For a child born in the late seventies, the arrival of the NFL on TV screens in the 80s allowed Mark Read to find a sport which truly spoke to him, over time he became a fan and initially supported the Bengals, but it was probably in 1996 that there was a true turning point for him.
Did he see them live? Well yes but not in the way that most people do.
“You could say my journey to being a Jags fan is a little unusual,” says Mark. “In 1996 I was working in security and was lucky enough to work for the young Jags giving security advice on travelling games. Having spent 6 months as a consultant and being close to the team they became my guys, and I have been loyal ever since.”
For someone who has been a lifelong supporter of American Football it might come as a surprise that Mark actually never played the game competitively until 2015. He’d always had balls, he’d always threw them around with friends but never taken it to game level.
“I did go to tryouts when I went to uni in 1997 but it seemed that the rugby team was a little better organised so stuck with that. I got ‘body hunted’ by Glenn Lindley, head coach of East Kent Mavericks while working in a bank who asked if I wanted to play. I said no then, but when I left the bank I saw a poster and just rocked up and went from there.”
And in his debut season Mark managed to get nine out of eleven starts at right guard, with an 8-2 record and just losing in the playoffs. A rookie season that many would be proud of! But for Mark there is a greater appeal to the game than just a great start to the game, there’s also the inclusiveness of the sport.
“There aren’t many sports which call being 6’4” and 28 stone a huge asset but that’s the great thing about football that it brings people of all shapes and sizes together and each have a key role. It’s a game of excitement, speed and tactics but I love the workhorse attitude and pure grit when you see it played at its best.”
And for Mark, seeing the best is watching the NFL and as a Jags fan that is a yearly occurrence. But it’s not one he takes for granted.
“For us ‘dedicated’ fans we will always appreciate the fact the team are here year on year, although I know that the Duval faithful worry it will trigger an eventual move from Jacksonville to London. But they really embrace the UK and for the ‘journeyman’ fans they get loads of great giveaways on game day and in Trafalgar Square.”
So being a Jags fan Mark gets to see his team once a year which is a real plus point but as many hardened NFL fans know, it isn’t a side for a glory hunter – well not one who immediately wants results. What’s the reality for a Jags fan?
“It’s a life with a rollercoaster of emotions. You always hope this season will be a good one, or at least better than the last! The thing that keeps you going is knowing the owner, GM and head coach are on the same page. That doesn’t often happen in football (or lots of sports) but Shad Khan has been patient with the team, giving them time, money and most of all the faith for them to get the job done.”
And it’s been a steady build for the team with Mark happy they now have ‘a franchise QB, a great receiving line, developed the run game and bolstered the D’. He still remains hopeful that the gaps will be filled and built upon but he certainly doesn’t get too much ribbing at home as son Toby is a little too young at 6 to have a real opinion yet.
Which is just as well as the season hasn’t started too comfortably for the Jags and Wembley is seen as a must win game for the Jags who are currently 0-3. Worse still the Colts won at home against the Chargers at the weekend and so will be feeling a little more confident coming in to London. Does Mark think the Jags could do it this weekend?
“While we lost against the Packers, I had high hopes – you know we were solid and missing a few key players so things could come good. Then against the Chargers it has the ‘here we go again feel’. But then against Baltimore we had strong defence, great receivers, good tight ends and a running back duo that could be massively impactful if fit. If Bortles can control his passes, the injuries on the O’line are negated I think the Jags can turn the Colts over.”
Mark is realistic that the Vince Lombardi trophy isn’t destined for Jacksonville this season but he still wants to see an improvement in the side and is realistic that given the ‘building’ they’ve been doing and the free agency moves that they made in the off season they do have a chance to do better.
“I want to see 8-8 minimum because this is a year we need to be competitive and show the growth we’ve made. The next five games will really define us as a side. If we can do 8-8 or better and make the playoffs then I see it’ll be enough for Dave and Gus to keep their jobs.”
The Jags community in the UK is strong with the Union Jax club key to bringing fans together but for those who are new to the game and particularly the Jags, Mark has pinpointed a few players who we should keep an eye on this season.
“The headline names will be Hurns, Robinson and Bortles but if you’re looking at impact players then Myles Jack and Dante Fowler Jr have really great potential. Often overlooked but a player who can make the difference include Brandon Linder who’s moved into centre, will Paul Pozslusny is the stalwart of the side in D.
But for me, the one to really watch is Julius Thomas – great strength, great awareness and having worked with Bortles in the off season he could be a game changer for us.”
With Mark having been following the game for over thirty years he has a few football memories and also favourite players. From football memories, his time spent with the Jags in 1996 seeing the inside workings of the NFL is something he will always treasure but so too will he hold dear the first start he got (in game 2) in his rookie season for East Kent Mavericks.
“My first football heroes were William Perry and Norman ‘Boomer’ Esiason. Perry was just a unit at an elite level and Esiason was my teams franchise player and was great!! But for my ‘greatest of all time’ it has to be Lawrence Taylor. Trust me if you play as an offensive linesman you realise just how good he was and the changes he made to our great game through pure ability and aggression. There’s been no one like LT!”
Mark has seen many games, watched many players and is a huge fan of the game. While he’s a veteran supporter now, there will be many on Sunday who’ll be watching their first ever game. For those guys, finding their way in the game, why should they pick the Jags?
“The Jags are a team re-building and re-branding but you’re joining them at a point I think the tide is turning. There is a core unit of young talented players and they’re starting to get rolling. I won’t deny they’ll drive you insane at times – the calibre of players who don’t convert skill to win but I honestly believe they could be special. And hey, if nothing else the jersey and the lid designs and colours are awesome.”
A team on the up, a team that loves London, and a team, just maybe one day will be Super Bowl winners. Just don’t leave it too late to join the Jags.