JACKSONVILLE – They’re real, and they’re spectacular.
And are they really that big? That cool?
Oh, yeah … and then some.
The Jaguars on Saturday evening held their much-anticipated Mega Event, a three-tiered extravaganza/party/celebration free to season-ticket holders – only part of which was a soccer friendly in which Jaguars Owner Shad Khan’s Fulham Football Club defeated D.C. United 3-0.
That match ended around 7:45, and country music superstar Carrie Underwood closed the night with a concert after being introduced in crowd-inspiring fashion by Jaguars Head Coach Gus Bradley. But before that came the event anticipated by Jaguars fans for more than a year:
The unveiling of the world’s largest HD video boards.
The two boards, located above the north and south end zones and measuring 60 feet high and 362 feet wide, feature a 13 HD pixel layout with more than 21,700 square feet of digital canvas. But those are numbers, and Saturday wasn’t about numbers.
It was about impact and moment.
And as it turned out, for the 52,961 that packed EverBank’s lower bowl and west upper deck, it was indeed quite a moment.
“It was four or five times better than what I expected, to be honest with you,” Jaguars President Mark Lamping said.
The same could be said of the whole night. Start to finish, this thing was spectacular, big and wildly successful. And it was pretty darned emotional, too.
Moussa Dembele turned in a hat trick in Fulham’s EverBank Field debut, scoring in the 22nd, 44th and 75th minute. Soon thereafter Khan, Lamping, Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown and City Council President Clay Yarborough addressed the crowd, with Khan delivering an emotional speech thanking Jaguars fans for their support since purchasing the team in November 2011.
“We’ve had a lot of fun over the last several years, and the best is still to come,” Khan said, adding, “Everybody here in his or her own way has touched my life in ways I thought were unimaginable. It’s an amazing responsibility and a privilege to represent you and I’m grateful for all of the support you’ve given me and my family since arriving in Jacksonville two and a half years ago.”
Khan told fans to “never be afraid to celebrate everything and everyone we have here in Jacksonville.”
“We’re second to none, and let me say it: ‘Jacksonville is great,’” Khan said.
That’s what is known in the journalism “biz” as a “money quote,” and as fans cheered, the presentation moved toward a seven-minute montage emphasizing Jacksonville’s sports tradition, its beaches and downtown area and its military heritage.
“Tears were rolling down my face,” @KevinPeffer tweeted. “Stunningly beautiful production.”
Lamping afterward lauded the work of not only Jaguars employees, but of all involved in the $63 million renovations.
“There’s been so much work going on behind the scenes, and in front of the scenes, for well over a year,” Lamping said. “To have things go as well as they have tonight is just a real tribute to the community, the people who work for the Jaguars and the belief we all have that Jacksonville will continue to be a better and better place.”
The night also marked the debut of the renovated north end zone plaza, and its must-discussed spa party cabanas, two pools and bar-rail seating. The pools were a particular hit, with spectators of all ages watching not only the friendly but the unveilings and the concert through poolside glass.
“It was unbelievable,” said Noel Easterling, who swam in the pools while attending the event with her husband, M.J. Easterling, whose family have been Jaguars season-ticket holders since the inaugural 1995 season. “It’s really special. It’s something people will have to experience to grasp. Absolutely.”
While the cabanas and bar-rail seating are premium areas, the north end zone also features extensive general admission seating. That’s where Joe and Julie Szczudelk , longtime North end zone season-ticket holders, viewed the event.
“It’s 10 times better than you imagine,” Julie said.
“This blows me away,” Joe said, adding, “This is insane.”
Julie and Joe talked a while more, saying friends had taken one look at the cabana areas and vowed to buy season tickets. Julie than added, “We love Shad Khan.”
“Just tell him, ‘Thank you so much,’” she said.
Blown away, insane, better than imaginable … memorable words for a memorable night.
“This is a great way to start the season, and so many huge things are ahead,” Lamping said.
Lamping, who spent 15 years as the president of the St. Louis Cardinals, oversaw construction of the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and New Meadowlands Stadium, home of the New York Jets and Giants.
How cool was this night?
“This is going to sound a little trite, but you just feel so good for everybody,” Lamping said. “You know how hard people have worked. We’ve gone through some really, really tough times. We’re just now starting to emerge from that. To be able to celebrate a huge accomplishment, which this is (is great).
“All of us believe, and I think the community believes, that this is just the start – that the team is on its way, and that thanks to (Head Coach) Gus (Bradley) and (General Manager) Dave (Caldwell), this team is going to build a consistent winner that this team deserves and can be proud of.”
Blown away. Insane. Better than imaginable.
Yes, Saturday in downtown Jacksonville was all of that and then some, but Khan – as often is the case – captured the essence of the night. Because as fans filed from the ‘Bank late Saturday night with the sights, sounds and emotions of the night still beating through them …
Well, right around then, you couldn’t help feel the best really is still to come.