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Giving Something Back: The Jacksonville Jaguars



ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE JAGUARS

 


 

 

Many professional teams today devote time and energy to charitable foundations, but the Jacksonville Jaguars have made it a full-time effort.

By Gerald M. Costello

 

 Bishop Praises Jaguars as Role Models

 The Birth of the Jaguars

 A Natural Fit

 Recruiting the Best

 Lending a Helping Hand to Those in Need

 Team's Anti-tobacco Strategy

 Others Follow Their Lead

Each time the Jacksonville Jaguars take the field at ALL TEL Stadium, nobody knows who will win or the final score. But one thing is certain. At the end of the first quarter, owner Wayne Weaver and his wife, Delores, will rise from their box seats and wave excitedly to youngsters in a far corner of the stands. And the kids—about 900 of them, all wearing yellow T-shirts—will wave back, grinning and shouting as they do.

The routine has become fixed at every Jaguar home game, and it’s hard to tell who enjoys it more: the Weavers or the kids. These special free seats are known as the Honor Rows, and the youngsters who earned them—boys and girls from the Jacksonville area between the ages of nine and 16—did so with a combination of improved schoolwork, good-behavior pledges and community service.

While the Honor Rows have become recognized as something of a showpiece for the bubbly interaction between the people of Jacksonville and the Jaguars, it’s only the beginning.

A couple of miles south of the stadium, 118 preschoolers and 30 senior citizens who get together each weekday at All Saints Early Learning and Community Care Center have a decided stake in how the Jaguars are doing.

So do the young women trying to earn their high school diplomas at the PACE Center for Girls.

This is not to mention everybody at the Children’s Crisis Center, the I. M. Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless, the Northeast Florida Exchange Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and many others.

The list goes on and on, but the point soon becomes clear. Jacksonville people of all ages, all colors and all faiths are sharing in what is perhaps the most exciting community give-back program in all of professional sports: the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation.

The Foundation constitutes a formal and full-time commitment to helping northeast Floridians who need help—especially disadvantaged youth. So far it’s provided more than $1.7 million to local agencies and institutions.

At a time when the mention of “professional sports” calls up images of overpaid athletes and profit-driven owners, the Jaguars have become the franchise with a difference.

Bishop Praises Jaguars as Role Models

Don’t think that community leaders haven’t been taking notice. One of them is Bishop John J. Snyder of St. Augustine, whose diocese includes all of northeastern Florida.

“Yes, we in Jacksonville and surrounding areas are very proud of the Jaguars—on the field and off the field,” he says.

“Many of the Jaguars are involved in community outreach toward sick children and the economically disadvantaged. They have been good role models to our young people, when role models have been in short supply among public figures.”

Bishop Snyder praises in particular the example established by Coach Tom Coughlin, the former Boston College coach who quickly became a favorite of fans in Florida.

“I attribute a great deal of credit to Coach Coughlin, who sets high standards of discipline and moral conduct,” the bishop says.

The Birth of the Jaguars

When it comes to setting standards, though, Coughlin has company in the Jaguars organization, and it comes straight from the top. That’s particularly true in regard to giving out gifts. If the team’s generosity of heart happens to establish a new trend in the world of big-time athletes, credit the franchise’s remarkable husband-and-wife team with a major role in turning the tide.

Wayne and Delores Weaver joke easily about their modest family backgrounds and Southern roots—and even more so about the twist of fate that brought them together. They knew each other as teenagers in Columbus, Georgia, when Delores went to work in the dress shop operated by Wayne’s mother.

The two of them have tackled more than a few challenges since their marriage 44 years ago—and, in fact, handled them with skill and polish. They have two children and a granddaughter, and Wayne achieved extraordinary success in the business world as head of the Nine West retail footwear chain which he sold a few years ago.

They were living in Connecticut when Wayne’s brother Ron, a longtime Jacksonville resident, invited them to join the city’s efforts to secure one of two new franchises that the NFL was planning to award. That was back in 1991, and the idea—not to mention the challenge—made sense. After all, football fever runs rampant in Florida, and when the USFL was operating two decades ago, it was the Jacksonville Bulls who had led the league in attendance. If ever a city seemed a natural to join the big-time football ranks of the NFL, it was Jacksonville.

Wayne Weaver assumed the position of principal partner of the Jaguars in March 1993, and on November 30 that year Jacksonville went wild when the news came that the city had indeed won its franchise. Wayne and Delores had barely finished leading the municipal celebration when they began rolling up their sleeves for all the work that would follow. Part of it carried a dimension that would set the Jaguars apart right from the start.

“It was Delores’s idea,” Wayne says, “and it was one of the first things we decided about the team. ‘If we’re going to do this,’ she said, ‘we’re going to serve in the community.’”

Team owners Wayne and Delores Weaver (with flags) and others wave after the first quarter of a Jaguars home game in acknowledgment of the nearly 900 kids in the Honor Rows section.


“Wayne had accepted the challenge of being the principal partner,” she interjects. “I felt I could accept the challenge of starting a foundation.”

A Natural Fit

Penny Borgia is glad she did. Borgia is the bright and energetic executive director of All Saints Early Learning and Community Care Center, one of dozens of local agencies and institutions that have received grants from the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation over the last five years.

