I have endured my baptism of fire, my inauguration, my introduction to one of the foundation stones at the very heart of the USA.  I refer of course to American football.  I’ve been in Jacksonville for over 2-months now, and am aware that Football Season (starting in September) was something most Americans looked forward to, and judging by the sudden explosion of football flags and stickers appearing on peoples vehicles I knew this was an important time.

The Hublet has his own views on football, preferring to follow College football because, much like Soccer, once you leave the amateur leagues behind you suddenly have a group of professionals being treated like deities, being paid more money in 1 season than Nauru generates in a decade and being blessed with endorsements and sponsorships that allow them the sort of material wealth we mortals can only dream of.  And once you’re sitting at the top of the tree, it’s hard to find the motivation to work your bahookie off on the field in the same way that you used to: if you play football at College you are rarely paid for your time as it’s part of your curriculum, and therefore you play in the hope of catching the eye of a Talent Scout so that once your College days are up you get to join a high-profile, high-paying team that will ideally turn you into the sort of celebrity who gets plastered all over cereal boxes and insurance adverts and allows you to live the life you’ve always dreamed about.

In the immortal words of The Hublet, “College football has more heart.”

Jacksonville offers the discerning football fan a number of teams to enjoy.  For the professional NFL followers you have the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team of players who, on the face of it, should be delivering big things, but due to interesting decisions concerning lineup and coaching and a more defensive than offensive coach, they have recently have not enjoyed a good run of success.  The College teams are the Gators and the Seminoles, both of whom enjoy a big following and put on a great game but sadly this year both failed to go on to represent Florida.  The AFL (arena/indoor football league) talent are the Jacksonville Sharks who are enjoying a great season and give football fans the opportunity to watch a spirited, hungry team on a winning streak at a much more affordable price than the higher profile NFL and College teams.

Now, having watched no football since the 1980’s when my Dad used to stay up horribly late to follow the Miami Dolphins (and I’ll admit it, my random team of choice as a way of bonding with my Dad was the infamous and slightly shameful San Francisco 49ers), and not being the biggest sports fan in the world I was intrigued as to whether I would sink or swim with American Football while living in the USA.  Would I find a passion for it and firmly bond with my new American buddies, or would I treat it with contempt and be forever marked as ‘the wussy soccer girl from England’?

The Hublet is fortunate enough to work for the sort of company that genuinely care for their employees and take a ‘We’re One Big Family’ approach to things, and therefore the CEO decided to surprise all staff and their respective partners with tickets to a Monday night game between the local Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens, to be held at the Everbank Stadium in Jacksonville.

Now, let me explain that this was kind of a cool thing as Monday night football is a rarity with most NFL games scheduled for Sunday nights and College games on Saturday nights, and despite the Jags recent track record of success they had previously been chosen to play an illustrious Monday night game based on their history and performance.

So yesterday The Hublet picked me up after he finished work, and we went to his office so that I could meet his colleagues.  He works in the centre of Jax in a huge building on the river, so by the time we got to his office on the 25thd floor I’m loving the view and can glare like an eagle at the Everbank stadium less than a quarter of a mile away.  We then make happy-happy faces with his colleagues and chow down on the absolutely delicious pulled-pork feast that the CEO had laid on courtesy of a local BBQ restaurant.  After nibbling on BBQ deliciousness (I didn’t go loco as I was after all schmoozing with The Hublets colleagues and a sauce covered Wifelet would not put my Hublet in the best light) the CEO presented us all with a Jags jacket to proudly wear (yes, we would have looked like a dorky tourist group had it not been for the fact that EVERYONE in Jacksonville was wearing team colours with pride that day).  We then all bounded downstairs and caught a river taxi which took us to the dock outside the stadium grounds.

I have to give credit to the planning minds behind Jacksonville’s city centre as it looks absolutely stunning in the evening as darkness falls and the buildings light up.  It offers such an uncluttered skyline, so different from the headache-inducing muddle and disorder of a city like London.  Included in my view on the boat ride to the stadium I got to see the Wells Fargo building with it’s unusual flared base which makes it the dominating structure in the city scape, the Bank of America tower (the tallest building in Jax), the oddly angled AT&T tower, and the Riverplace Tower (where The Hublet spends his days working his management socks off), and linking the two sides of the curving St. Johns River within the immediate city centre are the Main St. Bridge, the Fuller Warren Bridge and the Acosta Bridge.

