Jaworski taking 2nd shot at title in Big Easy

July 27, 2008 6:43:23 AM PDT
Here's one "Jaws" sequel Ron Jaworski hopes ends up better than the original. Jaworski's last trip to New Orleans with a championship on the line was a dud. The Philadelphia Eagles lost the Super Bowl to Oakland and one of the great quarterbacks in franchise history never made it back.

Now Jaworski has another football title at stake in the Big Easy. He's traded calling plays in the huddle for calling the shots from the front office as the team president of the Arena Football League's Philadelphia Soul. In only their fifth season, the Soul have reached the ArenaBowl in New Orleans and Jaworski expects to end with the kind of victory celebration he was painfully denied 27 years ago.

"We're going to win," said the always affable Jaworski.

Jaworski, nicknamed "Jaws," can only watch from the luxury box Sunday when the Soul play the San Jose SaberCats in ArenaBowl XXII. The SaberCats are the defending ArenaBowl champs and are making their fourth appearance in the title game in seven seasons. While the SaberCats are the New England Patriots of the AFL, the Soul are the marquee team in the high-scoring league thanks to their rock star co-owner, Jon Bon Jovi.

And if the Soul win, there will be a parade next week through downtown Philadelphia.

Sure, that's as routine as a walk through Faneuil Hall in a city like Boston. But in suffering, miserable Philadelphia, none of the four major professional sports teams has won a championship since the 76ers in 1983.

"The mayor's office would like to do it and we'd like to do it," said Jaworski, of a parade. "I almost get a little nervous just thinking about it. I don't want to get too far ahead."

Jaworksi's best shot at triumphantly riding down Broad Street came in 1980 when he led the Eagles to the brink of their first Super Bowl win against the rough-and-gruff Raiders. Led by coach Dick Vermeil, Jaworksi, running back Wilbert Montgomery and wide receiver Harold Carmichael, the Eagles wiped out nearly two decades of futility since the franchise won its third and final NFL championship in 1960.

The Eagles won 11 of their first 12 games - including a 10-7 victory over the Raiders on Nov. 23 - and clinched the NFC East on the last day of the season. They knocked off division nemesis Dallas in the NFC championship game and team owner Leonard Tose was so excited he threw the Eagles an extravagant party.

Once the Eagles landed in New Orleans to practice for the Jan. 25, 1981, game at the Louisiana Superdome, the party stopped. The Raiders drank, caroused and celebrated with gusto all over Bourbon Street. Vermeil refused to budge from his normal preparation, holding long practices and keeping the focus solely on the game.

The Eagles were mentally spent and had little time to enjoy the Super Bowl atmosphere. They still point to that as one reason why they opened flat and Jaworski threw three interceptions in a 27-10 loss.

"It still haunts me, there's no question," Jaworski said. "I played the game to be the very best, not as an individual, but as a team. Our goal was to be a champion. That still bothers me that we had one opportunity and we didn't get it done."

Jaworski's message this week to the Soul was a simple one: get it done.

"We just don't want to get here. We want to win," Jaworksi said. "In the Super Bowl, we were not quite focused on winning it. It's great to be here, but we want to walk out of here with the ArenaBowl championship."

The Soul were mostly known until this season as Bon Jovi's side project, like the movies he dabbles in when his band isn't on another worldwide tour. He wore the team's jersey on stage and played concerts for season-ticket holders to bolster enthusiasm for a team that has found a successful niche in a loaded sports market.

Still, Bon Jovi and Jaworski are known more around town than anyone on the Soul.

"We treat them as if they're just two guys in the locker room," said coach Bret Munsey. "They do so much for us, but they just want to be a part of it and fit in. They don't want to be the focal point all the time. We're trying to take some of that away from them."

Bon Jovi agonized as an owner over the postseason disappointments more than he ever did rooting for the New York Giants.

So last offseason, Jaworski and Munsey were part of a group that met at Bon Jovi's house to decide what moves needed to be made to turn the Soul into a title winner. The answers were finding a true No. 1 receiver and a solid quarterback to back up injury-prone Tony Graziani.

They signed free-agent Chris Jackson and he led the AFL with 49 touchdown catches and was second in receptions (140) and yards (1,719). Sure enough, Graziani was hurt and former ArenaBowl MVP Matt D'Orazio stepped in to throw for 3,331 yards and 72 touchdowns (with only four interceptions).

The duo helped the Soul (13-3) win their first nine games and the Eastern Division title.

Jaworksi talked with Munsey about his shuttered experience the first title time around in New Orleans. They let the Soul go without a curfew on Wednesday night, but they were expected to have one every other night.

"We wanted to give the guys their freedom," Jaworksi said. "They're a real professional group of players. We felt they understood the magnitude of the game."

The one man who did bolt out of town was their coach. No fine for this absence, though. Munsey left the team Thursday morning when his wife went into labor and gave birth to their first child, Graden Thomas. He was back later that night and will be on the sideline against the SaberCats.

Two weeks after his band performed a free concert in Central Park, Bon Jovi also will be in New Orleans. Jaworksi said the multiplatinum rocker is ready for his team to take top billing.

"He's nervous because we've won football games when he's been touring, and he says if we do lose this game, he's going to blame himself," said Jaworski, chuckling.

Most of the players on the Soul weren't even born in 1980 when Jaworski's career was blossoming. They probably don't even realize Jaworski was in the same nerve-racking position they are in the same city and with a title game ahead. He just hopes his AFL team can win a championship in New Orleans and ease his memories of the Eagles' defeat.

"It hangs with me now," Jaworski said. "We felt we were a very good football team, a young football team, and we would be back. We would get our retribution."

Twenty-seven years later, Philly is still waiting for that Super Bowl win. An AFL title would be nice in the meantime.


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