City savors the limelight

Published February 1, 2005

JACKSONVILLE - "This is my town, baby!" screamed Eddie Montgomery, half of the country duo Montgomery Gentry, as a crowd of about 5,000 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena screamed right back.

The Kentucky-born Montgomery may have been exaggerating a tad, even though he sported a white Byron Leftwich Jaguars jersey. The fans, on the other hand, were right on target.

This is their town, and this week, the prelude to Super Bowl XXXIX Sunday, is their week to shine.

Monday night, the River City's biggest week ever launched in style with "Kick Off to Super Bowl XXXIX: Celebrate Jacksonville" at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.

Fox Sports' James Brown emceed a night of interviews with business leaders and football honchos, including Eagles coach Andy Reid and Patriots coach Bill Belichick, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and headliners Montgomery Gentry, who performed a full concert.

The event, organized by the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce, was the first, and pretty much only, party in town. So partygoers tried to make it count.

"I'm so proud of the work that's been done here," Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton said. "Jacksonville is ready."

Before the party, scores of Jacksonville's business and sporting elite paraded down the red carpet, rubbing shoulders with more than a dozen NFL mascots. Every time a woman walked in alone, a gallant Cowboy or 49er would escort her inside, away from the stiff 40-degree breeze.

This posed no problems until Kristi Brady, wife of Jaguars tight end Kyle, was swarmed by Freddie and Big Red, mascots of the Falcons and Cardinals.

"A mascot is attacking my wife over here," Brady told a crowd of cameramen.

Apparently, it's all part of being an NFL wife. "I don't mind," Kristi said. "It keeps me amused."

Inside, fans who plunked down up to $80 per ticket cheered every time the city got a shout-out from Brown and a horde of retired pros who'd chosen Jacksonville as their postfootball home.

"Jacksonville used to be the best-kept secret in the United States," ex-Patriot Johnny Rembert said. "No longer, no longer."

City officials are already looking to boost local industry through the Super Bowl. Peyton revealed onstage that he was pushing Bob Kraft, the Patriots owner, to sign a shipping deal with the city's ports.

When Reid and Belichick walked across the stage to shake hands, Philly fans started to shout "An-dy! Andy!" Later, a lone New England fan wailed "Go Patriots!" But by the time a video highlighting the city's finer points wrapped up, most were chanting "Jack-son-ville! Jack-son-ville!"

"It's probably one of the better things to ever happen to Jacksonville," retired executive Gino Martire said as he snapped photos of mascots dancing the YMCA. "The only sad thing is, it probably won't be back here for another 10 years."

For the rest of the week, though, Jacksonville residents can enjoy the limelight.

This is, after all, their town.

--Jay Cridlin can be reached at cridlin@sptimes.com