We arrive at the dock and disembark, and begin a slow, enjoyable walk to the stadium.  On our way there, The Hublet takes the time to show me what he meant when he told me about tailgate parties.  Basically you need a good sized vehicle with a tailgate (the drop-down door at the back), and on/around your vehicle a grill will be set up and coolers placed on the floor and a good time is had by all.  A lot of people don’t come to stadiums to attend the game, but instead bring their truck full of goodies to the parking lot and set up a BBQ & Beer celebration.  I have to admit, the atmosphere was amazing with music blaring from each vehicle (mainly country and soft rock), the appealing smell of BBQ food, the odd live-band playing enthusiastically and lots of high-fives between Jags fans.  I saw no tension between the Baltimore Raven fans and the Jax Jags fans, with light banter as expected but no vicious verbal harassment and the respective fans happy to wander around in the same space, with the whole event having a very family-orientated feel to it, with a smidgen of drunken frat boy and a soupçon of redneck thrown in, producing an overall great party vibe.

After a relaxed meander from tailgate party to sports zone to live music stand we arrived on foot at the stadium, a huge and beautifully lit up concrete monster.  We were in no rush as we had plenty of time to find our seats, get settled and wait for the game to start, and after a slow walk around the shops and stalls within the stadium itself we entered the actual spectator arena.  Wow.  There was such a buzz, such an excited, expectant feel to the place, with camera crews and team squaddies running around looking busy, and groups of players huddled in corners or doing warm-up throws.  We found our seats, and discovered that the seats we had been treated to were amazing as they were in D-row, literally 4 rows into the End Zone and within metres of the goal posts.  The view was fantastic, and as it was my first football game it was off to a great start.

Time passed with The Hublet and I trying to act all cool, calm and collected but actually being incredibly excited at how close we were to the action.  Then the cheerleaders came out (The Roar), and although all absolutely gorgeous girls I was a little disappointed by the lack of pyramid stacks and high flips; next 2 huge American flags were walked onto the field by Navy Sailors and the national anthem was played.  Eventually after all the fluff and fanfare the players were announced and a huge scream of support erupted.

The game began, with both teams putting on an amazing defensive performance but not many great offensive plays being made.  The nice thing about Football when compared to Soccer is that there are no one-sided games: a team has a set amount of tries with which to get as far up the field as possible and hopefully score, and if that doesn’t happen then the whole shebang is switched around, offensive and defensive players are switched and the other team are given their chance to score in their limited amount of tries.

Half time eventually arrived with a fairly low score on the board of 6-0 to Jacksonville, and the half time show was a brilliant affair of fireworks, smoke, laser lights and rock music.

The players returned refreshed, but in the subsequent quarters neither side dominated with once again a wonderful defensive structure combined with lackluster offensive moves.  I think the game would have been more interesting if the Jags had been set against a more offensive focused team instead of the defensively strong Ravens.

The Burrito Gallery made an appearance and gave A-row free hats, bandanas and a goody bag of wonder – I think my chili-loving Hublet had to choke back a few jealous tears – and were told that in the next few minutes the stadium cameras would be on them, however the drunken fans in the rows immediately behind us chose that time to spill beer and overreact, with one man holding another in a choke-hold until stadium security arrived and threw all involved out.  The Burrito Gallery camera moment turned out to be a fairly tightly panned shot, cleverly managing to exclude the drunken brawl going on mere rows away.

The Hublet and I were definitely enjoying ourselves, but decided to sneak out 10minutes before the end of the game in order to avoid the stampede, and after carefully picking our way through the tailgate party debris we boarded a river taxi and slowly motored away.  Listening to the boat radio, we heard the Ravens make a desperate and successful attempt to score, followed by a truly wonderful score by the Jags.

All in all I had a great time  as not only did I experience my first football game on American soil, but I enjoyed a Monday-night stadium game with great seats and got the witness the Jax Jaguars breaking their losing streak.

I’ll admit I that I enjoy football a lot more than soccer as the game is much more involved and both teams get an equal chance, and it has the brutality and roughness of rugby, but it’s still a sport that combines the elements of other sports I’ve never been particularly enthused about following, so time will tell whether I embrace this most ancient of American traditions and get excited and worked up whenever the Gators, Jags, Sharks or Seminoles make an appearance.

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