Jurevicius Is A Fan Favorite Because He's One Of Us

Joe The Receiver 

Jurevicius Is A Fan Favorite Because He's One Of Us

The play that most aptly and succinctly defines Joe Jurevicius happened on December 16 last year against Buffalo. The stadium was enveloped in a roaring beast of a snowstorm; another two inches fell during the game. Line markers were covered, leaving the refs to guess the line of scrimmage. Wind chills were in the teens. And this was one of the biggest games of the Browns' magical season.

On a third down in the first quarter, Derek Anderson flung a pass through the onslaught of powder. It bounced off the chest of Braylon Edwards (shocking, I know) and into the hands of Joe Jurevicius, who trudged down the middle of the field for a 25-yard gain, sliding about five yards through the slush as he was tackled. He immediately jumped up and enthusiastically pointed down the field - first down, Browns.

It wasn't close to the most memorable catch of Jurevicius' long career - he's had many of those. Like in 2003, a few days after his son, Michael William, was born with a rare and fatal genetic disorder, when Joe caught a 71-yard pass that was crucial to the Buccaneers' victory over the Eagles in the NFC championship game. But this catch, in that weather, in Cleveland, was something special. Downtown was completely obscured by a whirling white wall and the bright lights illuminated the upper reaches of the stands, shining a bright ceiling across the proceedings. It was as if the stadium was a tiny snow globe in the hands of Joe's late son.

"When you're a kid, you dream of playing in a game like this," Jurevicius told AP writer Tom Withers after the game. "Today was the Turkey Bowl or the Christmas Bowl in the backyard when you're wiping snow out of your eyes."

Untold thousands of boys grow up in Northeast Ohio wanting to play for the Browns. When I was young, every kid with a decent arm wanted to be Bernie Kosar. Anyone with good hands took their pick of Ozzie Newsome, Webster Slaughter or Reggie Langhorne. Possessing quick feet and the stature of an Oompa-Loompa, I adopted former kick returner Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil as my Browns beacon, figuring if one player could make it pro at only 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds, there could certainly be another.

Until a certain age, these are not so much hopes as declarations. Then, incrementally, that dream dies for nearly all of us. We get on with our lives and settle for fandom. On March 11, 2006, Joe Jurevicius became one of the exceedingly rare few whose dreams become reality, inking a four-year deal with the team he grew up rooting for.

Jurevicius was born in Cleveland two days before Christmas in 1974. His formative years, like kids of that era, coincided with the modern heyday of the Browns - enthralling, memorable, winning and depressing football in cavernous and cold Municipal Stadium. He was barely 6 years old for Red Right 88; he was 12 for the Drive, 13 for the Fumble. In 1989, on his 15th birthday, the Browns beat the Oilers in the last game of the regular season to clinch the ACF Central title.

But while Jurevicius was making a name for himself at Lake Catholic - racking up school records, being named All-American, All-State, All-Metro and All-City in his senior year, and taking the Cougars to two state titles - the Browns were falling apart. Bud Carson was gone, and Bernie wouldn't be far behind. The team was in a desperate tailspin, and by the time Jurevicius made his debut as a redshirt-freshman at Penn State, they were gone.

He finished his college career fourth on Penn State's all-time receiving list with 1,894 yards. At 6-foot-5, he was as versatile as he was powerful and athletic - he even served as punter 15 times his freshman year. In the second round of the 1998 draft, with the 55th overall pick, the New York Giants drafted Jurevicius. Seven receivers were taken before that, and only one, Randy Moss, would go on to a bigger professional career.

While Jurevicius didn't put up the gaudy numbers of Moss nor play with the oftentimes self-absorbed flare of the Viking superstar, he slowly built a reputation as a reliable No. 3 receiver, sure-handed and consistent. He was a good guy around the locker room, a good family man, private and reserved around the media - a stark contrast to others at his position, especially when you consider that he lined up next to Keyshawn Johnson for years.

Through New York, Tampa and Seattle, he put up good numbers, then landed back home in Cleveland for the 2006 season, one of a series of major free-agent signings by the Browns to improve on the previous year's 6-10 record. With all the promise of Romeo Crennel's second year, the team more resembled the flailing franchise that left town in 1995 than the proud Erie warriors of Jurevicius' youth. But he signed anyway, and even as the team regressed to 4-12 the next year, Jurevicius was ol' reliable.

So when success finally found the address of Cleveland Browns Stadium in 2007, it was nice to see Jurevicius able to enjoy it; surely this is what he'd envisioned. He had mentioned the possibility of retiring after 2008, which would be his 11th season in the league. At 33, with a pair of aging knees, and two daughters and a wife at home, he would give it one more go-round in a Browns uniform and then perhaps he would call it a day.

In January, he went in for arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, a simple procedure to clean it up before the rigors of another year. But he contracted a staph infection in his knee that would require five more surgeries to fix. He was placed on the Physically Unable to Perform list for the first six weeks of the season while he rehabbed, and eventually it was announced that he would miss the entire year.

This cannot possibly be the end of the dream.

A couple of weeks ago, lost in the hoopla of the Brady Quinn coup, came news that Joe just might not be done after all. At a press conference, he told reporters that he will be back next season, that he will be a Cleveland Brown.

Every time he drives to the stadium, he said, he takes the long way, past the Muni lot, and sees all the No. 84 jerseys. He said he sees the tailgaters and it tears him up inside, because he remembers being there as a fan. He said he wants to retire a Cleveland Brown, but on his own terms - not because of an injury, but with a daughter in each arm, orange helmet on, walking off the field.

The Browns could certainly use his ability to sustain drives. In 2007, 34 of his 50 catches went for first downs. Regardless of whether Kellen Winslow is traded, a receiving corps of Braylon Edwards, Donte Stallworth and Jurevicius would be a potent trio for any team to defend.

But if he does in fact suit up next year, it will be a good day for more reasons than that. If Jurevicius can complete the comeback, it will be a good day for the boy who dreamed of playing for the Browns, and for every other boy who never got the chance.

Who knows what's in store for this team next year. But if Jurevicius can help them win a Super Bowl, I'm betting his dream will have come completely true, and in turn, so will ours.

After the Buffalo game, Joe told reporters, "This is why I came home - not for the elements, but to play in big games like this." Let's hope we have a few of those in 2009.

vgrzegorek@clevescene.com

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