Before Sunday’s nail-gnawing home playoff victory, Jaguars super-fan Charlie Setting surveyed a city awash in Jaguar colors, a raucous, full stadium free of tarps, and pronounced it good — very good.
“It’s worth the wait,” he said. “The fans who have been with them every year and never gave up, I know they’re happy.”
As for those jumping on the Jaguars’ teal-colored bandwagon, after years of futility?
All aboard, says Setting, who’s a fixture in the north end zone with his 12th-man tank top and foam Jaguar hat, a familiar sight in ads and on the scoreboard.
“When I’m at work and I see everyone in their Jag gear, and the flags flying on the cars — it’s like it used to be,” he said. “This is fabulous.”
For a team, a fan base and a city that have long been maligned — or ignored — in the national consciousness, getting a home playoff game was a source of pride, of vindication.
And winning it, even in a low-scoring, grind-it-out, 10-3 way?
“I’m feeling mighty fine,” said season-ticket holder Yvette Williams as the capacity crowd hollered over the final whistle.
“How about those Jaguars? Isn’t the Lord wonderful? … I tell you, it’s electrifying in the stadium. There’s nothing like being in the stands. It feels good to be a Jaguar.”
Fans have been waiting 18 years for a home playoff game, since Jan. 23, 2000.
That long-ago day started off promisingly: A week after thrashing the Miami Dolphins 62-7 (“Fish rapped,” said the headline), the Jaguars faced division rivals the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship.
That Jacksonville-Nashville showdown drew predictable barbs, the kind the Jags — and their city — have faced since entering the leagues: “How did Hooterville, Dogpatch and Bugtussle miss the cut?” said a Boston Globe columnist, because of course he would.
It all got nightmarish, though, when the Jaguars collapsed in the second half, losing to the Titans for the third time that season — their only losses of the year.
Longtime fans still growl whenever they see the smug, chubby cheeks of then-Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who smirkingly claimed that the Jaguars’ stadium was like another home field for his team.
Still, that was a long time ago.
So long ago that current Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was just five years and five days old.
So long ago that VHS camcorders, for as low as $229, were hot sellers, and real-estate ads in Jacksonville boasted of new homes “from the 80s.”
So long ago that people fretted about the possible death of pay phones, now that Americans had 80 million cell phones in use.
Back then, the custody battle over young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez was in the news, and there was talk of GOP front-runner George W. Bush in the upcoming Iowa caucuses.
And two days before the Titans debacle, a news brief noted that the U.S. was pushing Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers to “press for the expulsion of suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.”
“I was 12 years old that last time we played a home playoff game,” said James Nixon, who was tailgating before the Bills game with a large group of family and friends.
“This isn’t the Patriots, where the Patriots go to the playoffs every year. For us, it’s like, finally, we’re here. It’s at home, and we have it in our backyard.”
Nixon, who’s traveled extensively with the military, said Jacksonville and its team are special.
“Jacksonville is one of the most unified cities I’ve ever visited in my life,” he said. “The fans here are loyal, the people here are loyal. They are not fair-weather fans and they stick by their team and they stick by their city.”
Consider Mike Hurckes: A season-ticket holder from the beginning, he travels from Chicago, where he now lives, for every Jags home game.
He made the trip even through the many lean years where the Jaguars were synonymous with forgettable mediocrity.
For Hurckes, it’s simple: “It’s my team, my hometown team.”
As cheers rang around him after the game, Hurckes made a prediction on how the playoffs will unfold from here: “I can’t wait to come back in two weeks. It’s going to be a revenge match against the Titans, 1999 style.”
With a different ending this time, however.
Glenn Gaynon has been a season ticket-holder for all but one year of Jaguars history, going to many games with his son Eric, who’s 29.
For him, supporting the Jaguars is also about supporting his hometown, which he believes has been improved immeasurably by the team’s influence.
“It’s given us an identity,” Gaynon said. “You can’t buy the exposure that the football team has brought us in 22 years.”
Then there are the memories, the ecstatic mixed with the mundane:
“Here I am, with my son, at a playoff game! We started this journey 22 years ago and got to be here today. Without a doubt that was the highlight of highlights.”
And as the final seconds ticked off in a gritty Jaguars victory, he celebrated with the fans around him, the ones he’s spent Sundays with, all these years.
“We all said: They can’t wait another 18 years — we’ll all be in wheelchairs.”
Staff Writer Teresa Stepzinski contributed to this report.
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082