JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The search for the most interesting -- and dangerous -- piece of Jacksonville Jaguars memorabilia took several months, got sidetracked by some strategic maneuvering and finally ended less than 100 yards from where it left its literal mark.
Leaning against the wall and tucked behind a stack of large framed photos in an office in the bowels of TIAA Bank Field was the double-bladed ax with the teal handle that bounced off a tree stump and ended up in punter Chris Hanson’s lower right leg.
As for why it’s there, 16 years after one of the most unusual injuries in NFL history, instead of ending up in a landfill or someone’s tool shed, well, that’s a matter of preserving the key piece of one of the most significant events in the franchise’s 25 seasons.
“It’s a part of Jaguars history, is it not?” asked Jeff Lageman, a member of the Jaguars' radio broadcast team and a former Jacksonville player (1995-98). “It’s a weird part, but it is a part of Jaguars history and Jaguars history should always be kept.”
Hanson might not feel the same way. He declined an interview request for this story.
Former coach and current ESPN analyst Jack Del Rio, who was responsible for putting the ax and tree stump in the locker room as a motivational ploy to “keep chopping wood,” also declined an interview request.
That’s understandable, as the incident 16 years ago this month didn’t exactly paint the franchise in the best light.
“I put my head in my hands [upon hearing about it],” said Brian Sexton, the Jaguars’ play-by-play broadcaster from 1995 to 2014 and now the senior correspondent for Jaguars.com. “At that point, now eight, nine seasons into this, I knew what an embarrassment this was for the franchise. I understood Jack wanted to make a point, but he put a weapon in the middle of the locker room.
“I joke all the time [that] football isn’t a game for well-adjusted men. Why didn’t you leave a gun? You see what I mean? Keep shooting. It was preposterous.”
Del Rio’s "keep chopping" message was fine. It was the execution that backfired.
"I'll find another slogan," Del Rio said at the time. "The message was understood. The thing was on its way out soon, but not soon enough. It was symbolic more than anything else."
The Jaguars were coming off three consecutive losing seasons, and owner Wayne Weaver had fired Tom Coughlin after the 2002 season and replaced him with Del Rio, a 12-year NFL linebacker who had been Carolina’s defensive coordinator for one season. He knew the Jaguars were in need of a bit of a rebuild and wanted to send a message of perseverance.
So he brought in the ax and an oak tree stump, put them in the middle of the locker room, and encouraged players to take a swing.
“We understood the meaning behind it,” said safety Donovin Darius, who played for the Jaguars from 1998 to 2006. “That’s why we welcomed it in there. NFL players are big kids anyway, and you bring a big toy in the locker room, we’re going to play around with it.
“I wasn’t surprised that guys were chopping the wood.”
Darius did, too. The day before Hanson’s accident, Darius took a swing -- and nearly split his own leg open.
“I have never swung an ax [until then],” Darius said. “It hit the wood and just barely missed my leg. It just barely missed me, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’
“I never touched that thing again.”
The next day, he walked into the locker room after practice and saw the bloodstained carpet near the stump and knew exactly what had happened. At the time, he didn’t know who had gotten hurt, but he knew it could potentially be pretty bad because of his experience.
“My first reaction was a flashback,” Darius said. “That could have been me the day before had it been one more inch closer to my leg.
“I just started to pray: ‘God, I thank you that it could have been me, and I hope that, whatever happened, that he recovers well and it’s not too bad.’”
Based on what Hanson’s agent Drew Rosenhaus told ESPN that day, Hanson and the other specialists were in the locker room early, and Hanson decided to take a swing with the ax. The ax either bounced off the stump or went through a piece of it, and the blade buried itself in Hanson’s right leg.
Moments later, then-head athletic trainer Mike Ryan was interrupted in a meeting by an assistant with the news. When Ryan got to the locker room, he saw Hanson sitting on the ground in a pool of blood.
“If you feel your shin, the skin’s really tight. So when you slice it, it expands very quickly,” Ryan said. “When I looked at it, the whole front of the shin was just flayed wide open."
Said Hanson in 2004, "I'm glad that's behind me. Sure, there were times when I sat there and wondered why it happened. But I owe it to the doctors and the Jaguars for fixing me. It's behind me. It's something that happened that wasn't controllable and I'm happy it's over with now."
In the nearly two decades since it happened, the story has evolved into Hanson nearly severing his leg. It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was pretty severe, Ryan said. He packed the wound with gauze, controlled the bleeding and stabilized the leg. They rushed Hanson to a local hospital, where he underwent surgery to repair the damage.
“Something like that, he could have bled out before he got to the parking lot,” Ryan said. “Chris remained very calm. For his part and his role in this accident, he did a perfect job, let me do my job [and] was cool as could be expected.”
The stump and ax were immediately removed from the locker room. Nobody is quite sure what happened to the stump, but the ax ended up in the hands of Mike Perkins, the director of football technology and facilities. He had purchased the ax and found the stump at Del Rio’s request, and he’s also the one who had the handle painted teal. Perkins stashed it in his office, and it has been there ever since.
Not many people, however, knew that. Most people inside the building, including players, assumed it got tossed in the garbage. As time passed and staff members, coaches and players changed, there were fewer and fewer people who even knew about the incident, let alone where the ax ended up.
“It disappears from consciousness when it can’t be seen,” Sexton said.
Sexton and Lageman knew, but neither wanted to divulge its location. There was even a little misdirection, some subtle nudging and innuendo that it had ended up on some rural property Lageman owns in Georgia. Lageman would neither confirm nor deny that, but he did admit that he could get a photo of it pretty quickly.
Both did admit to having seen the ax after the accident and say there’s still a faded bloodstain on the blade. It’s a little hard to see after 16 years, but there is something visible on the blade.
Several current and former Jaguars staffers and players said they had no idea where the ax was -- or didn’t want to admit to knowing -- but after several attempts, Perkins finally copped to having it. It took several months to get him to agree to go on the record about it.
Darius, though, didn’t seem to care.
“I never questioned to find out where it was because I definitely didn’t want to touch it,” he said. “There’s no treasure hunt with that one for me.”