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Jacksonville State University Feel-good Story

Jax State seventh-year senior safety talks during the team’s bowl news conference Monday. (Photo by Joe Medley)
Jax State seventh-year senior safety talks during the team’s bowl news conference Monday. (Photo by Joe Medley)

Jacksonville, AL – All share in the accomplishment of Jax State reaching a bowl in its first FBS season, but the best feels belong with players who knew Jax State football when.

By: Joe Medley

As feel-good stories go, Jacksonville State’s making a bowl game in its first Football Bowl Subdivision writes itself on many fronts.

It’s hard not to feel good for Rich Rodriguez, whose career road got bumpy after he nearly pre-empted Alabama’s Nick Saban era. His latest stewardship became only the fifth program since 1957 to make a bowl in its first season on college football’s top competitive level.

Saban put a glorious Alabama program back on the map. Rodriguez drew a whole new FBS country out of another Alabama-based program.

It’s hard not to feel good for leaders and dreamers who triggered Jax State’s leap of faith from Football Championship Subdivision. Historically, programs that make such a move subsist on bitter grapes awhile before sipping success’s fine wines.

Imagine the slings and arrows they would’ve taken, had moving up looked more like fellow Conference USA member Western Kentucky’s initial 26-game losing streak.

Feel good that more college football fans got an education. Yes, NCAA Division I has two football subdivisions, and yes, schools like Jax State have actually been Division I for nearly three decades.

No longer must Jax State fans answer the annoying question from fans of FBS programs, “Y’all are Division II, right?” Condescension now comes in terms like “Power 5” and “Group of 5.”

The feeler gooder feel-goods, though, go to Jax State’s players.

First, Jax State went from FCS’s 65-scholarship limit to FBS’s limit of 85, so 22 more players have scholarships. For those familiar with how exploding costs have turned getting a college education into a hunger game, that’s not nothing.

That makes 22 fewer people who’ll spend a lifetime paying off college debt, and those who portalled to a new start found one and achieved something meaningful.

The feeliest goodiest feel-goods go to that portion of the roster that predated Jax State’s FBS jump. A different coaching staff recruited them to a level where “going bowling” meant pins, gutters, cigarette scent and hair-band music.

For those under 20, consult the Google. Or just go bowling. There’s an app for that, but try the lanes life just once.

You’re welcome.

Gamecocks who knew Jax State when achievement came with strange letters like O-V-C and A-S-U-N didn’t just lay a foundation. They brick-and-mortar built a whole first level.

Achievement now comes with a strange sponsor name, followed by the name of a large city or instantly identifiable local staple — like “orange,” “sugar” or “rose” — and then an instantly coveted word.

“Bowl” comes with a trip and swag. It says first class, which is exactly where Jax State’s players felt like they sat on the plane, when Rodriguez grabbed the attendant’s phone and said the magic words.

“You’re going to a bowl,” he said after the Gamecocks’ flight back from their regular-season finale at New Mexico State landed. “You made history, guys!”

Those words fell on seventh-year senior safety and former walk-on Jeremiah Harris’ ears about like the word “scholarship” fell on them in 2019.

The promise of a bowl turned into reality a week later, when he and the rest of the Gamecocks (8-4) learned they will play Louisiana (6-6) on Dec. 16 in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl.

Maybe, someday, Jax State will, like Louisiana, essentially have its own bowl. Maybe not, but Jax State didn’t have a ready-made, down-the-road bowl eager to accommodate a home-grown team’s fans for the seventh time.

The Gamecocks got there by winning eight games in their first FBS season, then waiting out the last games of the last Saturday of regular-season play to see if they’d have an available bowl slot.

Harris will play the last of his school-record 58 Jax State games in the Caesars Superdome.

Speaking at Jax State’s bowl news conference Monday, Rodriguez joked that Harris has been around long enough to earn tenure. The reality is, Harris made it long enough to play in a bowl.

“Like he said, I’ve been here 30 years,” Harris said. “It’s a great feeling, coming here as a walkon in 2017, earning a scholarship and actually being (on) the first team to make it to a bowl game in school history. …

“I just want to get this win and make it the first bowl win ever in school history,”

Jax State seventh-year senior safety talks during the team’s bowl news conference Monday. (Photo by Joe Medley)
Jax State seventh-year senior safety talks during the team’s bowl news conference Monday. (Photo by Joe Medley)

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