EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
Behind the scenes as the Jacksonville Sharks, the city's winningest franchise, try to rally for a playoff spot
The Sharks play three of their final five games at home. Here’s the final stretch:
Pittsburgh Power at Sharks, 7 p.m. June 28
Sharks at San Antonio Talons, 4 p.m. July 6
New Orleans VooDoo at Sharks, 8 p.m. July 14
Sharks at Cleveland Gladiators, 7 p.m. July 19
Los Angeles Kiss at Sharks, 7 p.m. July 26
Single-game tickets: $12-$133, (904) 621-0700
Jeff Bouchy is frustrated. No denying that. The Jacksonville Sharks owner’s players are frustrated, too. It’s palpable — and understandable. The Sharks’ 2014 season has been one of stinging defeats, bad bounces, injuries, personal trials. They’ve endured it all.
It’s a hot day in early June, and Bouchy, who turns 49 on June 27, paces the well-kept practice field the team uses at a country club near the University of North Florida, searching for answers. He knows this squad is one of the most talented in the Arena Football League — better than the team that won the division title last year, in fact — but what he knows hasn’t shown up on the field. The Sharks are 3-7, with a critical home game looming against the Spokane Shock.
The owner of three ArenaBowl championship rings — one from Jacksonville’s 2011 season and two as a minority owner with the Orlando Predators — Bouchy knows a winner when he sees one. And he sees one. But things just haven’t gone his way.
“We have a great mix,” Bouchy says. “That’s why I don’t understand it.”
Take the recent loss to rival Orlando Predators. After letting a nine-point lead slip away, all kicker Fabrizio Scaccia needed to do was kick the ball out of bounds so that the Sharks could force overtime. Instead, more than 9,400 normally raucous fans were silenced as the Predators fielded the kick in the end zone and returned it 51 yards for a last-second game-winning score.
It’s been that kind of year.
“I’m tired of losing!” yells defensive lineman Jerry Turner, a 6-foot-3-inch, 265-pound Goliath of a man, an eight-year AFL veteran and second-team all-Arena player in 2013, his voice rising above the cacophony of a trash-talking scrum that’s erupted at practice. Looking on, Bouchy is pleased to see someone trying to create a spark, someone trying, through sheer force of will, to pull his team out of its malaise. This is the energy, the determination, they need right now.
After practice, the players echo the owner’s admixture of frustration and optimism, mostly in that football-clichéd language of “one game at a time.” Despite their record, the Sharks head into the Spokane contest only two-and-a-half games back in the South Division. “The time is now,” defensive back Terrance Smith says. “We can’t wait until next week anymore. It’s a disgusting taste in our mouths, and we’re going to get rid of it.”
The Sharks’ defense backed up his bravado two days later.
To fully appreciate what they accomplished, let’s remember that AFL rules are written to promote scoring (and thus entertainment): The game is played 8-on-8 (instead of 11-on-11, as in the NFL), the distance from end zone to end zone is 50 yards (not 100), forward motion by a player prior to the snap is allowed (and therefore encouraged), a forward pass that rebounds off the sideline barriers or net is live. But against the Shock, the Sharks put on one of the most thorough defensive clinics the league has ever seen, holding Spokane scoreless in the second half and winning on a extraordinarily rare (for arena football) goal-line stand. The Sharks’ 34-28 victory belied usual AFL box scores; twice this season the Sharks have scored more than 60 points and still lost.
It’s been that kind of year, too — full of glimmers of greatness.
“No team will want to face us in the playoffs — I guarantee that,” Bouchy says.
They’ll have to get there first.
If you think about it, the AFL is like the ’80s glam metal of football: fast, furious, frivolous — think Quiet Riot to the NFL’s London Philharmonic. Or maybe it’s the Hulkamania-era WWF to the NFL’s Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling. The same thing, but different. One is, by every available measure, better — more technically proficient, more talented, more complex, more expensive — but if you’re looking for a party, sometimes better isn’t.
So it isn’t surprising that the AFL has been, since the Sharks began play in 2010, an enormous success story in Jacksonville. (It also makes perfect sense that Bouchy — who, appropriately enough, loves ’80s metal — added Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil to his ownership group in May.) The Sharks are consistently one of the AFL’s biggest draws, ranking fourth this year in attendance. They’ve also been one of the league’s (and the city’s) best franchises, claiming a division title every year of their existence and winning the ArenaBowl in 2011. (The Jaguars, by contrast, have won their division twice in 19 seasons, and never reached the Super Bowl.)
