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Those First Jaguars: Lageman remembers

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Their humble accomplishments got lost in the immediate success of the Jaguars teams that followed. The 1995 inaugural-season Jaguars never got the credit they deserved.

Did you know that as late in that first season as the ninth game, on Oct. 29 in Pittsburgh, the inaugural-season Jaguars were playing for the AFC Central Division lead? Defensive end Jeff Lageman, the Jaguars' first high-profile free agent addition, didn't recall that fact.

"We weren't very good, and a lot of veteran players knew it, but it never affected the way we played or went about our business," Lageman said.

His fundamental memory of that team was that it was a tough bunch. "The toughest team I ever played on. That team never backed down," Lageman said.

That may be the '95 Jaguars' enduring legacy, their toughness. They endured the toughest training camp in the hottest summer in history, and they allowed coach Tom Coughlin to establish a reputation for discipline and stern demands. The '95 Jaguars set the tone for the success the franchise would achieve through the four consecutive playoff seasons that followed. Ironically, it is that success that make the 4-12 '95 Jaguars very forgettable.

"It established what Tom Coughlin wanted to establish, which was that losing was unacceptable," Lageman said of the demands of a training camp so rigorous that it became a national topic, and of a season dedicated to rules that were largely regarded as insulting to the egos of professional football players.

"We went to Wisconsin to enjoy a cool training camp, and knowing it was going to be a tough training camp. That was the first time in my career I ever had muscle-fatigue problems. I had two groins that were stretched to the limit and ready to quit," Lageman said of a camp that began in early July and included two-a-day practices in full pads with live goal-line scrimmages, and concluded with conditioning drills and obligatory wind sprints.

Often, when a sprint began with something less than a crisp start, Coughlin would order his team back to the starting line. Meanwhile, temperatures in Stephens Point, Wis., reached 106 degrees, and photos appeared in newspapers across the country of cattle dying in the fields of the upper midwest.

It was a unique collection of players. Lageman led a small contingent of established veterans, who were signed by Coughlin largely because of their reputations for being tough and dedicated. Center Dave Widell and defensive end Paul Frase were also such veterans.

Then there was the very large contingent of rejects and re-treads, players who had failed in attempts with other teams, but in whom the Jaguars had identified talent worthy of a try with an expansion team. Wide receiver Jimmy Smith and linebacker Tom McManus were two such players.

They were joined by the Jaguars' first-ever draft class, headed by second-pick-of-the-draft offensive tackle Tony Boselli; an expansion draft class topped by veteran quarterback Steve Beuerlein; and by a young and promising quarterback named Mark Brunell, who the Jaguars had acquired in a night-before-the-draft trade with Green Bay.

Mercifully, training camp ended, but the demanding Coughlin regimen didn't. What followed was a season that peaked in October, was threatened by talk of mutiny in early December, then finished with a Christmas Eve victory that somehow made the whole season worthwhile.

These are the stories and accounts of five players and their coach, all of whom suffered through a season of defeat, but now look back on 1995 with the kind of fondness usually reserved for championship seasons. Maybe it was.

"We had a lot of guys who busted their butts, but our talent level wasn't very high," says Lageman, who came to the Jaguars from the New York Jets.

Lageman was attracted to Jacksonville because he wanted to be part of something new. He had a pioneer spirit that was perfect for the team and its coach.

"I remember having to wear a hard-hat to and from the locker room," Lageman said of Coughlin's "voluntary" offseason conditioning program in the spring of '95, when Alltel Stadium was a construction site.

"The thing I'll always remember is that I was on the first team ever in Jacksonville," says Lageman, who retired after the 1998 season and has remained in Jacksonville, where he has carved out a budding broadcasting career.

Lageman was a player known for his toughness. Other defensive ends got sacks. Lageman got respect.

When Coughlin signed Lageman in free agency, the coach had to know he wasn't bringing into his program a "yes-man" player. Lageman was a pro's pro, and quickly became the Jaguars' union rep and the most prominent voice in the Jaguars' locker room.

As the Jaguars embarked for Stephens Point, Lageman announced he would not voluntarily report early for training camp. He would arrive on the day designated by the league, and not before.

"Being the union rep, I felt it was necessary to stand for what I believe in. I was also not real anxious to get up there for an extra week. I knew Tom Coughlin was going to set a precedent that year, as far as hard work," Lageman said.

Soon after Lageman arrived, he engaged Boselli in a pass-rush during practice, causing Boselli to blow out a knee that sent him back to Jacksonville for surgery that would keep him out of action until the fourth game of the regular season. It was not a good start for Lageman.

It was at the end of the season that the respect Lageman had achieved among his teammates paid dividends for Coughlin. Lageman was a calming voice of reason during a player uprising that culminated in a players-only meeting in which Coughlin's dictatorial ways were the subject of dissent.

"There were a lot of people who were upset. A lot of players didn't feel rested and ready on Sunday. A lot of players wanted to pass that information on. Once players vented and found out they weren't the only ones feeling that way, I think it brought the team closer together," said Lageman, whose season had been ended by a foot injury in a one-point loss at Tampa Bay on Nov. 19.

At the time of the players-only meeting, the Jaguars were in the midst of a seven-game losing streak. They had been left in the dust by their Carolina expansion brethren, who were on their way to a 7-9 record. The Jaguars had been competitive in almost all of their games, but the losses mounted.

On Christmas Eve at what was then Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the Jaguars hosted the Cleveland Browns. At stake was the first pick of the draft. With a loss, it would belong to the Jaguars. Coughlin bristled at the suggestion.

"The most important thing that happened in '95 was winning that last game against Cleveland; to have something to build on. That was the biggest win in franchise history, up to that point. If we hadn't gotten that win, it would've been tough for guys to believe the road we were traveling was the one to be on," Lageman said.

Brunell was the star of that game, as he was in most games, after having earned the starting job for good in the Jaguars' Oct. 1 first-ever win, in the Astrodome. Brunell's improvisational skills, mainly his scrambling ability, gave the Jaguars an unpredictability that charmed the team's fans.

"Mark developing was critical to everything. The reason Mark was so critical was having a mobile quarterback, because the offensive line wasn't very good at all," Lageman said.

Brunell and the toughness the Jaguars established was the '95 season's greatest by-products.

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