If the Jaguars win their first playoff game in nearly 10 years, the fans who are in the stands Sunday will return to work Monday with some good stories.
That’s especially true for Daniel Leonard.
He works in Qatar.
Leonard is a firefighter, a Department of Defense contractor in a country on a peninsula in the Persian Gulf.
For him to be at the playoff game, and to head back to work Monday, will involve three trips halfway around the world in less than a week. With a 24-hour shift in the middle.
Leonard could have done what he usually does for Jaguars games. Turn on Armed Forces Network or stream it online, and watch with Todd Johnson, a longtime friend from Jacksonville who also is a Department of Defense contractor in Qatar.
It’s an eight-hour time difference. When there is a late afternoon game in the states, it means a midnight kickoff. Monday and Thursday night games require getting up at 3 in the morning. This game — 1 p.m. in Jacksonville, 9 p.m. in Qatar — wouldn’t have been too bad.
Not that Leonard was going to watch it from afar.
“It just isn’t an option after the drought,” he said when we traded emails during his hectic week. “I need to be there!”
Leonard, 41, grew up at the beach. He was a senior at Fletcher High School when the NFL announced in 1993 that it was adding a team in Jacksonville. He was in the stands with friends for most of the home games the first two seasons. He then joined the military and eventually became a civilian firefighter.
He has been living all over the world — Eastern Europe (Hungary), South America (Ecuador) and, for the last 14 years, the Middle East.
One way he’s stayed connected to his hometown: the Jags.
“I have always stuck with the Jags,” he said. “Never gave up. I have had my moments but they were short-lived. I even convinced my brother to take a few Jag players in our fantasy league during the lean years. He still is not happy about it.”
Leonard and his family — his wife, Sandra, and their sons, who are 8 and 5 — made plans months ago to be back in Florida for the holidays. He told his wife that if the Jaguars earned a home playoff game he might just stay in Florida after their vacation.
“She was like, sure,” he said.
While I’m sure this was a wonderful and sincere gesture by a wife, until recently it was hard to fathom the Jaguars even making the playoffs, let alone having a game at EverBank Field. It would be a bit like me telling my wife I might get a drink with Cameron Diaz, and her saying, sure, go ahead.
The last time the Jaguars played in the postseason was Jan. 12, 2008 at New England. They’ve only had three home playoff games in franchise history — one in January 1999 and two in January 2000. And in recent years, they’ve been closer to the No. 1 draft pick than the No. 1 playoff seed.
But the Jaguars opened this season with the Hurricane Bowl — at Houston, with two teams representing towns dealing with two huge storms — and won by 22 points. And they kept winning, everywhere from London to Pittsburgh. By the time Daniel Leonard and his family were celebrating the holidays in Florida, the Jaguars had clinched a division title and a home playoff game.
Leonard decided he couldn’t just put his wife on a plane with the two kids, knowing that — as he puts it — the tailgate party already had started for him.
“So I sucked it up and bought another ticket,” he said in an email, not long after landing back in Qatar. “Just sitting here thinking to myself, ‘Am I really getting back on a plane in less than 36 hours?!’ ”
The trip from Qatar involves a 16½-hour flight to Miami, a three-hour layover, and a short flight to Jacksonville. With the time spent going through customs and getting to and from airports, it’s basically a 24-hour journey.
“Knowing Danny as long as I’ve known him, I’m not surprised,” said Jason Wittmer, a childhood friend going back to when they played baseball at Fletcher Middle. “I’d be shocked to hear about anyone else doing something like that. But that’s just Danny.”
Leonard worked his 24-hour shift in Qatar and had someone take a photo of him and Johnson, who also went to Fletcher High, posing in front of a firetruck, a Jaguars flag draped on the side of it.
He got back on a plane Friday, flew to Miami and then Orlando, and drove to Lakeland, where his father and brother live.
He bought tickets in Section 237 for his father, brother and a friend. But his father recently was hospitalized with some cardiac issues. He’s doing fine, Leonard said, but a trip to Jacksonville for an NFL playoff game would be too much. So his dad will be watching on TV. Which is how Leonard has watched playoff games in the past.
When Leonard recalls favorite playoff memories — Mark Brunell’s pass to Jimmy Smith in Denver in 1997, David Garrard’s fourth-down scramble in Pittsburgh a decade later — he is picturing what he saw on TV.
This will be his first NFL playoff game.
I think even for Jaguars fans who have been to a playoff game before, this one feels different.
Yes, the Jaguars have been here before. But that was early in their existence. Maybe too early.
When I came here in 2001 as sports columnist, I was somewhat amused to hear Jags fans complain about suffering through tough losses and disappointing seasons. Early in this millennium, I would have said the fans were spoiled by college football and their NFL team’s quick rise.
But not any more. The fans who have stuck with the team through the last 10 years — through so many games and seasons that were over shortly after they started — deserve a day like this one. And while some people swore they would never watch another game after some Jaguars players knelt during the national anthem in September, a veteran in Qatar remained a fan.
“I personally would prefer the players stand for the anthem and find other ways to express their social/political views but it is not hard line for my status as a fan,” Leonard said.
He said it has been fun to watch the rebuilding process, the swagger of cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the emergence of the “Sacksonville” defense.
“I don’t think anyone wants to play our defense,” he said.
By the time the Buffalo Bills start playing the Jags, Leonard will have traveled more than 15,000 miles in less than a week. And he will have another 24-hour trip after the game — which is why one of his friends suggested writing about someone “who might be the most dedicated Jaguars fan in history.”
I’m sure there are plenty of nominees for that title. But I doubt many of them will return to work able to say they traveled more than 20,000 miles to be in the stands Sunday.