Throwback Thursday: John Jurkovic, EIU defensive star

Throwback Thursday:  John Jurkovic, EIU defensive star
(photo courtesy of EIU Athletics)

John Jurkovic can be heard daily on Chicago sports talk radio. Most who knew him back in his days as an All-American defensive lineman at Eastern Illinois aren’t surprised.

“(John was a) crafty player (with a) great entertaining personality,” said Randy Melvin who coached Jurkovic in his junior and senior seasons.

Jurkovic first caught the attention of the Eastern staff as a prep star at Thornton Fractional Township North High School in Calumet City.

“Coach (Joel) Swisher recruited him,” said Larry Edlund, Jurkovic’s first defensive coordinator at Eastern. “His dad spoke very little English. John interpreted for him.”

ESPN1000

ESPN1000

The Jurkovic family would later go through the recruiting process with John’s younger brother Mirko during Lou Holtz’s tenure as the coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

For the elder Jurkovic, Charleston, Ill. wasn’t the Golden Dome or Touchdown Jesus.

“I was hoping to go to a Big 10 school,” Jurkovic said from his home in northern Indiana. “Purdue expressed some interest. Ball State (of the Mid-American Conference) was another Division-I school.”

Jurkovic and TF North teammate Pat Munda made a joint visit to Eastern.

“It was like a Monday or Tuesday night,” Jurkovic recalled. “It was the only time we could go down there. Those (Eastern) coaches were no dummies. They brought us over there at night. We parked right up close to O’Brien (Stadium). There was only that one single light bulb outside the elevator.

“We asked how much the stadium held. Coach Edlund told us about 14,000 and the seats wrap all the way around the end zone. I looked at the media guide a little while later and saw their biggest crowds were during the playoffs and just over 11,000.”

Jurkovic and Munda ended the night at Wrangler Roast Beef, a local restaurant where the employees’ uniforms matched the curtains.

“I told myself afterward that there was no way I was going to Eastern Illinois if somebody else offers me a scholarship,” he said.

Only one college offer

However, when no other offer came, Jurkovic made his decision.

“I called up Coach Swisher and told him I was ready,” Jurkovic said. “He asked me if I wanted a big to-do. No, I said, just come up here and I’ll sign (the letter of intent) at my kitchen table in my house with my mom and dad.”

(photo courtesy of Twitter)

(photo courtesy of Twitter)

Thus, Jurkovic committed to play for head coach Al Molde’s Panthers.

“I was only 17 when I went down (to Eastern),” he said. “They had two guys—Bill Cochrane and Dan Polewski—who were already 24. I remember saying ‘Sweet mother of God! These guys are grown men!’”

Edlund, later an athletic director at a Michigan high school, was quickly won over.

“John had a real air of confidence without being arrogant,” Edlund said. “The other players really respected him. John was a blue collar kind of player.”

Yet, Edlund was quick to point out, it wasn’t just brute force that made Jurkovic an All-American.

“He and (fellow defensive lineman) Carl Parker watched so much film, they were calling out the opponents’ plays. John was a very, very smart football player. It’s amazing. He could tell what the linebackers and secondary had going.

“He controlled the inside game. You saw this when he was in the pros.”

Early playing time

Jurkovic made an impact right away.

“From the get-go I was competitive,” Jurkovic said. “They planned on redshirting me my first year.”

However, when injuries created depth issues, Eastern’s coaches called him for a meeting.

“They said, ‘If we do (go ahead and not redshirt you), you’ll play a lot.”

Thus, Jurkovic found himself squaring off against the Kansas Jayhawks of the Big Eight Conference in October 1985.

“The first play was a fake punt,” he recalled. “I was the up back. I had to block (KU star) Willie Pless. Bobby Bronaugh carried the ball and we ended up getting the first down.”

On his first defensive play, Jurkovic forced a fumble. He recorded a sack later in the game.

Who am I to argue with six sacks?

Perhaps Jurkovic’s greatest game came during the 1986 season when he tied fellow Hall of Famer Pete Catan’s school record with six sacks against Southwest Missouri State.

