Jaguars take lead in helping Jacksonville recover from historic flooding from Hurricane Irma

Dan Wetzel

The Jacksonville Jaguars spent the opening weekend of the NFL season in Houston, preparing for, executing and then, eventually, celebrating a decisive victory over the Texans.

Only it wasn’t that simple.

When the Jaguars boarded the plane out of Jacksonville and to Houston, they did so with concern about Hurricane Irma, but with the security of knowing that forecasts called for the storm to stay mostly west of their city, sparing it the teeth of the storm. There would probably be some damage, but hopefully not too much.

Except, all day that Sunday, as the storm pushed unexpectedly east, pictures and videos began rolling in of the city getting hit with a deluge of rainfall, causing massive and widespread flooding. Suddenly the big victory against the Texans didn’t mean so much. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan immediately gathered his management team after the Houston game and said the franchise needed to be a leader on the recovery.

“Shad set the tone,” team president Mark Lamping said. “He challenged us to do something big. He said, ‘Whatever we do, make it substantive but also make it symbolic.’ ”

The show went on for Leonard Fournette and the Jaguars on Sunday, a blowout loss to the Titans. (AP)

[Watch on Yahoo: Ravens vs. Jaguars live from London Sept. 24]

Jacksonville is a small market by NFL standards. Its metropolitan area has just 1.6 million people. That’s often considered a negative, less revenue and fewer resources to work with. It’s one reason the franchise plays a game annually in London at least through 2020. That includes Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, a game that will be streamed live globally on Yahoo Sports.

London provides money and cache. Yet Jacksonville still offers its charms, especially in times like this that can be a benefit, when the small-market, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe, takes over.

The Jaguars are the only major professional sports franchise in the city and arrived only 23 seasons ago. As such, it carries an outsized role locally, even as on-field success has mostly been elusive. In this case, though, if the Jaguars weren’t going to stand up for the city, who would? The franchise doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to lead.

So what the Jags did in the wake of Irma mattered.

Hurricane Irma delivered a rough blow to Jacksonville. (AP)

“We understand things are going on around us,” coach Doug Marrone said. “I wouldn’t call anything normal. People are trying to and we will rebuild.”

After spending an additional night in Houston, the team returned to Jacksonville. Nearly everyone had some damage, but no one dealt with catastrophic failure, per Lamping. EverBank Field was inspected and found to be in mostly fine shape. Meetings with local officials found that the city was adamant that Sunday’s home game against Tennessee (a 37-16 loss) be played in Jacksonville as scheduled.

“They said it was really important,” Lamping said. “They wanted to communicate to the world that Jacksonville is up and running and open for business despite a lot of challenges.”

So the game was kept at home. Khan then pledged $1 million to recovery efforts (that was the “substantive” part) and the team set aside 5,000 tickets to the Tennessee game for first-responders, power company workers and fans affected by the flood (that was the “symbolic” part).

“You had people working five consecutive days with very little sleep,” Lamping said. “This was a thank you for the people who really did a good job.”

It was appreciated. Even season-ticket holders who paid for their tickets told local media they enjoyed the return to normalcy that an NFL game provided. First in the opener amid the heavy rain and howling winds. And then Sunday with the chance to tailgate and cheer in person. Things got so rowdy before the game that fans staged a belly-flop into mayonnaise contest (don’t ask).

That too was a focus for the Jags.

“I don’t know if it made a difference, but for three hours while the Jags were playing we gave people something to take their mind off recovery,” Lamping said. “We wanted to give people who are working so hard on rebuilding and give them the opportunity to relax for a few hours and remind people how unselfish the public servants are.”

The city is drying out. The rebuilding is in process. Irma hit Jacksonville hard, but it didn’t knock it out.

Now the Jags go to their second home in England, with their minds still a little back in Florida and the community they carry on their jerseys.

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