or `How ’bout them Jags?‴

Shirts, caps, license plate frames and key rings started getting snatched up not long after Atlanta’s Morten Andersen missed a chip-shot field goal that sent the Jaguars into the playoffs.

Then came the 30-27 victory at Buffalo, followed by another surprise, a 30-27 win at Denver.

``Everything I can get my hands on goes out the door,″ said Dan Davis, manager of a Sports Authority sporting goods store. ``I’ll tell you what Jacksonville is like, it’s a zoo. If we beat the Patriots, all hell is going to break loose.″

As the Jaguars’ charter plane approached Jacksonville late Saturday night, coach Tom Coughlin was told as many as 15,000 people were at the stadium. Nearly three times that many people let out a roar when their Boeing 757 tipped its left wing during a flyover of the stadium.

Richard Brussard was among the estimated 40,000 who went to the stadium in the wee hours of the morning to meet the Jaguars. Some of them had just returned from New Orleans, where they watched Florida beat Florida State in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship.

Most of them never dreamed of a chance to return to New Orleans for the Super Bowl.

``It’s almost too much for everybody to handle,″ Brussard said. ``Our cup runneth over.″

Coughlin hadn’t seen that kind of celebration since 1993, when his Boston College team returned home after an upset over then-No. 1 Notre Dame.

``The same kind of electricity was in the air,″ he said.

For years, about the only thing in Jacksonville’s air was a stench from the paper mills. What was Florida’s largest city before World War II suffered through an identity crisis as cities like Miami, Tampa and Orlando developed a niche through their culture, tourism or beaches.

Jacksonville was a blue-collar city on the St. Johns River, one of the few rivers in North America that flows north, winding 20 miles out to the Atlantic Ocean.

But football was in its blood long before the Jaguars were born. More than 50,000 people filled the old Gator Bowl when Robert Irsay was looking to relocate the Baltimore Colts. The Jacksonville Bulls were one of the top draws in the USFL before the league folded.

``Before we got this team, we were down on ourselves,″ said Ed Austin, who was mayor when Jacksonville was awarded a franchise three years ago. ``Getting this team was a very good thing for the city.″

Winning has been even better.

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