October was the best of times

By Vic Ketchman

In 1995, October was the best of times.

The Jaguars' 4-12 inaugural-season team scored three of its wins in October of that season, including the franchise's first-ever win, its first-ever home win and an upset victory in Cleveland that put the Jaguars squarely in division title contention.

"When it came down to a tough, physical battle, we were prepared to win those games. We were physically tough, mentally tough. We weren't the most talented team, but we could grind a little bit. We were tough as nails, but I can remember looking around the locker room and wondering how the hell are we going to win?" Jeff Lageman said.

Lageman was a defensive end and one of the veteran voices on the Jaguars' inaugural team. He was one of the free-agent acquisitions that helped make the expansion Jaguars immediately competitive.

On Oct. 1, 1995, Lageman's day ended on a trainer's table in the Jaguars locker room in the Houston Astrodome. Lageman puffed on a cigar as he received IV fluids to combat dehydration. The cigar was provided by equipment manager Bobby Monica, who carried with him a stash for the Jaguars to celebrate their first-ever victory. This was the day.

"Houston was trying to run out the clock. I kicked down into a three technique against Bruce Matthews. I'm having flashbacks of him pounding my head into the turf when I was a rookie. I tried to out-quick him and I did. I got into the backfield, knocked the ball out and we were able to get a score to win the ballgame," Lageman remembered of the Jaguars' come-from-behind, 17-16 win over the Oilers.

The winning touchdown was scored by Desmond Howard on a wide receiver screen type of pass from Mark Brunell.

"I remember the pass to Desmond. I remember the locker room afterward. It was a pretty special moment, historical moment," Brunell said.

Most memorably, this was the game that would launch Brunell's career. He had replaced starter Steve Beuerlein to give the Jaguars a spark. The following week, he would become the Jaguars' starting quarterback and, eventually, the face of the most successful expansion franchise in NFL history.

Seven days after the Jaguars won in Houston, they were hosting the Steelers in Jacksonville. The Steelers were the dominant team in the AFC Central Division. They were the team Jaguars Coach Tom Coughlin targeted.

"The thing I remember most is pregame warmups. They came out like they were models on the catwalk. It wasn't that hot in pregame," Lageman remembers.

When the Steelers took the field for this one o'clock kickoff, the heat was on. A Pittsburgh team that hadn't arrived in Jacksonville until after sundown the day before, was feeling the heat of a North Florida afternoon for the first time.

"It was like watching a flower wilt in the heat. They weren't mentally prepared for the heat, they weren't prepared for our mental toughness and they weren't mentally prepared for our physical toughness. We kicked the (crap) out of them," Lageman said.

The Jaguars made a big fourth-down stop late in the game to preserve a 20-16 win.

"I think we were surprised we beat the Steelers. I remember our crowd going crazy. It's probably one of my favorite wins," Brunell said.

Brunell says his memory of the '95 season has fogged through the years, but he remembers a head-to-head collision with Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd in that first-ever Jaguars home win.

"That's probably one of the hardest hits of my career," Brunell said.

Six games into the franchise's history and the Jaguars were 2-4 with a visit from the Chicago Bears dead ahead. 

The Jaguars lost to the Bears, 30-27, when kicker Mike Hollis barely missed a 54-yard field goal attempt on the final play of the game. What's most memorable is the Jaguars left the field to a standing ovation from their fans. Jacksonville was falling in love with professional football, and with the excitement the Jaguars were providing.

October was a five-game month for the Jaguars. Two legs of the journey remained: trips to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. They were the AFC Central's defining cities. Now, we'd find out what this Jaguars team had under the hood.

"We weren't overly impressed with Cleveland. We just got done beating Pittsburgh and we went down to the wire with Chicago. We'll take anybody on. Going into that game (in Cleveland), we were a confident a group, and we were finally having fun," Lageman said.

Brunell led the Jaguars to a 23-15 win in venerable Cleveland Stadium. It was one of those gray lakeshore days that define football in the heritage cities. With this win, the new team with the scrambling quarterback became a true threat to the AFC Central order.

The Jaguars were 3-5 and headed to Pittsburgh for a game with division title implications. A win against the 3-4 Steelers would give the Jaguars the division lead and clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker between the two teams. Half a season into their first-ever season, the Jaguars were about to play the first big game in their history.

"We didn't care about that. When we started the season, let's just try to get some wins. The division title was immaterial to us. We were in the moment. We were realistic," Lageman said.

The Steelers won, 24-7. They would go on to win eight straight en route to the AFC title. The Jaguars would win one more time, against Cleveland on Christmas Eve on the final day of the season.

"It was the first chance I got to play. We only won four games, but at least at the end of '95 I knew I'd have a chance to be the established starter in '96," Brunell said. "I remember a lot more about '96."

The '96 season would be the Jaguars' Cinderella year, but '95 set the tone, especially in October. The Jaguars were brash. They were tough. They were the new team to fear in the AFC Central.

"He was very demanding; the practices, the meetings, the rules," Brunell said of Coughlin. "For the guys coming from different teams, it was certainly a unique environment. It felt like it was unlike any other franchise in the NFL. When you start winning games, that stuff doesn't matter much," Brunell said.

October of 1995 is when the Jaguars began winning games.

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