FOR SOME teams 2010 is make-or-break. But for the Jaguars it may well be the end of days—or at least the end of their run in Jacksonville. Though a college football hotbed, the city has been slow to embrace its pro franchise. Over the past few years support has been further stifled by an economic downturn that has hit northeast Florida especially hard. Last year the team lost 17,000 season-ticket holders and suffered weekly television blackouts as a consequence.
The Jaguars hoped that slashing ticket prices this year would revive their sleepy fan base, but a dispiriting end to the '09 season, which saw the Jags lose their last four games after a 7--5 start, has curbed enthusiasm. (The team needs to sell 3,000 more season tickets to insure there will be no blackouts this year.) What's more, they moved the needle in the wrong direction—and possibly inched the franchise closer to a shift to Los Angeles—by passing on Jacksonville native Tim Tebow in the draft.
The team needs a savior, went the rare impassioned cry. But the good news is, the Jags may already have one in Mike Sims-Walker. Like Tebow, the fourth-year wideout is a local product. He grew up in Orlando and starred at Central Florida, where as a senior in 2006 he gained 1,178 yards on a school-record 90 catches. Jacksonville selected him in the third round the following spring, but Sims-Walker struggled to reach the field. He spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a strained left knee and sat out four more games in '08 with a sprained ligament in his right knee, in which he contracted a staph infection that required hospitalization. "I was like, Damn, every time I get healthy, every time I'm feeling good about myself, I get hurt," Sims-Walker says.
But those body shots were nothing compared to the knockout blow that came when he lost two of the most cherished people in his life in late 2008. Just as Sims-Walker's health was rebounding, his best friend, Winfred Ezell—who bunked with Sims-Walker in Jacksonville, took care of his house and helped nurse him back to strength—was fatally stabbed in an Orlando nightclub. While home for the funeral Sims-Walker doted on his father, Michael Sims, who was battling colon cancer; he died the same day Ezell was buried.
Sims-Walker fell into a deep depression, especially over the loss of his father. "He was my best friend, my heart, my everything," says Sims-Walker, who considered quitting football. "There were some mornings when I decided I wasn't even going to go to practice. I wasn't going to go to the stadium. It was like, I'm about to go get a job. This s--- just ain't workin' for me."
What saved his career was his mother, Barbara Walker, who encouraged him to honor his father by persevering through the injuries and the heartache. Heeding her advice, Sims-Walker attacked his rehab, and once healthy he worked to improve his chemistry with quarterback David Garrard. Soon he was feeling like a man reborn.
In '09 the Jaguars found themselves calling that name a lot. In 15 games he caught 63 passes for 869 yards and seven touchdowns while emerging as a complementary big-play threat to the Jags' other hyphenated star, running back Maurice Jones-Drew. "Last year [Sims-Walker] was able to bring his confidence up and get things going," says Jones-Drew, who achieved personal bests in combined touches (365), yards (1,765) and touchdowns (16) in his first year as Jacksonville's feature back. "Now he's bringing everybody else along with him."
Sims-Walker set the tone in training camp, where he mixed a sense of humor (serenading his fellow receivers in drills) with a sense of purpose. Coach Jack Del Rio said in camp that the Jags' passing game, which in '09 ranked 19th in the NFL, was "substantially ahead" of where it was last year, which goes a long way toward explaining the high expectations that Sims-Walker and his teammates have. "We've got a lot of young, hungry guys—a lot of guys who are trying to prove themselves—and we're working extra hard to do it," Sims-Walker says. "I know for me, my new challenge is to be a leader, to be consistent, to be that guy they can count on to make whatever play they need me to make."
A man on a mission? That's just what a team desperate for a boost needs.