“I don’t know why they credited me with six sacks,” Jurkovic said. “(Southwest Missouri head coach) Jesse Branch ran the option. It was more like four tackle for losses and two sacks, but who am I to argue with six sacks?”

Unfortunately for the Panthers, Jurkovic was injured in the final regular season game of the ’86 season. While Eastern won the Gateway Conference championship, its playoff run ended with a narrow two-point loss in the quarterfinals to Eastern Kentucky at O’Brien Stadium.

“There’s no doubt we missed having John in the lineup that day,” said Edlund.

When Molde and his staff left Eastern to take over the Division-IA program at Western Michigan University, Jurkovic and his teammates had to adjust to a new coaching staff.

Eastern hired longtime Purdue assistant Bob Spoo as the 21st head coach in its history.

Injury setback

Spoo–a Chicago native and successful prep coach in the city–faced adversity almost immediately when Jurkovic was felled by a torn anterior cruciate ligament injury during spring practice.

“I was going up against (future New York Giant offensive lineman) Dave Popp,” Jurkovic said. “It was a Saturday morning. They had put a bunch of sand on top of the (practice) fields. I put a pass rush move on Popp. I never even touched him. I slipped and went to the ground and tore my knee to shreds.”

“That’s an injury that you don’t just bounce back from easily,” said John Smith, Eastern’s new defensive coordinator.

In fact, many a career has been derailed by a torn ACL.

Fighting back

Following surgery, Jurkovic fought his way back to All-American status. He was twice named the Gateway Conference Defensive Player of the Year. His Eastern Hall of Fame biography calls him “one of the most dominating defensive players for Eastern Illinois during its NCAA I-AA football era earning several All-American honors from 1985-89.”

As a defensive coordinator, Smith loved having Jurkovic at his disposal.

“Opponents wanted to know where Jurko was,” Smith said. “I moved him around. He created tremendous havoc. He’s in the top three of the toughest players I ever coached. He played with pain.”

Like Edlund, his predecessor, Smith was in awe of Jurkovic’s football intelligence.

“He was such a smart player,” Smith said. “He got great leverage against the offensive linemen he went against.”

In his final season, the Panthers returned to the playoffs in 1989. Eastern, ranked No. 15, traveled to fourth-rated Idaho and stunned the Vandals 38-21 who were led by future San Diego Charger John Friez.

 

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“We scored on the opening play of the game on a (74-yard) pass to Jason Cook, a fast little receiver we had,” Jurkovic said. “We only ran that play a few times all year. It seemed like every time we used it, we scored. But we only used it about every fifth week or so. Since we had to do four weeks of tape exchange (with our opponents), that allowed the tapes to clear. I think we shocked them early and they didn’t recover.”

In the quarterfinals, Eastern fell to perennial I-AA power Montana 25-19.

“That was a tough place to play,” Jurkovic said. “It was cold and frigid. It was an icy field. They claimed they had a tarp down before the game. They didn’t have any tarp down. The footing was so bad that you couldn’t get a push.”

Jurkovic earned All-American honors three times. In addition to his two  conference player of the year awards, Jurkovic also became the first Panther to participate in postseason all-star competition by playing in the 1990 Blue-Gray Game.

“It was Christmas time,” Jurkovic said. “The place and the stands were empty, but it was on TV. I enjoyed it (but) what it did was let people know for sure that I had a knee injury. They’d look at the brace on my (left) knee and say ‘Oh my.’”

Miami Nice

The injury certainly scared off NFL teams on the weekend of the draft. After not being taken, Jurkovic signed as a free agent with the Miami Dolphins.

“I got a $6,000 bonus and a $60,000 base salary,” he said. “I just wanted to make the practice team. Then (the NFL) decided there wasn’t going to be a practice team. So, then it became a matter of making the team.”

However, a sprained ankle in the third game of the preseason ended those thoughts.

“About three weeks into the (regular) season, they decided to institute a five-man practice squad,” Jurkovic said. “Coaches were tired of seeing guys get hurt and having nowhere to turn.”

Jurkovic spent a year on the Dolphins’ practice squad.

“The year before they only paid you $1,000 a week,” Jurkovic said. “That’s what Dave Popp got the year before with the Giants. It’s pretty tough to live in New York on that. Anyway, they bumped the pay up from $1,000 a week to $3,000, which helped.”

