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DECORAH, Ia. – Josey Jewell's football story really begins with his hard-headed Irish grandfather.
Robert Jewell was a star fullback at Decorah High School whose big plans of playing for Iowa were excised along with the brain tumor that nearly killed him. Surgeons were able to keep Robert alive in February 1947, but they clipped a nerve in the process, impairing his balance and leaving him deaf in one ear. They told him he’d never reach 60 years of age.
Robert proved them wrong, hanging around to see 87.
Robert and Josey Jewell are linked by blood and temperament and childhood dreams.
Throughout Josey’s childhood, breakfast at his grandparents was a daily routine. There, he listened to Robert lecture about the value of hard work and sling verbal barbs at the young and old alike. Josey was a favorite target, and he learned to give as good as he got. He had inherited his grandfather’s stubbornness, if not necessarily his interest in farm chores.
Josey also got Robert’s strength and football prowess. And one more thing – an unquenchable need to defy everyone who tried to tell him what he couldn’t do.
It’s what pushed Josey Jewell all the way to Iowa City despite the absence of big-time recruiters. It’s what enabled Jewell to barge into the Hawkeyes’ starting lineup at middle linebacker, where he’ll be the focal point of the team this fall, a Jewell shining in black and gold after all.
Josey grew up a half-mile from his grandfather. And he feels even closer to the proud farmer now that he’s dead.
Every time Josey steps on to the Kinnick Stadium turf, he hears Robert Jewell’s voice. Whenever Josey sees an eagle flying around their Upper Iowa River valley homestead, he imagines his grandfather’s spirit.
“I think about that sometimes, that I’m playing for my grandfather,” Jewell said, "that I’m living the dream he couldn’t."
But there is another reality about to bear down on Jewell.
Taking the next step in his football journey means defying even his beloved grandfather.
Just shy of his fourth birthday, Josey was determined to help his father, Bob, move an auger. Bob let him push on the tire of the machine, which wasn’t running. Josey laid on the tire, whose momentum took him along for the ride, pitching him on to his shoulder and squashing his wrist. Josey broke two metacarpal bones, requiring a pair of surgeries. “I honestly thought I’d ruined his football career,” Bob said, acknowledging that was an odd direction for his mind to go at that moment. In the hospital waiting room, Bob looked up and saw a TV story about the Hawkeyes hiring a new football coach. It was Kirk Ferentz. “I thought maybe, just maybe, Josey could play for this guy some day,” Bob said.
Bob Jewell played football at Decorah in the mid-1970s and drew some mild small-college interest, but he mainly wanted to help his dad Robert tend the family acreage and start a family of his own. He married former classmate Paula Pilgrim, a state champion distance runner in high school en route to a teaching career, and together they had four children.
All of them were born on holidays – Jess on Labor Day 1985, Samantha on Mother’s Day 1989, Robby on Thanksgiving 1991.
The youngest arrived on Christmas Day 1994. Bob helped deliver the boy. "I've delivered plenty of calves, and he's just another beef animal," Bob reasoned.
They named him Josey, after the terse vigilante portrayed by Clint Eastwood in the 1976 movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
“The Outlaw” was an obvious nickname for a kid who would play in a cowboy hat so big that it obscured his eyes. But Jewell kept collecting other monikers.
From his family: “Baby Jesus.” (“Although I never heard Jesus drop the F-bomb like Josey does,” Bob joked.)
From his father: “Stonehead.” (“He’s got the hardest head I’ve ever seen on a human being,” Bob said.)
From his high school teammates: “The All-American.” (A sure way to get everyone laughing at a tense moment in the huddle.)
From childhood friend James Ostlie: “The Prince of Decorah.” (“He’s kind of putting Decorah on the map,” Ostlie explained. “But I never call him that to his face. Never.”)
The nicknames are a way to get under Jewell’s skin, much like his grandfather used to do. Anyone who knows Jewell is aware that he is wired to resist any hint of flamboyance. He has always been the quiet Jewell.
“Stoic,” Paula said. “That’s the perfect word.”
The three oldest Jewell kids were standout athletes at nearby Luther College. Jess excelled at track and field; Samantha played basketball; Robby was on the football and baseball teams.
Josey was the most gifted, more consumed by athletics, and it was obvious early. Paula recalls her youngest son transfixed by a Nintendo football game.
“It looked like he was studying it more than playing it,” she said.
Josey tagged along with Robby throughout his childhood, always testing himself against his brother and older cousins and friends. Robby didn’t mind. It made them both better, he said.
The family would stage annual football games for Robby’s birthday, complete with goal posts and Bob and Paula wearing referee uniforms.
“Josey always had that rough-and-tumble demeanor about him,” Bob said. “Always, one of Robby’s friends would end up in tears because Josey hit him. It seemed like he was born to play football.”
