Stamp of Approval; Fan Mail Piles High for Appreciative Jaguars

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Byline: GENE FRENETTE

Matt Jones was a fifth-grader in Van Buren, Ark., when he decided for the first and only time in his life to write a fan letter.

Jones sent it to former NBA star Scottie Pippen, an Arkansas native and the second-most prominent player on the Chicago Bulls' six championship teams in the 1990s.

"I figured I'd have a better chance of getting an autograph from [Pippen] than Michael Jordan, so I wrote a letter, but I never got anything back," Jones said.

The Jaguars wide receiver doesn't recall being crushed about Pippen failing to honor his request. However, Jones does keep that story in the back of his mind now that his mailbox occasionally is filled with letters from fans wanting something from him.

"I know a lot of people will send stuff and not always get something back," Jones said. "It's cool to be able to do it for the little kids. You can't respond to everything, but you respond to some [mail]."

On the field, NFL players constantly are forced to make decisions in a short amount of time. When it comes to fan mail, especially for those players in high demand, the routine isn't a whole lot different.

The most popular Jaguars, often with the help of family members, will sift through hundreds or thousands of pieces of mail at various times of the year and decide which ones merit something -- an autographed card, personal appearance, etc. -- in return. It's not easy trying to meet all of the fans' requests. Quarterback Byron Leftwich still has boxes of mail in his office at home, placed in the order in which they were received, that he intends to respond to during the offseason.

"There's no real decision process. I just try to go through as many as I can," Leftwich said. "Some of the letters really touch you. My rookie year, I got all the fan mail back, but I haven't been able to do it all since then. I had 6,000 letters at the end of last year. Out of that, there's probably 2,500 that have self-addressed, stamped envelopes to send something back, and that makes it a lot easier.

"You name a place -- Japan, China, Mexico, London -- I've probably gotten a piece of mail from there. I don't feel right just signing something without reading what someone took the time to write. If a fan takes his time to send me a letter, out of respect, I can take my time to read it."

But there's not much free time, especially during the season, for Leftwich and higher-profile players to sort through fan mail. Many of the dozen-plus Jaguars interviewed for this story say they often wait until the offseason to respond to fans, though some take time on Tuesdays (a normal off day) if the volume is relatively light.

"If you wanted to actually keep up with all the requests you get, you'd need a full-time secretary," tight end Kyle Brady said. "Most of it is autographs [on player cards], but some guys get requests for jerseys, helmets, photographs. You have this auction, that charity event, that golf outing. The volume is unbelievable.

"Sometimes, you'll open up letters in the offseason that say, 'Could you please send a picture because our elementary school is having an auction to raise money for the library?' You're opening it up in February, and the auction was in October. You feel bad, but you could never possibly get to all of it, and I'm not even an elite player. Now for the Michael Vick-types, I don't know how they deal with it."

The higher the volume, the more likely a player will enlist or hire someone to sort through fan mail, placing them in categories ranging from a quick signature return to something that is discarded for a variety of reasons. Cornerback Rashean Mathis has his mother, Oletha, and sister, JeJuan, act as his mail screeners. Running back Fred Taylor used to have the daughter of football operations director Skip Richardson handle the duties before she went off to college.

"I don't bother with any [fan] mail that comes to my house or doesn't have a self-addressed stamped envelope," Taylor said. …

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