JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - There have been 44 U.S. presidents. There have been over 300 Americans in space. But there are only 32 teams in the National Football League.
In 1993, a sleepy city in Northeast Florida was awarded one of those coveted NFL franchises.
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“Membership has selected Jacksonville as the next NFL club,” then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced.
The decision stunned the sports world.
The year Jacksonville was awarded an NFL expansion team was a defining moment in the city's history. But getting to that point took a lot of time, a lot of energy and often was a bruising battle.
“It was completely unpleasant -- cursing and yelling back and forth,” said former Mayor John Delaney. “I’ve been negotiating my entire life as a prosecutor, and you’re dealing with criminal defense lawyers who are dealing with people’s lives, and I've never had anything like this.”
“I think we have to be transparent and say there were some feelings of doubt,” former Jaguars owner Delores Weaver said.
The journey was a 15-year odyssey of unfulfilled hope and hard knocks that turned Jacksonville's “fourth-and-long” into a game-changer.
“This is a Cinderella story. There’s no question of that,” Delaney said.
In the 1970s and '80s, Jacksonville was known mostly for its smell coming from the paper mill and the tolls the city had on Interstate 95.
“Tearing that down -- that was a great day: Aug. 12, 1989, the day the tolls came down,” former Mayor Tommy Hazouri said.
The city was also known as a big football town that successfully supported the annual Florida-Georgia game and was interested in a professional franchise.
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“We had a few teams that were flirting with leaving their towns, and we became a leverage point. If the cities the teams were in didn't give a better deal, they could come to Jacksonville,” Delaney said. “So we were a bridesmaid for a couple of times.”
Then in 1991, the National Football League decided to add two teams to the 28 that already existed, and Jacksonville was in the running, along with Baltimore, Carolina, Memphis and St. Louis.
At the time, Jacksonville had a population just under 1 million, and Memphis had a population just over 1 million. Charlotte's population was 1.1 million, St. Louis' was 2.5 million and Baltimore's was 6.7 million.
A group called Touchdown Jacksonville led the charge to bring an NFL team to the city. Among its members were Jacksonville businessmen Tom Petway and Ron Weaver, who got his brother, successful businessman Wayne Weaver, involved.
Disagreements between the city and Touchdown Jacksonville over plans for a rebuilt stadium at one point caused Wayne Weaver to pull the plug on the whole venture.
“I don’t know if I was mad. I was disappointed,” said Wayne Weaver, who sold the team in January 2012 to current owner Shad Khan.
“He was mad,” Delores Weaver interjected.
“I had a tear or two,” Wayne Weaver admitted, “because we had all gotten so close and worked so hard on this. We had a great partnership group, people that loved and believed in Jacksonville, so it was a disappointing decision they made.”
But eventually the deal got back on track and despite a hurricane barreling toward Jacksonville that nearly thwarted all their hard work, the NFL dream came true when Tagliabue made that fateful announcement.
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