Green Bay glory & gory

A year later, he spent time on the Green Bay practice squad before finally being activated. Jurkovic spent nine seasons as a defensive tackle in the NFL. His first five seasons were with Green Bay.

“It was a college atmosphere, you’re the only show in town,” he said.

The Packers were evolving into a Super Bowl contender.

“I had one big year in ’93 when they let me rush the passer,” Jurkovic said. “I got a few sacks.”

Green Bay’s playoff road was, however, perpetually blocked by the Dallas Cowboys.

“They just had our number,” Jurkovic said.

The rivalry was heated. In one game against the Cowboys, Jurkovic was cut down by a crackback block by lineman Eric Williams.

(packershistory.net)

(packershistory.net)

“He went down hard,” said former Packer teammate and Illinois State standout Mike Prior. “That’s one of the plays that I still can picture all these years later. Jurko wasn’t really happy afterwards.”

Jurkovic said, “The funny thing about that play was that Williams didn’t get off with the snap count. Everybody else was in motion. Emmitt Smith was getting ready to cut back so he (Williams) dove at me. You always wonder how the game might have been different (if I hadn’t gotten hurt). Maybe it wouldn’t have been any different. It’s one of those things you just have to let go.”

When the Packers finally got over the playoff hump and qualified for the Super Bowl, Jurkovic was no longer with the team. After earning All-NFL second team honors in 1996, he signed as a free agent with Jacksonville for the ’97 season.

“I made the playoffs three years in Green Bay and three years in Jacksonville,” Jurkovic said. “I played in two (conference) championship games. Some guys never make the playoffs. (Former Tampa Bay offensive lineman) Paul Gruber played his whole career and never went to the playoffs.”

Just as he had done in college, Jurkovic developed a kinship with his pro teammates.

Former Packer and Western Illinois offensive lineman Frank Winters became a good friend.

“Jurko, like me, was never the most gifted athlete. But he figured out what it took to be successful,” Winters said. “He knew how to survive. Jurko was very smart. He was a student of the game.”

Prior, the former Indianapolis Colt who joined Green Bay as a safety, had similar thoughts.

“Oh my God, talk about a character,” Prior said. “He was fun. To look at John Jurkovic, you never thought he could play football, but he was a tough cookie.

“He wouldn’t get pushed around inside. Jurko was always around the ball.”

I’m a Hall of Famer’

Jurkovic was inducted into the Eastern Hall of Fame in 1997.

“I like to tell people I’m a Hall of Famer,” he said. “They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you were in the Pro Football Hall of Fame!’ Then I say, ‘No, the Eastern Illinois Hall of Fame.’”

Jurkovic was inducted on a bye week. After returning to NFL action the next weekend, he broke his leg.

Jurkovic was also named to the Gateway/Missouri Valley Conference Silver Anniversary Team in 2009.

“It’s nice because I don’t think of it anymore,” he said. “I feel like a football orphan. Eastern plays in the Ohio Valley (Conference) now. But, the honor is nice.”

Jurkovic began his radio and TV career while still playing for the Packers. He has also dabbled in investments ranging from auto racing to minor league hockey.

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No matter his pursuits, Jurkovic still keeps up with Eastern.

“(Former Panther sports information director) Dave Kidwell sends me things,” Jurkovic said. “I’m happy for Sean Payton’s success. I’m happy for Tony Romo. Mike Shanahan. Mike Heimerdinger, the offensive coordinator, had success.”

Dallas tight end Jason Witten was a guest on Jurkovic’s radio show one year.

“He was busting me saying ‘You Eastern guys, you got eight guys in the league and you know everyone of them. I’m happy whenever any Eastern guy makes it.”

Jurkovic would know; he tasted success in both college and pro ball.

“Jurko always played better than he looked in Green Bay,” said respected Packer beat writer Bob McGinn in an e-mail. “He had what scouts call a ‘bad body’ but he was stubborn at the point of attack and had a knack for finding the football. Plus, he was an all-time character. I mean, the man is laugh-out-loud funny.”

No wonder he’s such a hit on the airwaves.

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