Jewell played every sport in its season through high school – football, basketball, track and baseball, which was his second-best sport. He brought a certain ferociousness to the diamond, as well.
Gavin Nimrod remembers facing Jewell in Little League.
“I was afraid to stand in (the batter’s box),” Nimrod said. “He threw hard, and he didn’t know where it was going.”
The Jewells once had a dog on their farm that was known for biting. Bob used to watch Josey in the mornings while Paula taught school, and one day the dog scraped the boy’s cheek with its fang, drawing blood. Josey, then 4 years old, cried, which was a rare occurrence. The next morning, Bob saw Josey and the dog in a standoff, nose to nose. He watched, ready to intervene. “It seemed like it lasted an eternity,” Bob said. “And Josey finally says – and he had a deep voice for a young kid – ‘Bite me.’ The dog turned and walked away.” Maybe some people are born to be linebackers.
The farm has been in the Jewell family since the late 19th century. It encompasses some rough terrain, timberland mixed with ravines, a muddy morass during rainy spells. The family grows corn, alfalfa or hay, tends to 150-200 head of beef cattle at one time and gets at least one batch of 18,000 turkeys each year. Robby and Josey spent much of their childhood repairing fencing.
“Usually, it’s a hot, humid day, and there’s mosquitoes and brush. It’s just not a pleasant job,” Bob Jewell said.
Robby was always the more eager farmer, perhaps feeling more responsibility as the older son. He still lives there, helping his father and intending to inherit the land and the labor. Josey never shirked his chores, but he didn’t always embrace them either. That’s when his grandfather would needle him.
“It was built in me to be a farmer, and it was built in Josey to play football,” Robby said. “Maybe Josey will come back (to Decorah to live). Me and dad have always hoped that he would. But that’s totally up to him. I’m doing what I love to do and so I don’t ask any questions about that.”
When not farming, the Jewell brothers would spend hours fishing in the Upper Iowa. Smallmouth bass mostly. Their grandfather showed them how, and later their mother would come down and help them bait their hooks and then go read a book in the shade while they cast their lines.
Fishing remains Josey’s favorite pastime. The quickest way to get him into a conversation is to ask about his latest trip.
Otherwise he lives by this philosophy: “I don’t talk a lot unless it needs to be said. I’m not going to waste words if it’s not needed.”
Jewell always wanted to be a little bigger than he was. Ostlie recalled that, during weigh-ins before their sophomore football season at Decorah, Jewell was determined to exceed 200 pounds. Never mind that he was probably 10 pounds shy of that mark. A new assistant coach was in charge of the weigh-ins, using a big scale that seemed more at home on a farm. Ostlie stood behind Jewell and surreptitiously put his foot on the scale, while the coach watched in wide-eyed amazement as the reading reached 205 pounds. So that’s what Jewell was listed at.
Jewell moved into the Vikings’ varsity starting lineup as a sophomore, weight be damned. He was a fullback and linebacker. His coach, Bill Post, was never sure what to make of Josey. He wasn’t the fun-loving kid Robby had been while starring at Decorah. But he had an indisputable drive.
“It wasn’t real positive feelings about him, because he was kind of sullen and quiet and just ornerier than hell. He was physical, almost to the point where he was mean it seemed like at times. But he wasn’t mean. It was just the way he played, so aggressively,” Post said. “As a sophomore, he was kind of, I thought, headstrong a little bit. He would do things the way he wanted to do them. But even if he made a mistake, he covered it up.”
Jewell, Ostlie, Nimrod and that class were determined to bring Post his first state title after four runner-up finishes. Post said it was like they had made a pact back in middle school and were bound to see it through.
In the opening game of their senior year, Jewell returned the first punt for a touchdown against Waverly-Shell Rock.
“From that point on, things just kept blooming for us,” Post said.
The 2012 Class 3-A state championship game will be talked about in Decorah for years to come. It was Jewell’s tour de force. He rushed for 160 yards and three touchdowns, threw an option pass for a 32-yard gain, dived to secure a fingertip catch down the sideline for a key 23-yard pickup, intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards. Jewell's class got its title with a 49-21 win over Sioux City Heelan.
“That’s where a lot of people’s eyes were opened statewide,” said Darin Svenson, the veteran radio voice of Decorah athletics who called the game. “The whole completeness of him as a football player got shown off.”
Still, Svenson was struck in his postgame interview with Jewell that the senior star was so uncertain of his college plans. In a flat voice, Jewell said he was talking to Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa, maybe even Luther, but that nothing was imminent.
Where were the recruiters? Where was the fanfare?
Everyone who saw Jewell play had the same questions. So did Jewell.
