Jags fans like their chances
By Shaun Moriarty
Citizen Chronicle Writer
Jaguars are not indigenous to New England, but in rare cases there are some native-born Jaguars fans.
While much of Southern Worcester County bills its self as the heart of Patriots Nation, we managed to spot a couple fans of the hometown team’s foe in tomorrow’s AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium, airing on CBS at 3:05 p.m.
When it comes to being fans of the Jacksonville Jaguars, some are lifers, and others are converts.
Shya Spofford’s allegiance to the AFC South champions came a few years after relocating to Orange Park, Florida, a suburb of Jacksonville. The West Brookfield native moved to Florida in 2002, and initially remained a New England Patriots fan before trading in the blue and white for teal and black.
“I’ve been a Jags fan for the past 12-13 years,” she said. “It took a little bit for me to become a fan after moving here. The Pats were still my No. 1 for a while.”
Her husband, Kregg has also now swears allegiance to the Jaguars despite being a son of Massachusetts. Mr. Spofford is a native of Templeton and, his wife said, “was raised a Patriots fan, but converted to the Jags.”
What led the Spoffords to jump to the Jaguars sideline even after the Patriots had won three Super Bowls in the previous handful of years? Proximity and a friendly connection.
“I became a Jags fan from living here, and also a good friend of mine was a Jags cheerleader back then, so that was fun to see her at games,” Mrs. Spofford explained.
While the Spoffords became Jaguars fans after relocating to the greater Jacksonville area, Matt Williams considers himself a lifelong fan despite being born and raised in Southern Worcester County.
“I have been a Jaguars fan for all 21 years of my life,” Williams said. “I think it’s cool that as mediocre, or even laughable, as my team has been over the years, that I have been able to watch the growth of a franchise and appreciate every win.”
Williams noted he and the Jaguars have grown and matured together. He was born in 1996, just one year after Jacksonville kicked off for the first time. In that sophomore season, the Jaguars earned a wild card berth and went to the AFC Championship game, only to fall 20-6 — to the Patriots.
Those early Jacksonville teams had a great deal of regular season success, amassing a surprising 49-31 record in their first five seasons, making the playoffs in all but that inaugural season in 1995, and appearing in two conference championship games. Those teams were led by some of Williams’s boyhood heroes.
“I loved early Jaguars such as Mark Brunell, Jimmy Smith, and Fred Taylor,” he said.
As for current Jacksonville players, Spofford and Williams have a mutual favorite in the team’s All-Pro cornerback.
“My favorite player is Jalen Ramsey. My son goes to [Florida State University] so I’m a big FSU fan, and Jalen played there. Plus, he’s a badass cornerback,” Spofford explained. “Watching him on the field is exciting. He is one of the best in the league at his position and, from all accounts, he’s also a good dude. He’s got some attitude and some swag, but he can totally back it up, so I’m okay with that.”
Williams said the team’s cornerbacks, Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, are his favorite. He offered a similar assessment to Spofford’s, but noted the differences in the style and demeanor of the two players is what makes them work so well.
“Ramsey, being the more brash, outspoken, and household name contrasts perfectly with the quiet, cerebral disposition of Bouyer, who has given up just one touchdown all year long, and, in my opinion, is the best man coverage cornerback in the league,” he explained.
Each of these Jacksonville fans have been able to take in Jaguars action at the team’s home stadium, EverBank Field. For Williams, it was a special birthday treat to travel 1,100 miles to root for his team, while the Spoffords are there for every Sunday home game.
“For my birthday one year, my parents brought me to a Jaguars game down in Jacksonville to watch them play the Steelers,” Williams said.
At the time, the Jaguars were not going to be contending for a Super Bowl berth, and that status was reflected in the stands. Williams estimated that about 60 percent of the fans were sporting the black and gold of the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
Spofford said she and her husband have been season ticket holders for the last 10 years. That decade of Sundays almost came to an end after the team went just 3-13 last season.
“Last year I was extremely frustrated as a fan. At one point, I threw a little tantrum, and I was like, ‘Screw this team, I’m done! I don’t even want to renew our tickets. I can’t take this anymore!’” she said. “Then we fired [head coach] Gus Bradley and [Doug] Marrone took over, and the team seemed to respond well. So, I said, ‘Okay, maybe this is it. Maybe this will be a better season,’ and we renewed again.”
That renewal decision proved to be a good one.
“This season has been a pleasant surprise,” Spofford admitted. “I expected the team to go 8-8 this year, and frankly I would’ve been pleased with that. Just to break even after so many losing seasons, I thought, would be a win.”
She continued: “Once this team, and particularly the defense, started rolling this year, I knew we had something special. I knew we could face any team and be a contender to win. It seems to sit on the shoulders of [quarterback Blake] Bortles, who has taken so much flack over the past few years, but if he’s ‘on,’ then they win.”
While Spofford conceded she was hoping for a season without a losing record, Williams asserted he had high hopes for the team from the start. Among the reasons? Former Jaguars and New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin was coming back to Jacksonville to assume the role of executive vice president of football operations.
“After the way the Giants unceremoniously kicked Coughlin to the curb, I knew that having him a part of the football operations in any aspect would make us a better team,” Williams said.
Couple Coughlin’s influence with some quarterback woes in Jacksonville’s division, and the Jaguars were sure to be in the mix, the local fan said.
