JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – High above EverBank Field, a Jaguars fan ambles past concession stands. This man carries a beer in his left hand and a hot dog in his right. He’s not wearing a shirt, and the belly that completes his dad bod hangs over his…swim trunks. Yes, swim trunks.
In most NFL stadiums, this man would be arrested, detained or kicked outside. But this is not most NFL stadiums. This is Jacksonville’s football residence, home to the perennially rebuilding Jaguars, their frustrated fanbase and not one but two pools. Well, technically they’re spas, because they’re only about three feet deep.
Here, nobody mentions Colin Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem or concussions or record lows this season for NFL ratings. Here a man who has consumed a beer (or five) can stroll shirtless past any of the eight cabanas and their up to 200 occupants who paid for access to them and slide into a “spa” where the water temperature hovers around 90 degrees and a three-inch-thick glass partition provides the wettest viewing experience in pro football.
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Those swimmers will find Jason Caffey, 26, near the red lifeguard tower, where he earns $15 an hour supervising five other lifeguards at home Jags games, college football contests and private parties. Of all the jobs in football, his ranks among the oddest.
It’s an overcast morning in mid-November, about two hours before the Jaguars host the Houston Texans. The temperature clocks in at 71 degrees. This being Florida, Caffey wears sweatpants, a gray long-sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat decorated like the American flag, with stars and stripes. While snow blankets other regions of the United States, Caffey says something about how “cold” it is. Next to a pool. While wearing sunglasses.
“We have the best job in the NFL,” Caffey continues, and by that he means he oversees a pool party, watches his favorite NFL team and lands on TV often enough that his friends fill their social media accounts with screenshots.
Already this morning Caffey rendezvoused with his employees, drove to the stadium, smashed down an egg-and-bacon breakfast burrito and ran through the morning debrief. He asked his spa sentries to pay close attention to a particular cabana that asked if body paint was permissible in the pools, marking that group potentially as a rowdy one.
Caffey has worked as a lifeguard at nearby Jacksonville Beach since age 16, which was 11 years after the NFL named the Jaguars an expansion franchise in 1995. This is his third season at the spas, which have drawn almost as much attention as the middling Jaguars since they opened in 2014.
“I always tell people, we’ve got pools, man!” said Jacksonville’s all-time passing leader, Mark Brunell, in an interview last summer. “Nobody else has freaking pools!”
What the lifeguards don’t have are whistles, because that would violate NFL rules. The job is strange like that. One week, the pools are filled with sailors from the Navy who arrive clad in colonial garb. The next, a bachelor party shows up in American flag speedos, capes and with scuba gear affixed atop their heads.
The pools occupy the west and east corners of the north end zone, beneath the NFL’s longest video board, which runs a country mile. They’re part of a stadium section called FanDuelVille that opened last season and can hold up to 3,000 guests.
Mostly, Caffey and company spend their Sundays enforcing rules. Among them: do not swallow water, no animals, no food and beverage in or near the spa and no water wings, “swimmies,” one-sided flotation devices, inner tubes, inflatable boats, inflatable bathing suits or rafts. The crowds mostly follow the rules but not always, and Caffey can spot the troublemakers a football field away. They’re usually drunk and often in groups, encouraging each other to belly-flop into the pool or press their hairy, expanded stomachs against the glass. Thus Caffey is a lot like the Jaguars linebackers down there on the field, his head on a swivel, ready to pounce.
That process can be counterintuitive, says another lifeguard, Nicole Emerson. More children equals more actual lifeguarding. More adults means more babysitting.
With all that in mind, Coffey monitors the crowds that arrive an hour before kickoff. They’re clad in bikinis and tank tops and flip flops and more than a few Blake Bortles jerseys. He eyes a group of Texans fans who are wearing sombreros and fake mustaches and double-fisting drinks. They take pictures and leave—potential crisis averted.
Two men stand near the pool.
“How bad is this team?” one says.
“Bad,” his friend responds while shaking his head.
