Are you ready for some football?

Posted: Dec 28, 2004 12:00 AM

It's not every day a city achieves world prominence and takes a place among the world's household-name municipalities. But in 2005, Jacksonville, Fla., will go from being just another nice city with warm weather to the center of the world's attention, at least for a day. The Super Bowl will mean big things for Jacksonville. And Jacksonville's experience will prove once again that this most spectacular of events can bring all sides of the political aisle together for a moment of true magic.

 You see, whenever a Super Bowl comes to a town, the stars of the political, entertainment, sports and media universes come right along as well. And the impact that day will have is likely to accelerate and amplify every aspect of a host city's future. I know this well because I've been a witness to its impact and inner workings in one city, and have a unique perspective on what it will do for the 2005 host.

 By the time Atlanta hosted the Super Bowl in 2000, the city had already experienced one prior Super Bowl, not to mention the Olympic Games. Some of my readers understand that I live in Atlanta, but that my column is based where our family's other home is located -- Jacksonville.

 But in 2000, my wife and children had just moved into a brand-new home in an area of Atlanta known as Buckhead, and designed the place to entertain large groups without total destruction to the house. We felt pretty comfortable hosting the unofficial party for the state of Georgia's outreach to the entertainment community. We planned for perhaps 150 to 200 guests. But boy, did that change.

 The morning of the day before the game, Atlanta was hit with a sudden and unexpected ice storm. A tractor-trailer jackknifed on the city's main downtown connector, blocking almost everybody from the official NFL events. With the roads so icy, I felt certain I would be donating all of the catered food to a shelter and scrapping the party. Then the phone rang.

 Then-Congressman (soon to be U.S. Senator) Johnny Isakson was on the line -- he had all of the top GOP leadership from the U.S. House and their major donors in town for the Super Bowl -- with nowhere to go. ?Sure,? I said, ?bring them all.? Meanwhile, the invited guests arrived -- everyone from then-Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes to actress Jane Fonda. It was about then that the phone rang again. It was a top Democrat from D.C., ?The (Clinton) White House would really appreciate it if Dick Gephardt could bring the Democratic leadership and their donors over, as they can't get to the party they were supposed to attend.? Being a hospitable Southern gentleman, I readily invited the Democrats as well.

 Sound unbelievable? That's just the start of this story. By the end of the day (by Atlanta newspaper estimates), as many as 800 people -- everyone from NFL great John Elway to one of Frank Zappa's kids -- had jammed into my new house for what turned out to be the absolute living proof that during the Super Bowl, the lion and the lamb can sit side by side. And there wasn't an unhappy face in the place. Congressman Gephardt smiled and laughed right along with his Republican colleagues like J.C. Watts. And what was supposed to be a two-hour party turned into an all-day retreat from a raging storm where a world of prominent journalists partied with politicians and celebrities, and nobody put anything on the record.

 Well, almost. My dear friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich captured the whole essence of the party in a great cartoon, which ran Super Bowl Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But that was fine because, despite the fact he's liberal and I'm conservative, we never let politics mess up a great friendship.

 And so it shall be for Jacksonville. The Super Bowl is a chance for political views and personal feelings to be put aside. This beautiful, shimmering city on the St. John's River will soon be the center focus of the international community. It's smaller than Atlanta (in my mind a plus), still has a touch of true Southern charm (another big plus), and is about as pretty an area as there is on this earth. It's cleaner, too, and the city's growth is on fire. Conservative in its politics and entrepreneurial in its spirit, this area of Florida is perhaps the last and most precious jewel in the state to gain true world prominence.

 The day will soon arrive, on Feb. 6, 2005. And with it will come all of the types I described in what my wife and I will always remember as our greatest and last party. Well, maybe not the last. You see, we are thinking about having a few friends over to the house, say, the day before the Super Bowl. I just hope that doesn't mean the 100-year ice storm for Jacksonville!