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Jacksonville in a frenzy over Jaguars

January 7, 1997

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ Fred Fillah travels the country in search of hot markets for sports apparel. When 40,000 people filled the stadium at 1 a.m. to welcome the Jacksonville Jaguars, he knew he was in the right city.

``This has got people whipped up in a frenzy,″ Fillah said Tuesday as Shirt Explosion was making new designs for a T-shirt. ``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 game Sunday at New England 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 Gator 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.″

The sale of Jaguars merchandise ranked 21st among the 30 NFL teams in March, the end of the fiscal year for NFL Properties.

``They undoubtedly will move up,″ said Roger Atkin, vice president of retail sales for NFL Properties. He noted that the Patriots moved from 22nd to 11th in 1985, their Super Bowl season.

``Obviously, there will be a big shot in the arm, depending on the success the club has in the remainder of the playoffs,″ Atkin said.

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.

``I couldn’t believe it,″ said left tackle Tony Boselli. ``I mean, it was after midnight and all those people were waiting for us.″

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 once 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.

Three travel agencies offered one- and two-day packages to Foxboro, Mass., for Sunday’s game starting at $699. All three were sold out in a day.

``It’s been incredible. The phones have not stopped ringing,″ said Cyndi Wilkinson of Ferrell Travel and Limousine. ``The group that started going (to road games) kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. We expected that, but it’s still overwhelming.″

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.″

The city runneth wild.

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