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Home, Where the Heart Is
Richard Hoffer
July 17, 2006
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
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July 17, 2006

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

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Not that he won't shoot a bear, a hog, a turkey, but you quickly realize Jurevicius would rather see a cardinal on his boot than a mule deer in his sights. Does he have trophies on his wall? Does he ever! But he's prouder of his growing collection of black-and-white vintage photographs of old-time hunters. "You got Teddy Roosevelt 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 is not so much the killing but what comes after. "The campfires," he says. "I love the campfires."

Jurevicius is oddly drawn to his history, whether it's gentle nostalgia for an old Browns team or pestering his grandparents for more information about the camps they'd been placed in by the Soviets who occupied Lithuania after World War II, before the 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 for Joe," she says. "He always wanted to know exactly what they had when they came, stuff like that." Jurevicius even pestered one grandmother into promising him the trunk she brought over, filled with old black-and-white photographs, the things they carried. "I really wanted that," he says.

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

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

When his son died just before he was 10 weeks old--Michael was born a month premature in January 2003 with infantile sialidosis, a disease characterized by the body's difficulty in breaking down fats and carbohydrates--Jurevicius set out to honor that empty plate as best he could. The ordeal had been horrifying. Jurevicius has a hard time even now walking past a hospital door, seeing a father's head buried 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 had no desire to play football, he showed up for the media-day hullabaloo with a hospital bracelet still on his wrist, yet was almost grateful for the requirement. "He was fighting," Jurevicius says of his son. "I could do the same thing."

Jurevicius caught four passes for 78 yards in that Super Bowl, the Bucs beating the Oakland Raiders easily. Michael died in a St. Louis hospital two months later and was buried in Cleveland, the Vytis chiseled onto his tombstone.

Of course a lot of plates are full, too, in his household. Joe and his wife, Meagan, have a daughter, Caroline, nearly two, whom he can't stop bouncing on his knee. "I can't put her down," he says. It's not as if life doesn't go on. There's always a hunting trip--he recently went looking for brown bear in Manitoba--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 retreat associated with The Angelus foundation, financed by country singer Charlie Daniels for kids and adults with cerebral palsy. "They can't talk, can't lift their heads," Jurevicius says of the kids he sees. "All they can do 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 biscuits on their trays.

Michael is always on his mind, though, and he finds himself charting an unforgiving time line. "He'd be three years old now," Jurevicius says suddenly, even though he had 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 buried down the street," Jurevicius says. "It's another reason I came back. I go there every morning, and I try to get there every evening." There is time to mark, events to discuss, but other things too. Things a dad does. The day before, he'd gone turkey hunting, and although he didn't bag one, he did find two big feathers that he had been carrying in his truck, tucked under a cap. Some trophies, huh. "Those? I'll be putting those on Michael's grave tonight," he says, looking them over, quickly admiring their perfection. "Give him something to do."

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