The Patriots welcome the Jaguars to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough on Sunday, and all eyes from Jacksonville will be focused on the game happening hundreds of miles to the north.
And from deep within the heart of Jaguars territory, a group of passionate Patriots fans living in the Florida city will also be gathering to watch the AFC Championship.
David McGraw, one of the founders of the Patriots’ Jacksonville fan club, recently answered a few questions about what this week — and life in general — has been like for New England fans watching from afar.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Boston.com: What was your initial reaction when the Jaguars won and it was officially a Jaguars-Patriots AFC Championship matchup?
David McGraw: So my first instinct was just exuberance. I absolutely hate the Steelers. So to watch them lose and knowing all the Steelers’ fans heartbreak, I was just ecstatic. And, although I’m a Patriots fan living in Jacksonville, I do enjoy watching them win. I’m never going to root for them against the Patriots, but it is good to see the hometown team do something. So it was a great moment. I was there cheering with them. And you know, their defense is strong, but I would rather play the Jaguars than the Steelers.
How did you end up in Jacksonville?
DM: I’ve only lived here for 13 years. I was born in Framingham, Mass. I only lived there for five years. My parents are originally from West Virginia, moved there and that’s where I was born. So I used to have a thick accent, but they moved me to Tampa when I was five and I kind of lost it. I remember going back as an 8-year-old, and within two weeks I picked it back up, but then going back to Tampa, I just lost it forever. A job brought me to Jacksonville. I’ve kind of bounced up and down the east coast.
The Patriots Fans of Jacksonville club is a year old. Where do you meet?
DM: It’s at Wild Wings Cafe in the Southside here in Jacksonville, which is pretty centrally located. We, the founders, live at the beach which is a great part of town, but we wanted to attract as many people as possible. There was a fan club already in existence, but it kind of went dormant, and it looked like 2005 might have been the last year that it was active. I couldn’t tell, but it wasn’t that large, and we wanted to do our own thing anyway. So we signed up officially with Patriots.com to be an official fan club. Then we started interviewing restaurants, and we found one that didn’t already have a fan base.
So it’s interesting, if you’re not familiar with Florida, is that it’s all transplants. Sure, you’ve got a lot of Jaguar fans, but every fan base has a watch party at some bar. And all the good ones have been taken for years. So we definitely had to do some work to find a bar that had a separate space, because we didn’t just want to have Jaguar fans or other teams’ fans intermingle with us, since that just leads to fights and annoyance. We wanted our own separate space, and Wild Wings Cafe was great with that.
How many members are there, approximately? Was it difficult to find them?
DM: It was crazy. The first televised preseason game down here, we had like 24 people. I did some social media advertising and I threw a little money at it just to get it started, but a lot of it was organic. People would just kind of show up to a sports bar and they were Patriots fans, sat down with us and found out about that club. From that they’re coming every week. So every week it’s a domino effect of just constantly more and more. At the Titans playoff, there was 65 people. And it was crazy and they moved us to a different location within the bar to accommodate it. We’re looking for 80-plus this week. We’re real excited about it. Every week it grows and it’s been a ton of fun.
How has the bar reacted to such a large influx of Patriots fans?
DM: The interesting thing was when we went to Houston for the Super Bowl, Diablo Loco has been the official Patriots bar for years. At least it looked like it. And they catered to everything that those guys wanted to do. There was Patriots gear all over the place, in Houston, Texas. When we came here, we were really just hoping for a tenth of that. At first they really just didn’t care. They were like, ‘Sure, you’ll bring us business, here you go, here’s the space.’
But then as it really started to come along, by week eight is when we started to feel the love. They just said, ‘Hey, you guys pack this patio every week, you get whatever you want.’ From there, it’s been really great.
Because the winter actually got a little cold here, we’ve had to move inside. That kind of eats into their Jaguars space, and we were kind of nervous about that. Now thankfully we’ve never really played during the same time towards the latter end of the season. But we’re nervous about this week. They packed the place for the Jaguars on Sunday. We packed our area on Saturday, so we were nervous that they were going to stick with us, but it’s good for their business to stick with us. We pack that place every weekend.
Jaguars fans as a fan base get derided, probably to an unfair degree. What’s your take on their fans?
DM: If you ever meet a passionate Jaguars fan, they’re just as passionate as anyone else. It’s just harder to find that passionate Jaguar fan. This is a college area, and most people are much more passionate about [Florida] Gators, or Georgia, or just SEC football in general. I mean this is by and large a college area. Florida State, Miami, and the college football teams around here have been successful for a long time, so you can understand why they’re just more passionate about that. But, there’s plenty of Jaguar fans, plenty of people wearing the gear out at the bar. It was packed. I mean the Jags have kind of sucked for the last 10 years or even longer, and the Patriots have been at the pinnacle of the game for just as long.
Now, all of a sudden, this rapid Jacksonville fanbase is colliding with a super successful franchise, and I think a lot of it is more just there’s as much hatred for the Patriots as there is excitement for the game. People hate the Patriots, and it’s because of our success and now they’ve got a team that they see has a chance to beat us, and there’s almost like there’s a fervor taking over the town.
What are your Jaguar fan friends thinking going into this game?
DM: I’ve got a small handful of Jags fans in my life. Another interesting thing about this town is there are so many transplants. Just about every one of my friends are transplants. It’s really interesting how just how few native Jacksonvillians I’ve met in my 13 years here. But with that, most of them are self-admitted bandwagon supporters. I’ve got a really good friend who’s throwing a party for it. He’s from Connecticut, but honestly he just likes hating on the Patriots more than rooting for any other team. And I guess this year, he decided to pick up the Jags as his team, and he’s all excited about throwing this party. Then he makes a comment about having to go buy a shirt because he doesn’t even have any Jaguars gear. And I go, ‘Jaguars super fan, doesn’t even have a t-shirt.’
When was the last time you were able to see a Patriots game in person?
DM: So the cool thing is the Patriots play Miami every year. It’s about a five-hour drive, and we went to that game this year. It was a ton of fun. We were also lucky that the Patriots went to Tampa, and so we went over there. We connected with the Tampa fan club, and that was incredible because you’ve got like five fan clubs that came together and held a huge tailgate. It was a ton of fun. It was a great game, a little close for comfort I thought, but we were able to catch two games this year. I would like to hopefully get up to Gillette [Stadium] a little more often, but anytime the Patriots play within driving distance of Jacksonville, that includes Atlanta, Tampa, we even thought about going to the New Orleans game.
So you mentioned you’ve been there for 13 years. Was that early enough to be around there for Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots played the Eagles in Jacksonville?
DM: That was my actual first year. I moved here the August before that Super Bowl, and while I didn’t go into the game, me and my dad and my mom actually snuck into the Super Bowl party at the World Golf Village and was actually able to see [Robert] Kraft and [Richard] Seymour, and Patriots players come in with the Super Bowl trophy. It was amazing.