“We always knew he was Division I material. We were surprised when teams started passing him by. I was wondering, maybe we’ve been misjudging how good these D-I players are,” said Ostlie, who wrapped up his football career at Luther last fall. “I could definitely tell that it bothered Josey. Our senior year, he was unstoppable.”
Hawkeyes assistant coach Reese Morgan made a couple of trips to Decorah and reassured Bob Jewell that a scholarship offer was coming. Except it didn’t. Bob Jewell said Iowa State would call occasionally, but only to see what Iowa was doing. That left UNI as the most logical landing spot for his son, and Bob felt it would be a comfortable fit.
On their final visit to Cedar Falls, Panthers coach Mark Farley pulled back on Northern Iowa's interest in Jewell. Bob remembers a somber drive home.
“They told me I’d get a three-fourths scholarship, then it was one-fourth and so I was like, ‘OK, you kind of lied to me,’” Josey said, the sting still in his voice. “So then I was like, ‘OK, I’m probably going to stray away from you guys because of the honesty part.’”
Jewell prepared to play at Luther, excited about the chance to play one season alongside Robby, who was an all-conference safety.
Finally, the Hawkeyes came through with an offer, just before signing day. Jewell, who had wanted to attend Iowa all along, was going to play where his grandfather never got a chance to.
And Robert Jewell would get to watch.
“He was proud of that,” Jewell said. “You hope to help him feel like he was a part of that. And I hope he did feel like he was part of it.”
Robby Jewell said his brother has an unusual routine after Hawkeye football games. “The first thing he does is go online. He loves to read that negative stuff, and then it’s: ‘I’ll show you,’” Robby said. “There was a chatroom once where they mocked Josey and Bo Bower as being the 'future' of Iowa’s linebackers. He couldn’t wait to shove that in their face.” Not literally, of course. But he sure did.
Jewell’s introduction to Hawkeye football was rough. First, he decided to spend the summer of 2013 playing baseball for Decorah, not training in Iowa City with his future teammates. The Vikings had lost the previous year in the state championship game. For Jewell, a pitcher and third baseman, there was unfinished business. Plus one final chance to play with his childhood buddies.
“It was very much Josey,” said Adam Riley, the athletic director at Decorah who helped coach that baseball team. “My discussions with him were very matter of fact and that he was going to play baseball and he was not going to walk away from his teammates. He even would have been willing to forego his scholarship and walk-on in order to stay with his teammates.”
It didn’t come to that.
Paula and Josey made a visit to Iowa City that summer. Bower, a West Branch native, recalls meeting his new teammate on that trip. Bower had opted not to play summer baseball, the typical course of action.
“I didn’t like him,” Bower said with a smile. “I met him and it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s competition.’”
Within six months, they were best friends.
Jewell redshirted during the 2013 season, still struggling to stay above the 200-pound mark. August was a hot mess.
“Those big 300-pounders were throwing me around, and I still couldn’t run with the wide receivers or tight ends,” Jewell said. “I got pancaked a couple of times by some third-string guy, which was kind of bad. But you have to start somewhere, I guess.”
Brett Van Sloten helped ease the transition. The fifth-year senior offensive lineman also played at Decorah and was a teammate of Robby’s. The Van Sloten and Jewell families are tight. He was going to see that the new Hawkeye didn’t fail.
“He was a little scrawny kid then. The people on the scout team threw him at defensive end a few times,” Van Sloten said. “He’s not one that’s going to back down from anything, not even when he’s a true freshman going against fifth-year seniors.”
The results were predictable.
“Maybe I took it too far at times,” Van Sloten conceded, “but Josey didn’t take it too personally.”
Jewell emerged late in his redshirt freshman season in 2014, earning starts in the final four games. In Iowa’s humbling defeat in the TaxSlayer Bowl, it was Jewell alone who seemed to take offense. He finished with 14 tackles, hustling from sideline to sideline until the clock expired. Ferentz has said repeatedly that the late stages of that game convinced him Jewell needed to remain in the lineup.
“Coach (Phil) Parker talks to you in the huddle and says, ‘You’re playing for pride and you’re playing for your team name. You’re playing for the Tiger Hawk,’” Jewell said. “That’s what I was trying to listen to. You don’t want to look back and you don’t want to regret anything. That’s something my dad said every Friday morning before high school games.”
Jewell followed that with 126 tackles as a sophomore, when Iowa went 12-2. He had 124 more last season, when he was a finalist for the Butkus Award given to the nation’s top linebacker. Now 6-foot-2, 236 pounds, Jewell is a bona fide star and arguably the best player on the team heading into his senior season.
Parker certainly recognizes it.
“It starts with our inside linebacker, Josey Jewell,” Parker said this summer. “He’s the one that’s got to keep everybody together.”
Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace marvels at Jewell’s instincts.
