Micah Ross: The First "Jacksonville" Jaguar
As Micah Ross glanced around the field, he saw few faces looking back at him.
Coaches and staff milled about, ushering players off the field towards lunch and film while they begrudgingly stayed behind for a few extra minutes. Ross waited patiently for one of the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching staff to give him the go-ahead to run the 40-yard dash—which would of course require someone to notice him.
Three years removed from college and hoping to find a spot with a professional team, Ross was willing to wait for their attention. His first attempt with an NFL team had gone poorly thanks to a bout of food poisoning that stumbled his tryout with George Seifert and the Carolina Panthers. As disappointing as that was, it had the potential to be just a bump in the road.
This second workout, it was the important one. He knew it was simply a courtesy, a favor to his arena league coach, but it was a chance to join his hometown team.
Finally one scout offered the obligatory, “anytime you ready.”
Micah Ross had been ready; he’d been ready for three years, he’d been ready since falling in love with football and he’d been ready since his coach told him he’d have a small window to make a big impression.
He approached the start line and one last glance around confirmed that even with stopwatches in hands, most of those who hung back for the workout were still not paying attention. That was ok.
He took off, finished the dash and slowed to a jog as he turned back towards the assembled staff. This time, everyone was staring, stopwatches ready. They’d clocked him at 4.39 and now all—including head coach Tom Coughlin—were intrigued. The whole mood of the workout changed, recalled Ross. This time there was excitement as the scout marked his notes and looked back to Ross.
“Can you do that again?”
When Micah Ross was finishing his college basketball career, he had a decision to make; begin a professional ball career overseas or stay at Jacksonville University and play for the school’s first football team while he finished his remaining classes. While at JU, Ross had been a top scorer and two time MVP. He had the resume to pursue a professional career. But the overseas career though would have taken him Bosnia, in the midst of a civil war. Football would have meant staying home and staying in shape for another basketball opportunity.
“I decided, it wasn’t a lot of money, it was only one offer so I decided to stay in Jacksonville,” Ross recounted for Jaguar Report.
“It was kinda to stay in shape for basketball and once I started it was kinda like ‘huh, think I’m gonna keep football.’”
A training camp stint with the Iowa Barnstormers ended and Ross returned home to Jacksonville to work. When the city began an af2 arena league team the following year—the Jacksonville Tomcats—Ross decided to give the sport another shot. He made the team…only to quickly be injured and sidelined for the year. His second year with the Tomcats, the wide receiver put together a season that impressed his coach enough to set up the NFL workouts. It was more than anything Ross had even dreamed was possible.
He’d spent years working in the city’s Municipal Stadium, peaking Florida-Georgia games then eventually Jacksonville Jaguar games from his post at the concession stands. He felt at home there in that stadium, in his native city, and although the Jags were still a relatively young team (six years at that point), the weight of what that particular uniform would mean wasn’t lost on Ross. Just like his hometown team, he was young, scrappy and hungry and determined to make this dream come true.
A week after he grabbed the attention of the coaching staff, his phone rang. The Jags were going to sign him. The Jaguars media guide in 2002 described Ross by referencing that initial workout, saying he, “came out of nowhere, impressing during a short 12-day stint with the team late in training camp.”
He made it to the final cut before being released in the offseason, but was told to stay ready because he was most likely going to be a practice squad guy. But during a career that had already seen twists and turns, even that wasn’t going to be easy.
“9/11 happened so everything’s on halt. We [were] kinda waiting around, I go back to my high school (Andrew Jackson High School), I’m teaching there, kinda helping them with football, coaching a little bit. And lo and behold, midway through the season, they give me the call and sign me to the practice squad.”
Signed the day before Halloween, Ross spent the next four games on the practice squad. Then on December 8, R. Jay Soward was suspended and Ross’ phone rang again. He hopped a late flight to Cincinnati to meet the team there and was officially promoted to the 53-man roster. The next day, he trotted out on the field for the first play of the game in his first NFL game. He was supposed to simply be a blocker on kickoff return. But instead he got a much more memorable welcome to the league.