This being the AFL, however, winning is only part of the equation. Like a Crüe show, it’s really about atmosphere. In Bouchy’s words, “You want the experience to be like drinking water from a fire hose.”
At Sea Best Field, you can spot Smith high-fiving front-row fanatics in between plays. Touchdown dances are encouraged, not penalized (see Jomo Wilson’s “Yes! Yes! Yes!” celebration, borrowed from the WWE’s Daniel Bryan) — and because teams score a lot, this happens with some frequency.
You’ll see pass-happy offenses (usually) on fire, and the fans kept cool in an air-conditioned arena LeBron James would love. Or you might be distracted by the Sharks’ Attack Dance Team in skimpy outfits or superhero costumes. It’s all part of the show, as much as the game itself.
In the AFL, success is measured less by wins than by whether you’re having a good time.
Unless you’re on that field, that is.
Hours before the Sharks suited up against the Predators on May 17 — the game that ended with that heartbreaking last-minute kick return for a touchdown — star wide receiver London Crawford’s 3-month-old son Cooper died. Crawford played anyway.
“It was real tough for me. I felt it would have been tougher to be at home,” Crawford explains. “To have my teammates behind me, having Coach [Les] Moss to be there to see his emotion, playing for my team, for my kid, it was important to be there.” (Crawford suffered a torn patella tendon the following week and was placed on injured reserve.)
“Football is just insignificant when it comes to life matters like that,” Bouchy says.
That doesn’t mean the loss wasn’t a gut-punch. “It was brutal,” Bouchy says. “Not only do you lose to your archrival, you lose in a fashion that turns out to be a miracle for them.”
Over the years, that rivalry has taken on personal overtones, and not just because Bouchy was once in the Predators’ front office, working as vice president of football operations. Jeff’s own brother, Brett Bouchy, until recently the Predators’ majority owner, canned him after the two got into a heated argument following a playoff loss in 2001 (this, though the Predators were at the time the AFL’s dominant franchise). Or that’s Jeff’s version, anyway.
“My brother says I quit, but I was fired,” Bouchy says. “What irritated me so much is that my passion was taken away from me by my brother. He saw it as a straight business decision, and I thought, ‘How could you do this to me?’”
The brothers didn’t talk for a year. Brett remained majority owner of the Predators. Jeff started Destroyer Promotional Products, then moved to St. Augustine with his family.
Their father eventually put the warring brothers in a room to hash it out. “It’s the first and only time I’ve heard my dad drop an F-bomb,” Jeff says.
They’re past it now, Jeff says. Indeed, it was Brett who lured Jeff back into the AFL in 2009, when the league was reorganizing and wanted to place a franchise in Jacksonville. And Jeff went for it, luring Moss, a Predators assistant coach, and star QB Aaron Garcia to launch the team with him.
The AFL was happy to play up the sibling rivalry, and the Bouchys seemed happy to oblige. Before a 2011 matchup in Jacksonville, Brett bought a billboard off I-95 that read: “Jacksonville sucks. See you rednecks April 30. Love, the Orlando Predators.” (“It’s not a joke,” Brett told the Times-Union. “I’m not angry at Jacksonville. I’m livid.”) Our rednecks weren’t thrilled. It got so bad that the Predators’ coach asked for a police escort around Jacksonville. But success being the best revenge, Jeff had his.
“We kicked the crap out of them,” he says, “and the police escorted them back to the Duval-St. Johns County line.”
Before the next game, Jeff bought space on an electronic billboard and encouraged fans to tweet their hatred toward Orlando. The Sharks won that rematch, and went on to win the ArenaBowl later that year.
Brett sold his interest in the Predators in 2013, less than a week after the city of Orlando sued him over sponsorship conflicts. He’s now a co-owner of the Los Angeles Kiss.
The rivalry with Orlando, however, continues. It was inflamed this year, in fact, with a trade that sent Garcia — who’d left the Sharks and joined the Predators — back to Jacksonville in exchange for three Jacksonville players. When none of them reported to Orlando, the AFL awarded Orlando additional compensation in the form of Sharks defensive back Tracey Belton and quarterback Kyle Rowley.
“[I] felt jobbed,” Bouchy says.
Then the trade went from bad to worse. One of those traded players, running back Bernard Morris, eventually showed up to play for Orlando, led them to two victories over Jacksonville and has kept the Preds atop the South Division. Meanwhile, Garcia, the AFL’s all-time leader in passing yards with more than 60,000 and the ArenaBowl XXIV MVP, started one game, then departed Jacksonville after two weeks, citing family issues. The Sharks later traded his rights to the Los Angeles Kiss — the team Brett Bouchy now co-owns — closer to Garcia’s home in Sacramento.