“We’ve been blessed with a successful program,” she says, “but we can’t expand it; we can’t franchise it. One hundred and eighteen kids and 30 seniors is all we can handle!”

They handle them superbly, however, and it was just that talent that caught the attention of Foundation officials. Their grant enabled All Saints’ staff members to spend time at other day-care centers—many of which lacked professionally trained instructors—where they passed along their skills and educational techniques. Not only did the other centers show some immediate gains in effectiveness, but follow-up studies have shown that they’ve maintained them.

That’s thrilling news to Borgia, who is genuinely excited about the Jaguars’ determination to make an impact on the community far beyond what they accomplish on the gridiron.

“Was I surprised that a football team was interested in providing grants to programs like ours?” she says. “Not really. It seemed like a natural fit.

“What does surprise me is that more professional sports teams aren’t doing something like this. And more churches, too!”

A tour through the center, located at All Saints Episcopal Church, quickly indicates to a visitor one reason why Penny Borgia doesn’t want to expand her program. She can call by name every one of the children (ranging from the diaper set to those ready for kindergarten) and each of the seniors under the care of her staff. And she can personally watch as the toddlers and the seniors—many of them with Alzheimer’s or other problems associated with old age—interact with each other, at times with results that are astonishing.

She tells of one four-year-old boy whose hostility stemmed from a badly broken home, and whose abusive moves toward the other children—almost enough to remove him from the program—defied the best efforts of professional counselors. But he and the rest of the four-year-olds had something in common: a profound attraction to one of the seniors they saw every day. Her name was Nina, she was almost 90 and she was in an advanced state of senility.

One day Borgia saw the boy standing face-to-face with Nina as she sat in her wheelchair. The youngster, so often given to violent outbursts, was stroking Nina’s cheeks softly and whispering “I love you” in her ear.

The incident taught her an important lesson, Borgia says: “Here we’ve spent all this time and energy on professional counseling and therapy for the boy without much in the way of results, and this lovely woman who hasn’t uttered an understandable word in five years turns out to have the answer. I could try to figure it out, but at times like this we’re better off minding our own business and letting God mind his.”

Recruiting the Best

Greg Gross, the young and articulate president of the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation, says it’s precisely that combination of professional skills and personal care found in All Saints Center and its director that the Foundation wants to encourage.

Gross turns out to have two enviable skills himself, and they came to the Weavers’ attention long before the Jaguars began playing football. A specialist on charitable giving with a doctorate from Harvard, Gross had assisted the Weavers some years ago in setting up two family foundations. Gross accepted the Weavers’ invitation to join them in Jacksonville even though he was a stranger to the city, but his impact on the community and its nonprofit agencies soon became evident.

“If we asked who is the most respected person in the philanthropic community of Jacksonville,” Wayne Weaver says enthusiastically, “they would say Greg Gross.”

Delores and Greg work with a staff of three other full-time professionals reviewing grants, checking on the progress of agencies and keeping the Foundation’s message—but not the Weaver family or the organization itself—before the public. From the outset the Jaguars Foundation has emphasized that it’s all about making a difference in people’s lives, and that hasn’t changed over the years.

Lending a Helping Hand to Those in Need

Who is eligible for Jaguar grants? Primarily, nonprofit agencies in the Jacksonville area that are committed to helping disadvantaged youth, especially through the cooperative involvement of children and parents (or educators or counselors) in identifying problems and solving them. Programs that build understanding and promote communication are high on the list.

This past year the Foundation provided 17 separate grants totaling some $720,000, an average of more than $42,000 per grant. Foundation money comes from the Jaguars’ football operations; no fund-raising goes on. (The Weavers themselves contributed $500,000 initially, and occasionally add more through their family foundations.)

There’s probably no such thing as a typical grant recipient, but one program that has benefited is the Nike/ Jaguars Foundation Community Scholars. Here college students mentor selected freshmen—all of them, incidentally, graduates of the Honor Rows—who have pledged themselves to community service.

Another important name on the grants list is PACE (Practical, Academic, Cultural Education) Center for Girls in Jacksonville. The 80 teenage girls who attend classes there weren’t progressing in the public school system for reasons like legal problems, parental abuse and drug use. Here they work to get themselves back on track. (Anyone who wonders if Jacksonville really needs such an institution is likely to be brought up short by one sobering statistic: PACE has a waiting list of 400.)

The Center relies not only on its own professional teaching staff but also on the talents of caring volunteers. Some are longtime Jacksonville residents, but their number also includes a few newcomers who are inspired by the Jaguars’ community involvement.

One of them is Jim Marx, a transplanted New Yorker who retired not long ago to the ocean-and-golf paradise of Ponte Vedra Beach following a banking career that took him on assignments around the world. But each Monday, Marx drives right past his favorite course to spend the day tutoring PACE students, one-on-one, in the basic intricacies of math.

“These are girls who often find this work hard, but appreciate the help you give them,” he says. “At some point or other they found it tough to keep up with their peers in public school, and might have even dropped out for a while. Then they start asking themselves, ‘What can I look forward to?’ We try to help them find a positive answer.”

