JACKSONVILLE – Mark Brunell never imagined this.
He certainly didn’t when he first arrived in Jacksonville nearly two decades ago, and he still didn’t during the ensuing years as he helped define the early era of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
That’s natural. You don’t think about post-career awards when you’re playing. But Brunell said he has thought a lot this week about the one he will receive Sunday – and he has thought a lot about his career and time in Jacksonville, too.
Mostly, he said he has thought about how special the time was he spent in Jacksonville.
And that will make Sunday really special, too.
“I am deeply honored,” Brunell said this week. “Of all the honors and awards I have received in this game, this is tops. No question.”
Brunell on Sunday will be inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars. He joins former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli – Brunell’s best friend from their playing days with the Jaguars from 1995-2002 – and former running back Fred Taylor, with whom Brunell played from 1998-2003. He also joins former Jaguars Owners Wayne and Delores Weaver.
“It means a lot to me and my family as well,” Brunell said. “To get this in my hometown now it means a lot.”
Brunell, the first player acquired in a trade by the Jaguars, played for the franchise from 1995-2003, and made three Pro Bowls. He moved into the starting lineup in 1995, quarterbacked the Jaguars to four playoff appearances, two AFC Championship Games and two AFC Central titles and was the standout player in one of the most memorable games in franchise history.
That was the AFC Divisional Playoff victory over the Denver Broncos in the 1996 postseason, a game the Jaguars won, 30-27, at Mile High Stadium in Denver and the signature game in the team’s run that season from 4-7 to an AFC Championship Game loss in New England.
Brunell, a fifth-round selection in the 1993 NFL Draft by Green Bay, was traded to the Jaguars in the spring of 1995 for a third- and a fifth-round selection in that year’s draft. He began as the backup to veteran Steve Beuerlein, but took over as the starter by the end of the team’s expansion season that year.
“I thought he (Beuerlein) would be the starter for ‘95, maybe ‘96 and ‘97 – you don’t know,” Brunell said. “I was a young player. I didn’t know how good I could be. I wanted it, but that doesn’t get you very far. You have no idea where it will go. All you’re thinking about is, ‘I want to get my shot.’ I got my shot honestly a lot earlier than I expected to.”
Brunell, the Pro Bowl Most Valuable Player in 1997, owns nearly every Jaguars passing record, and is one of 13 players in Jaguars history to play nine seasons or more. He started 117 of 120 games played, completing 2,184 of 3,616 passes for 25,698 yards with 144 touchdowns and 86 interceptions – all of which remain team records.
Brunell said in a very real sense he grew up in his early years in Jacksonville not only as a player, but as a person.
“You look back and realize that was really, really cool,” Brunell said. “This became our home. The community became important to me and a lot of guys. It’s a special place. It’s a great place to raise a family, and a great city. There will always be a connection between guys who make it their home because it was a very important part of our lives.”
Brunell said as much as the ceremony at halftime Sunday, he is anticipating participating in the team’s annual Alumni Weekend. More than 40 former Jaguars players are expected to attend, to be introduced on the field before the game. They also will appear on the field at halftime during the ceremony.
In addition to Brunell, players expected to appear Sunday include Bryan Barker, Reggie Barlow, Aaron Beasley, Tony Boselli, Kyle Brady, Fernando Bryant, Michael Cheever, Marco Coleman, Rich Collier, Donovin Darius, Don Davey, Travis Davis, Todd Fordham, Paul Frase, Mike Hollis, Greg Huntington, Damon Jones, Jeff Kopp, Jeff Lageman, Mike Logan, Chris Luzar, Lonnie Marts, Marlon McCree, Tom McManus, Rob Meier, Will Moore, Tom Myslinski, Jeff Novak, Todd Philcox, Jimmy Redmond, James Roberson, Micah Ross, Isaac Smolko, Paul Spicer, Marcus Stroud, Fred Taylor, Patrick Venzke, Dave Widell, Maurice Williams and Renaldo Wynn.
“That’s why this weekend is fun,” Brunell said. “You get to relieve moments that went beyond the football field. A lot of friendships and a foundation were built. Those guys will be my buddies forever. It’s hard to articulate it, but that time meant a lot for so many people.
“You don’t appreciate it as much as you should when you’re in it. I was here nine years and played 19, and while you’re playing you don’t have perspective that you get when you’re removed from something. But it was a special time.”
The Jaguars made four playoff appearances in Brunell’s time with the team, and players from that area such as Boselli, Brunell, Lageman, Darius, Davey and many others still live in Jacksonville. Brunell played with the Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets after leaving Jacksonville, but said, “this has always been my team.”
“I knew that my time in Jacksonville was going to be my best time,” Brunell said. “The times here as a starter that’s what I consider special and that’s what has meant the most to me. That’s why it was so difficult to leave. I wanted to finish my starting days here, so leaving knowing I had some time left was hard. Even when I went to Washington, I had one foot here and another on another team.”
Brunell also said he likes that he is being inducted this weekend, with the Jaguars having won four of the last five games and with the town feeling connected with the team.
“It’s like the fans are reengaging to what can be and what is developing,” Brunell said. “That has to do with our leadership and our head coach and we’re winning now. If ever was ever a time to get inducted into the Pride, this week is perfect.”
Brunell said he will speak for about a minute. He said he doubts there will be tears, but as for emotion, he said, yes, there will be plenty. Of that he has no doubt.
“I’ll make it through,” he said. “But it won’t be easy. This place means a lot to me. This is home. I consider myself a Jaguar. We go to the games as a family. For us to be sitting there and for my kids to see our name up there, that is hue and it’s something that live on, and that’s the coolest part of it.
“It was an honor to play here and a privilege to be a part of this. I’m thankful for this.”