The first man changes the subject. “Are you a beer drink or a liquor guy?” he asks.
“I’m more of a whatever-is-available guy,” his friend responds. “Been that kind of season.”
The cabana guests take turns walking up to the pool, snapping Selfies, dipping their hands in to gauge the temperature. They dare each other to jump in. “I can’t,” says a 20-something woman, gesturing at the pool dismissively. “It’s just … weird.”
There’s a guy with a beard hanging down past his chest. A drum line down on the field. The team’s Prowl Walk through a tunnel onto the grass. Chants. A pre-game interview with Coach Gus Bradley that draws a round of boos. A fighter jet flyover. The national anthem. A fan bungee jump from the nosebleeds onto the field. This is the way games unfold in Jacksonville, with enough extras to keep fans engaged even if the team’s record is, as on this morning, 2–6.
At kickoff, a group of women in bikinis settle in the pool area, leaving their clear bags and high heels in a pile near the east pool. They’re from a modeling agency apparently, and while they aren’t paid to attend games at the pool, they say they do receive free tickets.
The models don’t notice as Bortles throws an interception on the Jaguars’ opening possession, which Texans cornerback Kareem Jackson returns for a touchdown and a 7–0 lead. They don’t notice the 14–10 advantage the Texans take into halftime. They don’t notice much of anything, really, as they take thousands upon thousands of pictures with fans and each other and even Caffey, the lifeguard who’s always on TV. Speaking of TV, they often jump into the pool during breaks in the action, hoping the cameras find them.
A man explains to the models that his friends rented the cabana for his birthday party. He wants—what else—a picture, and once it’s taken, he pushes his friend in. Another woman motions to her friend. “Once I’m drunk,” she says, “I’m getting in.”
The spa crowd mostly behaves itself, as Caffey looks on. One muscled 20-something gets booted from the pool for flipping off the crowd underwater. Another swims a few laps, splashing water on his friends. It’s surely the only stadium in America where the following sentence is actually uttered. Namely, my butt looks really bad in this bathing suit.
There are Mardi Gras beads. And pictures. Leopard-print bikinis. And pictures. The Red-Zone channel playing on a nearby big screen. And pictures! Did we mention pictures?
The atmosphere picks up after halftime, the energy fueled by beer and wine and vodka and another game in which the Jaguars are trailing. A hammered fan in a “Steelers football” T-shirt high-fives Caffey and nearly slips into the spa. A woman who identifies herself as Kim Barber calls Caffey “bossy” when he says she can’t bring her drink into the pool. Then she says the spa is “awesome.” Then she says, “But I don’t think kids should be in it. They, like, peeing!”
The Texans take a 24–13 lead on a 51-yard Nick Novak field goal in the fourth quarter, as Caffey notes that the pool has a state-of-the-art filtration system to assuage Barber’s concerns. Caffey eyes both the swimmers and the clock. A man leans against the glass and sticks his tongue out and runs it back and forth. The lifeguards warn him not to do that again and he starts playing for his friends. “You can’t show your breasts!” he yells. “I don’t even have breasts!” He hops out of the pool, flashes an awkward thumbs up and continues to drink.
The game ends—the Jaguars lose, 24–21—but the pool action does not. The fans are allowed to stay for two additional hours there in what the organization calls the Fifth Quarter. Caffey sits in the lifeguard chair as the team trudges off the field, into its home tunnel, where a reporter holds up seven fingers and says “seven weeks of this s— left” and a priest walks by shaking his head and an injured Texans lineman waits for an x-ray on his hand.
The last swimmer climbs out of the pool maybe thirty minutes after the final whistle, because it’s “cold” and there are drinks to be consumed. Caffey puts up the spa’s fence and stands guard between cabanas. Another successful NFL spa day will end soon, and he will recap with the other lifeguards over a beer—on dry land, presumably, but probably near a beach.
For Jacksonville’s lifeguards, shirtless Jags fans are never far away.