“You can spend hours, you can spend months, you can spend years trying to get guys to get to the football like he does, and they may never,” Wallace said. “He does have an outstanding knack for seeing what’s going on in front of him, being able to react and then taking the right angle to the football.”
Nimrod, who played safety behind Jewell at Decorah, said those are the same attributes he saw in Jewell for years. The difference now, besides size, is the extra studying Jewell does. When Jewell talks football with his old buddies now, Nimrod said, they can’t understand what he’s saying.
Nimrod still lives in Decorah, working for the local cable company. He’s also had Hawkeye football season tickets the past two seasons and has watched the Josey Jewell hype grow.
“We’ve known since he was in seventh, eighth grade that he was way better than us and he was going to go places,” Nimrod said.
But Decorah will always be home, and Jewell gets back often. It’s just that when he does, he draws a lot of attention. Nimrod recalled a Decorah football game two years ago at which he had an entire section of seats to himself. Jewell, in town with the Hawkeyes on a bye week, climbed up to chat with his friend. Soon, the section was filled with well-wishers.
“People follow him a lot. All the little kids, they want to see him. They’re wearing Josey stuff,” said Post, who still coaches the Vikings. “He’s always brought up in conversations. When they talk about football, it’s always about Josey. When they talk about Iowa, it’s always about Josey.”
Only Jerry Reichow has made it from Decorah to the NFL. A Hawkeye star in the 1950s, Reichow had a long career as a receiver with the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings.
There’s a strong sense in this heavily Norwegian town of 7,918 in northeastern Iowa that Jewell could be the next.
“Everybody thinks they know him,” Nimrod said of his friend. “In a little town, when somebody becomes famous like that, everyone’s got their connection to him.”
Perhaps that’s why fishing has become a bigger outlet for Jewell these days.
“He texts me every week. ‘How’s the fishing? You been fishing yet?’” Nimrod said. “I don’t know if he just wants to relax in his free time, but ever since he went to college, every time he comes home it’s, ‘Hey, let’s go fishing.’”
Jewell finished second in the Big Ten Conference in tackles last season. Yet he was only selected as second team all-conference. Jewell never said a word about it. “Whether he tells you it affects him or not, I know it does,” Wallace said. “It’s that that I think keeps this kid’s fire driving, to be honest with you.” Some poor tailback doesn’t know it yet, but he’s about to feel Jewell’s wrath.
Robert Jewell’s health was failing in the fall of 2015. But he was determined to die at home, on his land, and so the family arranged for hospice care and waited for the inevitable.
Josey is relieved that he got to speak with his grandfather a couple of weeks before the end, while he was still coherent and in “one of his chipper times.”
Robby recalls an odd conversation he had with Robert shortly after.
“Out of nowhere, he said: ‘Tell Josey to be humble,’” Robby said in a tone of bewilderment. “I don’t know what was going through his head at the time. He didn’t want him to be too big-headed, which I know Josey would never be that way.”
The impetus for those words remains a mystery.
The Hawkeyes had an Oct. 3 trip to Wisconsin and Josey headed north with a heavy heart. Bob and Paula left the rest of the family at Robert’s bedside and drove up to comfort their son. They got the phone call an hour before kickoff – Robert had died. They decided to wait until after the game to tell Josey.
Iowa held off the 18th-ranked Badgers 10-6, a victory sealed on a miraculous play in which Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave tripped and fumbled at the Hawkeye 1-yard line.
Two coaches escorted Josey to his parents after the game, but he already knew what he was about to hear.
“I think he was your 12th man today,” Bob Jewell recalled telling his son.
“You’re goddamn right he was,” Josey replied, "I saw him out there."
Robert Jewell always felt some connection to the eagles that are constantly criss-crossing the farmstead. He would point out their nests above his pasture.
Josey sees them flying now when he returns home and thinks of his grandfather.
He also hears Robert cautioning him about the dangers of football. He always told Josey to watch out for head injuries and for broken necks. Jewell said he does try to be more cautious when tackling, but it’s not always easy. He takes pride in packing a wallop. He was ejected after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the Hawkeyes’ season opener last fall.
Bob Jewell remembers a pointed conversation his father had with his son. Robert told Josey: “If the next level presents itself, don’t do it. Your health is worth far more than any dollar.”
No one expects Josey to pass up a chance to play professional football. He’s been talking about it since childhood.
Jewell once told Doug Van Sloten, Brett’s father, that he had a long-range plan.
“I’m going to play in the NFL some day,” Jewell predicted. “And I’m going to save the family farm.”
Is the Jewell farm in jeopardy?
“We’ve had our challenges,” Bob admitted.
So Josey Jewell, middle linebacker extraordinaire, is caught in the middle.
Follow his path and try to secure the future for Robby and himself.
Or listen to his grandfather and give up the sport they both loved to not risk his health.
One final disagreement between two stubborn Irishmen.