“We had one returner deep and I was one of the up-men. They had been kicking it deep for the last five weeks so we had game planned, I was gonna be one of the lead blockers. And just so happen, our first kickoff and they pooch kicked it.
“I get it, I catch it. It’s short, not a lot of blocking, I break a few tackles, get out to like the 45-yard line, people all excited, I’m excited, I’m like ‘yea!!’ We end up getting points out of that drive. It was just amazing being on that field and being in that position.”
The Jaguars won that game, and their next one in Cleveland where Ross returned his longest kickoff of his first season for 25-yards. After another road win, this time against the Minnesota Vikings, Ross and the Jaguars finally return home. This was the day he’d been waiting for.
His family and friends packed the stands. His mom, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, high school teammates, college teammates, his oldest son. All there to see the moment for which Ross—and by extension his Jacksonville family—had been waiting.
‘We come back home and we play our last home game, play Kansas City and oh my gosh, it was fun seeing everybody and I had dreamed at that point of playing for my hometown team and run out of the tunnel and be a part of it.
“I remember it like it was yesterday even though at this point it was almost 20 years ago.”
He remembers it so well in fact, that he can’t help but laugh—and cringe—when recalling his first play on the banks of the St. John’s River.
“Got absolutely destroyed,” he laughs.
“Playing Kansas City and it was like a sea of red helmets were just all over the top of me. But still it was at home.”
Home; that’s what made it special for Micah Ross and subsequently for the Jacksonville Jaguars. There had been natives make the training camp roster before but Ross was the first hometown kid to make the 53-man roster. In a way, it made him the first true Jacksonville Jaguar.
“I always tell guys, film everything, document everything. Because that’s one thing I wish I would’ve done a little bit more, like during my time here, I remember guys having video cameras and I wish I would’ve done more of that. Cause it’s only a once in a lifetime thing. You only get one chance to be a rookie and to be a rookie from the state of Florida, come back to Duval County and start building a legacy professionally…”
But he hasn’t been the last. Just this offseason, the Jaguars selected Shaquille Quarterman, a Miami Hurricane linebacker who is a Jacksonville native. When drafted, Quarterman told reporters seeing the 904 area code ring on his phone made the entire process more special.
“It’s an awesome blessing to play for any team in the NFL,” said Quarterman, “but being able to stay home is just a different feeling. It’s a very different feeling. I’m just so happy that I had the opportunity to do it, because to be honest most people don’t get the chance to do that. Representing the brand has always been a thing for me, especially Jacksonville with that 904. I’ve been throwing my fours up since I got to college. I’m excited.”
Ross knows that feeling as well. He knows that nothing can compare to playing at home. He knows that Quarterman already is understanding the blessing it can bring. Yet having been there, he also knows playing at home can come with pitfalls. That’s the area of advice Ross wants to pass on to the young linebacker.
“Keep your circle small and enjoy the moment. Keep your circle small is the biggest thing. Because there are so many people that expect you to do them—they’ll want everything. But I’m excited for him. He’s a great player…I think I actually coached against him when I was Atlantic Coast and he was at Oak Leaf.
“An outstanding player and he has all the talent in the world and I say he’s gonna be a star in Jacksonville for a time to come.”
When that circle can be made up of those that care about you the most though, it can turn a career into a lifetime experience.
Ross went on to play three years with the Jaguars before finishing his playing career with the San Diego Chargers and eventually the Carolina Panthers. Then he returned home, becoming a high school teacher and coach in Jacksonville. A during the season, it is TIAA Bank Field where he finds himself most weekends.
One of 30 members of the Jaguars Ambassadors—a group of former players who spent at least two years with the team—he attends each home game with his sons. He watches from the box and rocks during the National Anthem, a visceral muscle memory that knows the song means it’s game time. He follows the team closely and before kickoff, he stands just outside the concession stands where he worked all those years ago, and now signs autographs, takes pictures and interacts with fans as a former Jaguar…and hometown star.
“I’m not the best ever but it was awesome being the first locally born player, first from Jacksonville to play for the Jags.”