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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.’”
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
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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
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
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.
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.