JACKSONVILLE – Natrone Means is where he says he belongs.
He’s coaching, which means he’s around the game he loves – and the former Jaguars running back says many of his best memories of his time in that game came nearly two and a half decades ago.
That was when Means – then a 24-year-old, fourth-year NFL veteran – was a key player in what remains the most memorable stretch in Jaguars history.
“It’s definitely fond memories of that year, that team, that city,” Means said recently.
Means, now the offensive coordinator/running backs coach at Winston-Salem State University, was referring to the Jaguars’ late-season and playoff run at the end of the 1996 season – a run that included upset postseason victories over the Buffalo Bills and Denver Broncos that took the Jaguars to within minutes of Super Bowl XXXI.
Means recently shared his memories of that run for a series – 25 games, 25 seasons – that will appear on jaguars.com this summer commemorating the Jaguars’ 25th season.
“It was a great time in my career, coming down to Jacksonville from San Diego where I’d had some success,” Means said.
Means, a second-round selection from North Carolina by the San Diego Chargers in the 1993 NFL Draft, spent his first three seasons with the Chargers. He had his best NFL season in 1994, rushing for 1,350 yards and 12 touchdowns and leading San Diego to a surprise Super Bowl XXIX appearance.
Means, who was released by the Chargers in March of 1996 for salary-cap reason reasons, sustained a thumb injury in his first Jaguars training camp in 1996 and underwent thumb surgery.
“I didn’t get off to the start I wanted to,” Means said. “I thought I had a pretty good preseason, then I messed around and got hurt. It took me a while to get back into the rotation and get going. But away from football, man, it was great group of guys to be around.
“It was definitely one of the closest teams I’d been on. You felt like it was a close-knit group and guys enjoyed being around each other.”
That group of guys didn’t get the start they wanted, either. But after a 4-7 start, the Jaguars won their last five regular-season games. Means started to get hot around that time, too, rushing for 202 yards in the final two games of the regular season.
Like the Jaguars, Means saved his best for the biggest stage in 1996.
He rushed for a career-high 175 yards and a touchdown in a 30-27 Wild Card playoff victory over the heavily-favored Bills, then followed that with 140 yards rushing and a touchdown in a 30-27 AFC Divisional Playoff victory over the even-more-heavily-favored Broncos.
“It was just one of those special situations where we were fortunate enough to catch lightning in a bottle,” Means said.
At the forefront of that playoff run was the person at the forefront of all things Jaguars in the 1990s and early 2002: then-Head Coach Tom Coughlin, now the team’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations.
“I’ve always thought that Coach Coughlin was probably one of the best push-your-button motivational guys who I was fortunate enough to play for,” Means said. “Some of his pre-game speeches were legendary.”
Coughlin’s toughness and discipline for many defined the era.
“I wouldn’t say it was a tough thing for me,” Means said with a laugh. “I had been with [Chargers Head] Coach [Bobby] Ross and Coach Ross was a worker. We were in full pads the week of the Super Bowl [following the 1994 season], so that part of it was nothing new to me. Coach Coughlin’s style was a little more vocal and a little more in your face, but when it came to coaching, I always paid more attention to the message than how that message was delivered.
“One of the things I definitely took from Coach Coughlin was it didn’t matter who you were. From the top of the food chain down to the lowest rung, he treated everyone the same. I could respect that.”
Means paused. “Now, getting used to the heat [in Jacksonville] … that was something different,” he said, laughing.
The 1996 run marked the pinnacle of Means’ Jaguars career. He rushed for 823 yards and nine touchdowns in 1997, then played two more seasons with San Diego and a final NFL season in 2000 with Carolina.
Means worked in the NFL Minority Coaching Fellowship Program in 2003 and 2006 with Atlanta and again in 2008 with Carolina, working with Livingstone College as running backs coach (2005) and offensive coordinator (2006) under former Jaguars teammate and then-Livingstone Head Coach Robert Massey. He spent 2008-2011 as the Regional Scouting Director for Collegiate Sports of America, then worked as the Running Back Lead for Nike Football Training Camps for two seasons.
He joined Winston-Salem State’s staff in 2014 as running backs coach. He is now the offensive coordinator, with Massey serving as defensive backs coach and special teams coordinator.
“It’s fun,” Means said. “You get a chance to stay around the game at a relatively high level. I get a chance to share my experiences in life, as well as football, with the hopes of giving these guys we coach up a chance to take advantage of whatever opportunity life throws at them. I enjoy coaching these young men, and I enjoy being around the game of football.
“It seems like for so long, I fought it. I tried to do a little of everything. I tried a couple of different career paths before I found my way back to football. It’s been enjoyable and it’s what I need to be doing.”