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Bigger than Jurevicius' run was his rush back to a son

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 20, 2003

PHILADELPHIA -- He never really knew fear.

Did not understand how terror can take custody of one's life. Could not have imagined the depths of a person's heartache.

How could he?

Before last week, Joe Jurevicius had never been a father.

That's what parenthood will do to you. It can test your faith and it can teach you about strength. It can be exhilarating and devastating. Sometimes, it manages to do it all simultaneously.

Michael William Jurevicius was born on Tuesday, a couple of weeks premature. Joe Jurevicius described it as the best day of his life. What followed were varying stages of hell.

Michael is not a healthy baby. He has not yet left the hospital and may not for quite some time. The Jurevicius family would prefer not to discuss specifics, but their concern is illuminating enough.

"He's a fighter. He's still fighting," Jurevicius said. "But it's going to be a long process before we're out of the woods."

It's amazing how life can give you all that you want and leave you praying for more. So it is for Joe Jurevicius this morning.

The Bucs are on their way to the Super Bowl and Jurevicius, 28, played a huge role in the journey. It was his 71-yard reception -- the longest of his career -- that seemed to turn the tone of the game Tampa Bay's way.

Yet, upon completing what may have been the most rewarding day of his professional life, Jurevicius was in a rush. He could not dress quickly enough, could not exit the visiting locker room at Veterans Stadium with greater haste. He needed to kiss his son, he said. Needed to hug his wife.

"I just want to get out of here," he said. "I want to go back home and be a dad."

Michael William Jurevicius is the first child for Meagan and Joe. They chose Michael from Joe's middle name. William is his grandfather's name. It sounds, Joe said, like a strong name.

But their baby's health was in danger from the start. As the Bucs were preparing for the biggest game the franchise has known, Jurevicius had to walk into coach Jon Gruden's office and tell him he might not be available.

Jurevicius said he will remember every detail. The clothes Gruden was wearing. The feel of the office. Mostly, he'll remember the coach's words.

Gruden told him nothing was more important than his family. Take as much time away from practice as needed. Skip the game if necessary.

Jurevicius left One Buc Place to stay with his wife and son. His parents flew down to join them. His sister and in-laws too.

"For the first time," he said, "football became secondary to me."

By Thursday, Michael's condition had stabilized. Not good, but not quite so dire. Joe's wife and family urged him to go to Philadelphia. He had spent a lifetime preparing for this moment and should not let it pass.

He caught a flight late Saturday afternoon and joined his teammates at the hotel. He shared the details of his son's ordeal with some of them, but mostly he accepted their hugs and offers of prayers.

"This is the hard part of our business," general manager Rich McKay said. "You're a professional and your team needs you, but you have to know how insignificant this is compared to the issue Joe was facing."

Before he left the hotel Sunday afternoon, Jurevicius called the hospital. A nurse told him Michael was a fraction of an inch better than Saturday.

"That was all I needed to hear," he said.

Statistics will show Jurevicius caught only one pass in the NFC Championship Game. But the numbers could never explain its importance.

Trailing 7-3, Tampa Bay was stuck at its own 24 on third down. The Bucs stacked three receivers on the right side and Jurevicius came out of the pile to run a simple slant. He caught the pass over the middle of the field and ran toward the opposite sideline. When he turned upfield, he left several Eagles behind. He was not dragged down until he reached the 5.

"Joe's speed is underrated," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "But he ain't that fast. He had a little help. He had a little spirit in him today."

The Bucs are scheduled to leave for San Diego this afternoon, but Jurevicius is not likely to be on the charter.

He'll probably remain in Tampa for an extra day or two for Meagan's comfort and Michael's support. Eventually, he said, his family will force him to get on a plane to begin working toward the biggest game of his life.

He said he will be focused. Said he will be prepared. Maybe, too, he will be a little scared. He is, after all, a father now.

"If I could somehow bottle my emotions from this week and turn it into a roller coaster, I'd be a billionaire," Jurevicius said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but he's in there fighting.

"He's given me every reason to believe in him."

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