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Home, Where the Heart Is

July 17, 2006
July 17, 2006

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July 17, 2006

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Home, Where the Heart Is

Joe Jurevicius is thrilled that he'll be playing in front of family and friends for his beloved Browns in 2006, but that joy is tempered by a loss he'll feel forever

This is everyboy's dream, assuming you're the kind of boy who'd watch the Browns on TV inyour parents' garage, the door open to simulate stadium seating in 20° weather,eat dog bones when Earnest Byner scored, then run out to the curb barking likea fool, or rather, like the hundred or so other kids on your street howling atthe same Cleveland moon just climbing out of Lake Erie in Sunday'ssnot-crackling dusk. How many of those kids, out of that vast, howling,adolescent Dawg Pound, dared dream of wearing that orange helmet? Most? All?How many of them ever got to pull on that brown jersey and run onto the field,their family and old schoolmates woof-ing from the stands in 20° weather?One?

This is an article from the July 17, 2006 issue Original Layout

Maybe just JoeJurevicius, a man seemingly so charmed that his fellow Lithuanians ought toconsider his likeness in place of the Vytis, the White Knight coat of arms thathas historically represented their national heroism. Jurevicius (who indeed hasthe Vytis tattooed on his right biceps) is just one of those guys for whomthings seem to fall into place. He is entering his ninth NFL season, wellbeyond the requirements of a successful career, and while he's not going to beconfused with Jerry Rice (maybe not even with Browns teammate Braylon Edwards),he has been both good enough and lucky enough to play for three Super Bowlteams, which is about three more than most players.

And now here heis, signed away from the Seattle Seahawks (Super Bowl team III) as a free agentin March, trying on the orange and brown, imagining himself catching passes,just like his man Webster Slaughter two decades ago. Was it that long ago (yes,it was) that Jurevicius and his dad would go down the street to LakelandCommunity College to watch the Browns' training camp? He met Dave Logan whilein kindergarten! Shook Greg Pruitt's hand! At Lake Catholic High in Mentor heran his routes as if Brian Sipe were delivering the bombs.

Let's try to putit another way, for you folks who don't live in Cleveland. Jurevicius rememberscoming home during a bye week at Penn State--this was during that strangethree-year period when Cleveland was without a team--and realizing that thefans were nevertheless tailgating at old Municipal Stadium. "On Fridaynight!" he says. And he remembers a guy tooling around in an orange Chevy,white stripes down the middle, the top down, brown flags flapping in the wind.Jurevicius, no slouch when it comes to devotion, was impressed. Buddy, hethought, you have no team.

So imagine hishomecoming--the whole extended clan in the stands, uncles, nieces, agrandmother who made it out of the Displaced Persons camps all those years ago,the gang from the Lithuanian club on East 185th Street. Imagine the friends inthe stands as well and even those fans from Lake Catholic who'd pestered hismother for tickets to high school games 15 years ago. You don't have to be aCleveland fan to recognize the miracle of Jurevicius's return. Back in Tampa(Super Bowl team II) Jurevicius was flabbergasted to see that the kids at TheAngelus, a charitable outfit to which he lends his name and time, had dogbiscuits on the trays of their wheelchairs when he showed up for a visit."They don't even know who the Cleveland Browns are," he says,laughing.

To watchJurevicius play football--tall and rangy, catches everything he touches--is notto understand him. Well, it is, a little bit. He's exactly the blue-collarathlete you'd expect from a long line of Cleveland factory workers. He workshis position like an assembly-line station. "Dependability," saysBrowns general manager Phil Savage, describing Jurevicius' appeal. "Someoneto be a mentor to Edwards and a fairly young receivers corps. And, you know, hedid score 10 touchdowns last year."

The Browns needevery touchdown they can get, but Jurevicius is hardly the kind of player teamsare built around. It wasn't until last year that he started more than ninegames or scored more than four touchdowns in a season. In fact, looking at hisnumbers, it's hard to see why teams might get excited about him, especiallywhen age (31) and infirmity (knee and back problems caused him to miss 17 gamesin 2003 and '04, and he was placed on the NFL scrap heap; he signed withSeattle for the veteran's minimum in '05) are factored in.

Yet he does win,he does make big plays. He finished off last season, probably his best, with aSuper Bowl haul of five catches for 93 yards. And in Tampa they're stilltalking about his 71-yard catch-and-run that helped the Bucs upset thePhiladelphia Eagles in the NFC title game in January 2003. But let's say youwere watching Jurevicius play in that particular game. Well, no way youunderstand him.

In that game, andin the Super Bowl that followed a week later in San Diego, Jurevicius was morethe bewildered young man--as much puzzled as wounded by destiny--than an NFLwide receiver. The circumstances were extreme, of course, his prematurely bornson, Michael, lying in a prenatal-care unit thousands of miles away, dying of arare cell disease. But then Jurevicius is by his nature given more to quietreflection. Just the way he is.

Take hunting.Jurevicius preferred fishing as a young man, until Kerry Collins, his teammatewith the New York Giants (Super Bowl team I), lured him into a Carolina treestand, just to see if he liked it. "You're just standing there,"Jurevicius says, "and a cardinal lands on your foot." He liked it andembarked on a series of hunts, working his way up to big game on the easterncape of South Africa last year. He became serious enough about hunting that heand John Howell, his teammate in Seattle and Tampa Bay, went in together on a60,000-acre working cattle ranch in Nebraska, where they, and eventually theirwell-heeled clients, can scour the sand hills around the Dismal River forelk.

