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This is every boy's dream, assuming you're the kind of boy who'd watch the Browns on TV in your 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 like a fool, or rather, like the hundred or so other kids on your street howling at the same Cleveland moon just climbing out of Lake Erie in Sunday's snot-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?
Maybe just Joe Jurevicius, a man seemingly so charmed that his fellow Lithuanians ought to consider his likeness in place of the Vytis, the White Knight coat of arms that has historically represented their national heroism. Jurevicius (who indeed has the Vytis tattooed on his right biceps) is just one of those guys for whom things seem to fall into place. He is entering his ninth NFL season, well beyond the requirements of a successful career, and while he's not going to be confused 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 Bowl teams, which is about three more than most players.
And now here he is, signed away from the Seattle Seahawks (Super Bowl team III) as a free agent in 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 Lakeland Community College to watch the Browns' training camp? He met Dave Logan while in kindergarten! Shook Greg Pruitt's hand! At Lake Catholic High in Mentor he ran his routes as if Brian Sipe were delivering the bombs.
Let's try to put it another way, for you folks who don't live in Cleveland. Jurevicius remembers coming home during a bye week at Penn State--this was during that strange three-year period when Cleveland was without a team--and realizing that the fans were nevertheless tailgating at old Municipal Stadium. "On Friday night!" 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, he thought, you have no team.
So imagine his homecoming--the whole extended clan in the stands, uncles, nieces, a grandmother 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 in the stands as well and even those fans from Lake Catholic who'd pestered his mother for tickets to high school games 15 years ago. You don't have to be a Cleveland 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 The Angelus, a charitable outfit to which he lends his name and time, had dog biscuits 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 watch Jurevicius play football--tall and rangy, catches everything he touches--is not to understand him. Well, it is, a little bit. He's exactly the blue-collar athlete you'd expect from a long line of Cleveland factory workers. He works his position like an assembly-line station. "Dependability," says Browns general manager Phil Savage, describing Jurevicius' appeal. "Someone to be a mentor to Edwards and a fairly young receivers corps. And, you know, he did score 10 touchdowns last year."
The Browns need every touchdown they can get, but Jurevicius is hardly the kind of player teams are built around. It wasn't until last year that he started more than nine games or scored more than four touchdowns in a season. In fact, looking at his numbers, it's hard to see why teams might get excited about him, especially when age (31) and infirmity (knee and back problems caused him to miss 17 games in 2003 and '04, and he was placed on the NFL scrap heap; he signed with Seattle 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 a Super Bowl haul of five catches for 93 yards. And in Tampa they're still talking about his 71-yard catch-and-run that helped the Bucs upset the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC title game in January 2003. But let's say you were watching Jurevicius play in that particular game. Well, no way you understand him.
In that game, and in the Super Bowl that followed a week later in San Diego, Jurevicius was more the bewildered young man--as much puzzled as wounded by destiny--than an NFL wide receiver. The circumstances were extreme, of course, his prematurely born son, Michael, lying in a prenatal-care unit thousands of miles away, dying of a rare cell disease. But then Jurevicius is by his nature given more to quiet reflection. Just the way he is.
Take hunting. Jurevicius preferred fishing as a young man, until Kerry Collins, his teammate with the New York Giants (Super Bowl team I), lured him into a Carolina tree stand, just to see if he liked it. "You're just standing there," Jurevicius says, "and a cardinal lands on your foot." He liked it and embarked on a series of hunts, working his way up to big game on the eastern cape of South Africa last year. He became serious enough about hunting that he and John Howell, his teammate in Seattle and Tampa Bay, went in together on a 60,000-acre working cattle ranch in Nebraska, where they, and eventually their well-heeled clients, can scour the sand hills around the Dismal River for elk.