By Jim Gehman, Player Engagement Insider
A member of the original 1995 expansion Jacksonville Jaguars, Bryan Barker also founded the Jaguars Alumni Group Ambassadors in 2004.
A 16-year veteran of the NFL with Kansas City, Philadelphia, Washington, Green Bay, St. Louis, as well as Jacksonville, Barker, an All-Pro punter, reflected back to 1990, his rookie season with the Chiefs, to assure that Jacksonville’s alumni wouldn’t be thought of as just guys who used to play for the Jaguars.
These were men who chose to make their post- NFL homes in the area and cared for the community. And, realizing that not everything they’d need to know is written in a playbook, the alumni were also willing to mentor current players.
“The Chiefs had an ambassadors program that was fantastic for me,” Barker said. “To have a group of former players in Kansas City that are all doing different things in the community in terms of post-career work and their network that they were a part of – if you needed a car, they can steer you to friendly dealers. If you were looking to build a house or buy a house, they’d steer you in the right direction. I just really never forgot about the Chiefs Ambassadors.”
Barker, and former Jaguars linebacker Jeff Kopp, took the idea to model a program after the Chiefs Ambassadors to former Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver and his wife, Delores.
“They thought it was fantastic,” Barker said. “So, I worked with (former tight end) Walter White, one of the Chiefs Ambassadors, and took all of the positive things that they put in place and put our little twist on it. Where the Chiefs Ambassadors are more on a not-for-profit, they do a lot more as a group. We are not an official group.”
While not an official group, the Jaguars Alumni Group (JAG) Ambassadors, a group of 38 former Jaguars who live in the Jacksonville area, serve as a goodwill extension of the team by being involved with the community, charities, the organization and the fans.
“I think each former Jaguars player thinks of the Ambassador program differently,” said Barker, who directs the program. “Some are in business and see it as a tremendous opportunity to network in the business community. Some see it as a way to stay connected with what was such a big part of their lives in terms of keeping a foot in the door, having access to the stadium and the team.
“And then we have some former Jaguars players that there’s really no interest in participating because life is good. And that’s fine. I think the best part of our program is that it’s not mandatory. It really is completely voluntary and we truly enjoy what we’re doing.
“In a nutshell, (the primary objective of the JAG Ambassadors is) to be a resource for the Jaguars organization. A lot of us that started the group were original Jaguar players, so the city really identified with us, recognized us more so than the current players because there was so much attention given to us, I was here six years, and we had a tremendous amount of success. Two AFC Championship Games in the first five years. It was pretty phenomenal.
“Our goal is to support the Jaguars organization in the stadium, be mentors for the current players, be a resource for the current coaches, and also to be available to support the organization in the community throughout the year. We currently do over 100 appearances a year on behalf of the Jaguars as retired players. A lot of time it’s because the current players aren’t available during the season. We’re part of the family, but we’re just not wearing the helmets on the field anymore.”
Well, almost not on the field anymore. Before each home game, the JAG Ambassadors can be found at multiple locations around the stadium signing autographs for fans. They then take the field an hour before kickoff mingling and taking photos with the team’s V.I.P guests. During the game, Barker sees that at least two Ambassadors visit each suite.
“It’s really a fantastic part of the game-day experience,” Barker said. “We get to walk in and surprise people, and entertain the guests that they have in their suite and talk about the good old days, and thank them for supporting the organization and the team on the field.
“For our group, what’s fantastic about Jacksonville is we have former Jaguars as coaches, we have former Jaguars in the booth for radio, we have former Jaguars in front of the TV cameras broadcasting, we have a former Jaguars player as the team chaplain and then we have our ambassador group.
“We’ve been doing this for several years,” Barker said. “But at a time when there was a lot of discussion about how to re-engage with the retired players to steer clear of all the tragedies we’ve seen over the years, we, I think in Jacksonville, are doing extremely well. It’s a tribute to the Weavers originally, and to (current Jaguars owner) Shad Khan and Mark Lamping, the (Jaguars) president. We’ve really been supported by the ownership and management. They’ve done a fantastic job of including and engaging with the alumni.”