In return, he receives the satisfaction of being able to help others, but also the “broader satisfaction...that comes when you see them realize—as hard as it might be for them to believe—that something good can really happen in their world,” Marx says.

Nina Waters, PACE Center’s director, credits Jaguars Foundation officials for not having “an agenda that many other funders may have,” she says. “They are very available to help you even if it has nothing to do with their funding. They want the services for kids in Jacksonville to be the best they can possibly be.”

Team's Anti-tobacco Strategy

In addition to the grants, the Jaguars Foundation has spawned a number of its own programs. The Honor Rows is prominent among them, and it’s much more than a giveaway of stadium seats.

Youngsters in the Jacksonville area earn their seats by setting important personal goals—and working on them for at least eight weeks. All of the youngsters agree, for example, to a substance-abuse pledge: no drugs, no tobacco products, no alcohol. There’s a long list of other criteria, all of which add up in one direction: doing the right thing, in school and out. Earning a Jaguars ticket is a big deal, and the yellow-shirted winners treat it that way.

Members of the Honor Rows wave during a Jaguars home game. Kids from the ages of nine to 16 earn tickets with improved schoolwork, good-behavior pledges and community service.


There’s another “big deal” in the Jaguars’ universe, too: no smoking—kids, adults, anybody. And from the beginning, the team put that decision on the line. They turned down the traditional game-day program ad from Marlboro, even though the revenue would have helped to erase some of the red ink on the start-up balance sheet.

The team’s anti-tobacco strategy got a great boost from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s fourth-largest philanthropic foundation overall, and the largest one devoted to improving health care in the United States. It awarded the franchise $137,000 to develop the Jaguars Don’t Smoke campaign, later adding two more grants totaling $80,000. The message gets prominent placement on everything from a 26-foot-long billboard in ALL TEL Stadium (not surprisingly, a no-smoking facility) to Jaguar autograph cards provided to youngsters.

In addition, there’s the Playbooks Reading Initiative. These colorful booklets in which Jaguar players and coaches describe their own favorite childhood reading experience—and why it made an impression on them—encourage Jacksonville area boys and girls to develop reading habits of their own.

Through the In-Kind Support Network, the Foundation serves as a go-between for companies with gifts and services to offer, and the people who can use them. And Straight Talk, another Foundation endeavor, focuses on another area entirely: reducing teen pregnancies through programs that educate and promote self-esteem.

Others Follow Their Lead

Such a comprehensive commitment to a city and its people can’t help but rub off on others. That starts with the Jaguar players, many of whom are active in charity work. To begin with, all Jaguars agree contractually to a minimum of three community-service appearances a year—one more than the standard for the rest of the league. Beyond that, many players have foundations of their own dedicated to special causes—for example, Jeff Lageman’s foundation to support a summer camp for Navajo children in Arizona. Quarterback Mark Brunell’s golf tournament raises funds for a local children’s hospital, where he’s a frequent visitor.

Can the Jaguars Foundation serve as a model for other professional sports franchises? Greg Gross thinks it can be done, but he lists five components that have to be in place if it’s going to work: commitment, leadership and involvement by the owners; a knowledgeable staff; an active board; solid networks with community agencies; and a reservoir of volunteers.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, too, thinks other franchises can be encouraged to follow the Jaguars’ lead. It recently awarded the organization $500,000 to introduce the Honor Rows model to others in the world of professional sports, at the same time expanding the Jaguars Don’t Smoke campaign.

To date, though, while many other NFL teams might have someone coordinating player appearances and charity events, the Jaguars stand alone in their full-time efforts devoted to the Foundation. And that commitment comes directly from the top.

“I think you’re either of that particular giving disposition or you’re not,” Delores Weaver says. “Some people who’ve done well in life give because it’s expected, but that’s the wrong reason. They don’t give of themselves.”

Her husband agrees.

“Both of our families cared about people,” he says. “That was something we were taught: your responsibility to your fellow man and your neighbor. We’ve enjoyed success in business, and at some point you say to yourself, ‘How much do you really need?’ We did that, and we felt an obligation to give something back.”

The commitment was intensified when the Weavers realized just what they had in the Jaguars.

“Any time you’re around kids and the team, you can just see the tremendous awe and admiration they have for the players,” he says. “I’ve looked at that and said to myself, ‘What a powerful resource we have right here in our hands. And if we don’t use it—what a waste!’”

Greg Gross reflects that sentiment when asked what he enjoys most about his job. “The variety of ways in which we can help others help themselves,” he says. “Our identification with the players and the team gives us a tremendous vehicle to engage the entire community, and together we can do great things.”

“No question about it,” Delores Weaver adds. “The Jaguars have opened doors for us. We’re going to go through as many of them as we can.”

For more information on the Jaguars Foundation, write or call them at: One ALL TEL Stadium Place, Jacksonville, Florida, 32202 (904-633-KIDS). Or visit the team’s Web site at http://www.jaguars.com.


Gerald M. Costello is a free-lance author, as well as a columnist for the Catholic Press Association. Prior to his retirement, he was the editor of Catholic New York.


 

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