Not that he won'tshoot a bear, a hog, a turkey, but you quickly realize Jurevicius would rathersee a cardinal on his boot than a mule deer in his sights. Does he havetrophies on his wall? Does he ever! But he's prouder of his growing collectionof black-and-white vintage photographs of old-time hunters. "You got TeddyRoosevelt out in the savanna," he says, "wearing a coat and tie."There's a trophy. Later he admits that what he really loves about hunting isnot so much the killing but what comes after. "The campfires," he says."I love the campfires."

Jurevicius isoddly drawn to his history, whether it's gentle nostalgia for an old Brownsteam or pestering his grandparents for more information about the camps they'dbeen placed in by the Soviets who occupied Lithuania after World War II, beforethe family emigrated to the U.S. more than a half century ago. His mother,Laima, was always surprised at his curiosity. "You needed a story line forJoe," she says. "He always wanted to know exactly what they had whenthey came, stuff like that." Jurevicius even pestered one grandmother intopromising him the trunk she brought over, filled with old black-and-whitephotographs, the things they carried. "I really wanted that," hesays.

For a manprotective of his ancestry, this homecoming is doubly rewarding. He's lookingforward, for the first time in his adult life, to spending Kucios with hisfamily. The Christmas Eve feast, with its all-fish menu, is the most importantcelebration on the Lithuanian calendar. "I'll host," says Jurevicius."I'm pretty excited. Midnight mass, you leave an empty plate for passedfamily members.... I haven't had Kucios forever."

Any tradition thathelps you deal with empty plates is probably a good one. Jurevicius has acupboard of those plates, like we all do, his lineage receding into familyhistory one old uncle at a time. He's just more insistent than most when itcomes to tethering their memories--black-and-white photographs, a grandmother'sstory of her crossing, old linens in a chest.

When his son diedjust before he was 10 weeks old--Michael was born a month premature in January2003 with infantile sialidosis, a disease characterized by the body'sdifficulty in breaking down fats and carbohydrates--Jurevicius set out to honorthat empty plate as best he could. The ordeal had been horrifying. Jureviciushas a hard time even now walking past a hospital door, seeing a father's headburied in his hands. But it was complicated by the demands of his job.Jurevicius was keeping his grim vigil as he prepared for a Super Bowl. He hadno desire to play football, he showed up for the media-day hullabaloo with ahospital bracelet still on his wrist, yet was almost grateful for therequirement. "He was fighting," Jurevicius says of his son. "Icould do the same thing."

Jurevicius caughtfour passes for 78 yards in that Super Bowl, the Bucs beating the OaklandRaiders easily. Michael died in a St. Louis hospital two months later and wasburied in Cleveland, the Vytis chiseled onto his tombstone.

Of course a lot ofplates are full, too, in his household. Joe and his wife, Meagan, have adaughter, Caroline, nearly two, whom he can't stop bouncing on his knee. "Ican't put her down," he says. It's not as if life doesn't go on. There'salways a hunting trip--he recently went looking for brown bear inManitoba--another family get-together or the season itself. For that matter,there are a lot of kids who can use his fund-raising might. In Tampa,Jurevicius got involved with the March of Dimes and Charlie's Lodge, a retreatassociated with The Angelus foundation, financed by country singer CharlieDaniels for kids and adults with cerebral palsy. "They can't talk, can'tlift their heads," Jurevicius says of the kids he sees. "All they cando is smile." Sometimes they're strapped to ponies and led on a gentle lap;other times, perhaps to honor a benefactor, they motor around with dog biscuitson their trays.

Michael is alwayson his mind, though, and he finds himself charting an unforgiving time line."He'd be three years old now," Jurevicius says suddenly, even though hehad vowed he wasn't going to talk about his son for the sake of a story."He'd be running around." This chronology will never offer him relief,just a deepening and devastating regret. Soon Michael would be starting school,making the team, kissing his first girl. There's an empty plate for you.

"He's burieddown the street," Jurevicius says. "It's another reason I came back. Igo there every morning, and I try to get there every evening." There istime to mark, events to discuss, but other things too. Things a dad does. Theday before, he'd gone turkey hunting, and although he didn't bag one, he didfind two big feathers that he had been carrying in his truck, tucked under acap. Some trophies, huh. "Those? I'll be putting those on Michael's gravetonight," he says, looking them over, quickly admiring their perfection."Give him something to do."

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Jurevicius finds himself charting an unforgiving timeline. "He'd be three now," he says of Michael. "He'd be runningaround."
PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes JCREW
When he suits up in the brown and orange this season, Jurevicius will have thebacking of scores of Cleveland-area relatives.
PHOTOTOM CAMMETT/WIREIMAGE.COMPHOTOBOB ROSATO EXTRAORDINARY JOE
Though not flashy, Jurevicius has been a key part of Super Bowl teams in NewYork, Tampa and Seattle.
PHOTOJOHN BIEVER  [SeeCaption Above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVER  [SeeCaption Above]PHOTOBILL FRAKES EMBRACED
Meagan and Joe welcomed daughter Caroline's arrival nearly two years ago. SaysDad, "I can't put her down."