Pandemic could put Jaguars’ traditions on ‘timeout’

Remember the basketball game HORSE? Well, on Thursday nights during the National Football League regular season the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive line comes together for their own version of the game, “CAT.” They’ve also been known to play a game of Rock Band or two.

This is because on Thursdays after practice, Center Brandon Linder typically hosts the OL for a 7 p.m. dinner at his house. Often accompanied by a quarterback (yes, Gardner Minshew has been there) or running back, a food truck will roll up and park in front of Linder’s house. Then, the linemen get to spend time eating and getting to know each other off the field.

“Literally, from the time we get to Linder’s to the time we leave we’re laughing; we’re joking. The dopest part to me is also the food, because I’m a big guy,” Offensive Lineman Will Richardson Jr., who is entering his third season with the Jags, laughed. “[Thursday nights] are one of the main things I look forward to in a week.”

From corn nuggets to brisket fries, Richardson describes the trucks as a “big man’s dream.” When it’s time to pay for dinner, he and each of his teammates will put their number in a bag, and someone will draw three of them. The first two numbers selected get to split the food truck bill, and the third is responsible for the tip.

Thinking back to his first Thursday night as a rookie, Richardson remembers that they weren’t yet reserving food trucks. Instead, they would order catering and, as the rookie, he had to place the order and go pick up the food. Yet, once the food made it to Linder’s, Richardson recalls the unmatchable level of camaraderie that he experienced each week at these dinners.

“The best thing about the [team dinners] is also the best part of football; it’s the camaraderie. To see how people are outside of the stadium is by far the most impactful part for me,” Richardson said. “At the field you’re always kind of in a work mindset, so Thursdays are when we get to know more about each other.”

Specifically, Richardson remembers that it was at one of these dinners where he got to know who Andrew Norwell, who plays guard, really is. According to Richardson, Norwell is a very serious guy at the stadium, but outside the stadium, Richardson found him to be one of the funniest people he’s met and very laid back.

“That’s one of the best moments, going to the OL dinners showed [me]. Not only that [Norwell is] a cool, calm person, but also how seriously he takes his job when he’s at the stadium,” Richardson said. 

Across sports history, traditions like these have become an integral part of team bonding. Although the NFL has returned this month, hoping to restore some level of normalcy to the lives of players and fans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Jaguars offensive line is prepared to go without this pivotal point of camaraderie during the 2020 season.

Between following Centers for Disease Control guidelines and NFL protocols, COVID-19 has created a scenario where limiting the risk of exposure to maintain game play is the number one priority. Richardson explained that being able to attend OL dinners is more of a luxury to them, and not a necessity given the times.

Therefore, Thursday night dinners may be ruled out this year, depending on whether a socially-distanced protocol can be followed. Adding to that, another Jaguars tradition is up in the air as well. Normally, after the conclusion of the season the offensive line will take a trip to Las Vegas together. 

“This is another amazing experience, and it happens on my birthday,” Richardson said. “It’s one of those trips you need to get your mind into offseason mode. We get to know each other even better there too.”

Ultimately, tradition for the Jaguars’ offensive line is centered around coming together as people, not just athletes, and better understanding one another. Possibly having to go without such tradition for a season, Richardson doesn’t believe the offensive line’s level of play will be impacted. However, he acknowledges that COVID-19 has hurt the team in a lot of ways this year in terms of camaraderie and togetherness. If Thursday night dinners and their annual trip to Las Vegas are put on hold, at the least they will surely be missed.

“How the offensive line works is that we work as a unit. If one person fails, we all fail. The biggest thing for us is that these [traditions] bring us together more as an offensive line,” Richardson explained. “The closer we can come together, the more you’re going to fight for that guy playing next to you.”