Jeff Bouchy says he didn’t mind taking one last shot on their former quarterback, regardless of how it turned out. “Aaron Garcia was like that old girlfriend you broke up with. You’re still not sure if you should go after her again. We dated now for two more weeks. We know it’s over.”
Moss is less forgiving. “The whole thing was the biggest mistake of my career. Because he came here and he quit. He left us.”
As if someone from the league office scripted it, the hero-turned-villain is expected back when the Kiss travel to Jacksonville for the season finale on July 26. The Sharks hope they have more than revenge on their minds.
No matter what happens on the field, the atmosphere inside Veterans Memorial Arena seldom changes.
This isn’t just a game, after all. It’s also a party. And every party has a theme: Christmas in July (with Les Moss ornaments), Redneck Night, Grease Night (yes, like the musical) and Military Appreciation Night, to name a few. The game theme for this Saturday, against the Pittsburgh Power, is Halloween in June — fans are invited to adorn themselves in costume.
Every game, a handful of the team’s diehard fans don their usual shoulder pads, personalized jerseys, football pants and eye black, looking ready to enter the game at a moment’s notice. (For the Halloween in June night, they’ll add elements from famous wrestlers to their attire.) They crowd into the fifth row, where they have season tickets — or into the front row if some friends who have those tickets miss a game — and make noise. A lot of noise.
The Sideline Bullies, as they call themselves — hecklers Norm Bizier, Randy Andrews, Sascha Roth and Jay Nix — take this team seriously. See the “smackdown videos for opposing teams” they tape before each game, or the playbooks strapped to their wrists, if you need convincing. “We want to make the Shark Tank the hardest place for an opposing team to come play,” Bizier says. “We’ve had a number of [opposing players] come over and say they wish they had fans like us. Put it this way: The players know we’re there.”
Bizier and Andrews have attended every home game in Sharks’ history. For their efforts, the Bullies were honored at halftime of a Sharks’ game in 2013.
Asked if the losing season had curbed his enthusiasm, Bizier points to the still-high attendance and intense close-up game experience. In other words, not in the slightest. Yeah, losing to Orlando last month sucked, he continued, but it wasn’t anything beer and cornhole in the parking lot couldn’t fix.
As a nod to his fans and the role they play, next month Bouchy will offer them a chance to buy equity in the Sharks. He’ll use the infusion of cash to purchase a practice facility.
Beer and cornhole may sate the diehards, but it won’t fix the losing. And that losing is eating at Bouchy, so much so that it has invaded his dreams. “It’s so bad that I woke up two nights ago, and we lost a basketball game to the Predators, 114-113,” Bouchy says. He is completely serious.
The 5-8 Sharks have never been this down, never failed to make the playoffs, never had a losing season. But they are not out — and in fact there are signs the team is finally starting to congeal. On Saturday, the Sharks played probably their best game of the season in New Orleans, crushing the VooDoo 54-13 in a defensive showcase that set franchise records for fewest points allowed and most sacks in a game. True, New Orleans isn’t among the AFL’s elite this year, but Jacksonville needed a win and got one.
And the Sharks’ schedule is more favorable down the homestretch than it was early on. The Sharks play three of their final five games at Sea Best. They face conference powers Pittsburgh and Cleveland, yes, but also three teams with worse records — San Antonio, New Orleans and Los Angeles. So it’s possible all this early-season turmoil could just be a setup for a bigger-than-life finale against Garcia, a rekindling of the Bouchy sibling rivalry, with the 2014 season’s fate on the line.
If that scenario seems implausible, consider not just the franchise’s history, but also how a few breaks could have changed the course of the entire season. Maybe, just maybe, over the next months, those breaks will go the Sharks’ way.
After all, so much of Bouchy’s life now is the result of what once seemed a bad break: Had he not been ousted from the Predators, had he not married Laura and fathered four children during his break from the AFL, he probably wouldn’t have moved to Northeast Florida (Laura graduated from Fletcher High). And if he hadn’t moved here, and if he hadn’t subsequently patched things up with Brett, the Jacksonville Sharks might not exist. And he certainly wouldn’t have taken on Vince Neil — whom he and minority owner Steve Curran, a longtime friend, first saw perform with Mötley Crüe when they opened for KISS back in 1983 — as a business partner.
“How would my love of ’80s metal and arena football come together in my life? And here it is,” Bouchy says. “You realize you’re never in control.”