“With [Indianapolis Colts quarterback] Andrew Luck being injured, along with two young quarterbacks at the helm for both the Titans and Texans, I was optimistic we could fight for a wild card spot this year, and even possibly win the division at 10-6 or 9-7,” Williams said. “With teams such as the Raiders and Broncos not playing to preseason expectations, the legitimacy of our playoff chances grew.”
As for the team’s chances this weekend, Spofford and Williams both think the Jaguars have a much better shot than what has been offered by Las Vegas oddsmakers. New England was a nine-point favorite earlier in the week, though that number has dropped to slightly with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady being listed as “questionable” for Sunday’s game due to a right-hand injury.
“I think the chances are pretty good of the Jags winning on Sunday. Our defense is the best that Tom Brady has seen this season,” Spofford said. “The beauty of our defense is that it’s not schemes and that kind of thing. It’s really, really simple because our players are that good — they don’t need schemes to make it work. They are amazing at their jobs, and they just do them. If [Jacksonville defensive end] Calais Campbell can get to Tom Brady early, the Jags have a great shot at winning. I’d call the odds even at this point.”
“The two battles you must win to beat Tom Brady and the Patriots, in New England, is time of possession and turnover differential,” he reasoned. “I think with our power run offense and opportunistic defense, we have an opportunity to win.”
Spofford noted that the atmosphere around her adopted hometown is positive in anticipation of tomorrow’s big game.
“The mood in Jacksonville is cautious optimism and pride. We all think the Jags have just as good a chance to win this game as the Patriots,” she said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had this much excitement around the Jags, so it’s pretty hype from that perspective.”
The vaulted Jaguars defense, which has been nicknamed “#Sacksonville,” needs to stop Brady, often referred to locally as “The GOAT,” in recognition of his status among New England fans as the “Greatest Of All Time.” Between this week’s injury to Brady’s throwing hand, rumors of infighting between the 40-year-old quarterback, his coach, and the team’s owner, Williams sees an opening for the Jaguars to pounce.
“Being a Jags fan has always been taken as a joke from my peers, but now the more conversations I have the more I hear how we have a chance on Sunday,” Williams said. “With the articles coming out about dissension within the Patriots between Brady, Belichick, and Kraft, along with the suspect defense of the Patriots and Tom trying to defeat Father Time, I can’t recall a time when the Patriots seemed more beatable going into an AFC Championship game.”
Spofford, however, doesn’t expect Brady’s “questionable” status to prevent him from seeing the playing field.
“I don’t believe for a second that Brady isn’t going to play,” she asserted. “He’s the GOAT!”
Both fans agree that the game may ultimately come down to the performance of their own quarterback, Blake Bortles.
“I think they’ll win if two things happen. First, if Blake is ‘on.’ That’s obviously the biggest x-factor for the Jags any week,” Spofford said. “Second, if the defense can get the pressure on Brady early and often, that will be the game-changer.”
Williams shared a similar outlook.
“Bortles is my guy, and if he manages the game, uses his legs when he has to, and remains composed and under control throughout the game, then he has done his job,” he said. “But if the game is on the line going into the fourth quarter, I have little-to-no faith with him driving the length of the field for a game-winning score.”
Williams added a bit of strategic analysis as well: “The Jaguars are 10-0 when Bortles does not turn the ball over, so ultimately it depends if he shows up or not. I’m expecting a QB spy to be on Bortles much like they did to [Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus] Mariota last week, which really limited the Titans offense. [Patriots coach Bill] Belichick is notorious for taking away what the other team does best, and I predict he will force Bortles to beat him through the air.”
Spofford noted that she and her husband discussed heading back to Massachusetts to support the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.
“We contemplated going up this week for the Pats game because we really felt like the team deserves our support,” she said. “We ended up not being able to make it work, and I’m still a little sad about that.”
While they won’t be watching the game here in New England, Mr. Spofford will be rooting on the Jaguars with a brand-new tattoo that he recently added to his calf. Kregg and another Jacksonville convert, a friend from New York who was previously a Steelers fan, agreed to add Jaguars tattoos if the team made the playoffs this year. Both have made good on the bet.
As for predictions on the game’s results? Mrs. Spofford expressed a pleasure just to be in the title game.
“This is the first time that the Patriots have been in the AFC title game and I haven’t rooted for them. It’s a little weird, but I’m so happy and so proud of this Jags team,” she said. “Honestly, they’ve got nothing to lose with this game. If they win, then they beat the GOAT and they’re still the Cinderella story of 2017. If they lose, they’re still the Cinderella story of 2017, and they lost to the GOAT, which is totally understandable. It’s win-win!”
She added: “Regardless of the outcome of the game, I am so proud of this Jags team. They’re a young team, so I truly believe this is the beginning of their upswing. Nobody has talked about them this year, but I think next year they’ll get more love from the media and from football fans because they’ve earned it.”
Williams isn’t as willing to settle for a runner-up position in the AFC Championship game.
“I say Tommy Terrific runs out of his ‘supplies’ from [Brady associate Alex] Guerrero, looks shaky the entire day facing the team speed of the Jaguars, and throws two or three picks, [running back Leonard] Fournette has a day, and [wide receiver] Keelan Cole scores a big touchdown late in the game,” he boldly predicted. “End of an era in New England, and either Brady or Belichick is out. Jags win, 24-21.”