JACKSONVILLE – Mark Brunell initially had little idea what to expect from his Jaguars career.
He had dreams when he arrived via trade as a 24-year-old in 1995 – inexperienced in the ways of the NFL even for third-year veteran.
He had hopes. He had goals.
More became reality than didn’t, but something Brunell said he never imagined, hoped for or dreamed of occurred Tuesday morning, when Jaguars President Mark Lamping announced the former quarterback would be the third player inducted into The Pride of the Jaguars.
“It’s a great honor,” Brunell said during a Tuesday press conference at EverBank Field, during which he thanked his wife Stacy, Jaguars Owner Shad Khan, Lamping, former teammates, current General Manager David Caldwell and the Jaguars’ organization.
“This is real special. The passing records, they get broken eventually. The other individual awards, the big games, sometimes get forgotten, but the opportunity to be in the Pride – that lives on.”
Brunell will be inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars December 15 during halftime of the Jaguars’ home game against the Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field.
“It never has been a question whether or not Mark belonged in there,” Lamping said. “It was only a question of when.”
Brunell will join former Jaguars left tackle Tony Boselli and former running back Fred Taylor. Former Jaguars Owners Wayne and Delores Weaver also are in the Pride.
“It’s a huge honor, because it means what you did in your career is being recognized at a very high level by the organization you did it for,” said Boselli, a close friend of Brunell’s since their playing days with the Jaguars from 1995-2002.
“I wasn’t going to miss this; I’m very excited he’s going up there,” Boselli said, adding with a laugh, “although I won’t be able to hang it over his head anymore that I’m up there and he’s not. I’ll remind him I was first, but then he’ll remind me the only reason I was first is he played longer than I did. We’ll go back and forth.”
On a serious note, Boselli said Brunell very much deserved the honor.
“I wanted him up there as soon as possible, because I know what he meant to this team, to this organization and to this town,” Boselli said. “He quarterbacked some of the greatest in this franchise’s history. He deserves to be up there and I wanted him up there.”
Brunell led the Jaguars to their first victory on October 1, 1995 – 18 years to the day of Tuesday’s announcement. Brunell came off the bench in the fourth quarter of that game, throwing a 15-yard pass to Desmond Howard for a 17-16 Jaguars victory over the Houston Oilers at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.
Brunell became the permanent starter after the victory, and then quarterbacked the team during its most extended run of success, playing in three Pro Bowls – following the 1996, 1998 and 1999 seasons – and leading the team to AFC Central titles in 1998 and 1999 with playoff appearances following the 1996-1999 seasons.
Brunell arrived in Jacksonville not having started a game in two NFL seasons. He started 117 of 120 career games with the team, completing 2,184 of 3,616 passes for 25,698 yards and 144 touchdowns with 86 interceptions. He led the NFL in passing yards in 1996 and was the Pro Bowl Most Valuable Player in 1997.
“I just wanted a chance to compete and get on the field, and see if I was good enough to make it in this league,” Brunell said. “Things worked out early on. I was allowed a chance to get on the field. While we weren’t very good (in 1995), we did some good things.
“I never envisioned this moment. That’s why it’s so special. You walk into the stadium and see Tony’s name, Fred’s name, the Weavers – it’s pretty cool to me. It’s very special.”
The Jaguars played in the AFC Championship Game following the 1996 and 1999 seasons, and perhaps Brunell’s most memorable moment came in the 1996 postseason.
In the AFC Divisional Playoff that season, the Jaguars beat the Denver Broncos, 30-27. The team won its final five games of the season to qualify for the playoffs as a Wild Card entrant and was a 14-point underdog against Denver. Brunell and the Jaguars that day became a national story, with Brunell passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns and running for 44 yards. His 29-yard scramble on a late drive set up a game-clinching touchdown pass to Jimmy Smith.
“I still hear about Denver a lot, usually when I go visit my family in Colorado,” Brunell said with a smile. “I hear about that pass to Jimmy (Smith) or that scramble, and that’s pretty much it.”
Brunell on Tuesday also talked about then-Jaguars Head Coach Tom Coughlin, saying he appreciated Coughlin far more after playing for him than during their days together in Jacksonville.
“Part of that was experiencing what it was like to have other head coaches,” Brunell said. “He was tough to play for, and he was demanding. But you knew exactly where you stood and you knew what his expectations were, and if you didn’t meet those expectations he was going to let you know, which is not a bad thing.
“Players didn’t like going down the hall. They didn’t like that very much but there was no gray area. You knew that if you weren’t meeting his expectation and if you weren’t performing at the level that you should have been performing at he was going to let you know. And it was great.”
Brunell became a free agent following the 2003 season, playing four seasons with the Washington Redskins, two with the New Orleans Saints and his final two with the New York Jets.
He and his family returned to Jacksonville following his retirement. He is now the head football coach at Episcopal School of Jacksonville, and worked this season on the Jaguars’ preseason television broadcasts. He will serve as an analyst for ESPN following Episcopal’s season.
“We had a tough time leaving, because in my mind I wanted to be here for the rest of my career,” Brunell said. “That didn’t happen. We played with a few different teams after Jacksonville, but couldn’t wait to get back. This has been home for us.”
Brunell said he still values the bond formed between the players and the city and the team’s fans in those early days of the franchise.
“It was young, and the city was thrilled to have a franchise here,” Brunell said. “And quite frankly, we were all thrilled to get a chance to play.”
Brunell also on Tuesday recalled the day of his trade to Jacksonville, and said while he and his family were initially uncertain about where they were headed, he soon enough learned that he actually was headed home.
“I said, ‘Sweetheart, we got traded to Jacksonville,’” Brunell said. “She said, ‘Where’s Jacksonville?’ But not only were we thankful to go from Wisconsin to Florida, we didn’t realize how good of a deal it was going to be to be part of the Jacksonville community. Within months, we fell in love with this place.
“That is my greatest memory, just the opportunity to be part of this community.”