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A heartbroken Joe Jurevicius had the game breaker for Bucs

 
Joe Jurevicius could barely focus on football - and barely hold back tears - during game week with his newborn son, Michael, critically ill. (Times 2003)
Joe Jurevicius could barely focus on football - and barely hold back tears - during game week with his newborn son, Michael, critically ill. (Times 2003)
Published Aug. 30, 2017

To our readers: Mike Evans' 2016 NFL Catch of the Year and the big Bucs' offseason catches — DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin — inspired us to mark the start of the 2017 season with a series of stories celebrating "The Catch." We hope you enjoy them.

"83 Zebra Jerk."

Former Bucs coach Jon Gruden was talking about the play call on the biggest pass catch in Bucs history, one that turned around a cold Philadelphia day in 2003 and helped lift the Bucs to the Super Bowl.

At his recent Ring of Honor news conference at One Buccaneer Place, inductee Gruden happily took a Ring of Honor brochure and drew 83 Zebra Jerk on the cover, including a pass route over the middle. Gruden pointed to it.

"That's Jurevicius," he said.

It will always be Jurevicius.

In Bucs history, it is "The Catch" — Bucs wide receiver Joe Jurevicius' grab-and-go with a Brad Johnson pass for 71 yards to change the 2003 NFC Championship Game, to change everything, despite a heart that we knew was breaking.

This is Jon Gruden's diagram of 83 Zebra Jerk, the first-quarter play that produced Joe Jurevicius' 71-yard reception that turns the momentum against the Eagles.

This is Jon Gruden's diagram of 83 Zebra Jerk, the first-quarter play that produced Joe Jurevicius' 71-yard reception that turns the momentum against the Eagles.

Jurevicius, his wife and two daughters live in suburban Cleveland. Jurevicius, 42, played three seasons for Tampa Bay. He retired from the NFL after the 2007 season. He owns several businesses, including laundromats and a commercial laundry company.

And twice a week he visits the cemetery to be with his son, Michael William Jurevicius, who was born five days before that 2002 season's championship game.

"I drink coffee on Monday with him," Jurevicius said by phone. "Sometimes I sit with him on weekends and have a beer. I miss the guy."

The Catch was so much more than a catch.

January 19, 2003. The Bucs played the Eagles in Philadelphia for the third consecutive playoff season. They'd lost at Veterans Stadium the previous two years. And they'd lost in Philadelphia during the 2002 season. A recurring nightmare.

The NFC title game began. Philadelphia returned the opening kickoff 70 yards and scored two plays later. It was 7-0. The game wasn't a minute old.

But Martin Gramatica kicked a field goal. It was 7-3. Late in the first quarter, the Bucs faced third and 2 from their 24-yard line. Carnivorous Eagles fans roared. It was the final game at the Vet.

83 Zebra Jerk. That's what Gruden called it. Brad Johnson referred to it as "Triple Left 83 Double Smash X Option." The Bucs had run it a few times in the red zone during the season. Jurevicius, who joined the Bucs before the 2002 season, wore No. 83. He set up on the right side, bunched with receivers Keenan McCardell and Keyshawn Johnson.

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"We had a feeling that when we put three receivers tight and the tight end on the other side, Philadelphia would check out of its blitzes and give us a certain coverage," Gruden said. "And if you hit the lottery, you might get a wide receiver against a linebacker."

"It was basically two corner routes and two flat routes on the outside — and Joe would come over the middle," Johnson said.

"I have free rein," Jurevicius said. "I react to the defense. I saw Barry Gardner, the middle linebacker, standing somewhat flat-footed. I knew if I took off quick that I would be able to clear him. And I did."

Johnson said his pass went maybe 5 yards. But he perfectly led Jurevicius, who caught it on the run. Bucs tight end Ken Dilger threw a great block. The 6-5, 230-pound Jurevicius raced left and turned upfield. On Buccaneers radio, announcer Gene Deckerhoff shouted, "You go, Joe!"

Jurevicius was knocked out of bounds at the Philadelphia 5. He'd traveled 71 yards. Two plays later, Mike Alstott scored a touchdown. The Bucs stood up. They would never stand down. They won 27-10. Super Bowl bound.

"It was a great call by Jon, a great throw by Brad and a great job by our offensive line and everyone else to let me get my hands on that ball," Jurevicius said. "I remember getting around midfield and my lungs were on fire. They started to burn. I hadn't run all week, I hadn't lifted all week, I hadn't worked all week. I'd been at the hospital."

The championship game was on a Sunday. Jurevicius' wife, Meagan, had given birth to Michael, their first child, on the previous Tuesday, Jan. 14. There were immediate problems.

"It was a little bit of everything," Jurevicius said. "His lungs mostly."

Doctors told Joe and Meagan that Michael wouldn't live more than a few days. Joe stayed as much as he could at St. Joseph's Women's Hospital. He went to the Bucs' facility once during the week to pick up a playbook.

"I remember walking into Jon's office," Jurevicius said. "I just broke down. He put his hands on my shoulders and told me, 'Go be with your wife and son.' "

When Michael stabilized, Jurevicius' family urged him to play. He flew on the team's fan charter on Saturday, sitting alone in the back of the plane, the last five rows blocked off. He tried to study the game plan when he wasn't crying.

But he played. And he caught. And he ran.

Times file (2003)

Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp (99) congratulates Joe Jurevicius after Jurevicius' big catch and run on a Brad Johnson pass.

Times file (2003)

Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp (99) congratulates Joe Jurevicius after Jurevicius' big catch and run on a Brad Johnson pass.

"Joe inspired all of us that day," Johnson said.

"Was Michael running with me?" Jurevicius said. "Maybe he was. I think the bigger thing for me is that he was fighting. So, I was fighting, too."

The Bucs returned to Tampa. At the hospital, Jurevicius kissed his wife and son. He fell asleep in a rocking chair after reading a book to Michael.

"Goodnight Moon," Jurevicius said.

The Bucs won Super Bowl XXXVII.

Michael William Jurevicius passed away on March 24, 2003. He was 10 weeks old.

"He was a fighter," Jurevicius said. "I just didn't have him as long as I wanted."

Jurevicius' daughters, 13-year-old Caroline and 10-year-old Ava, are volleyball players. Sometimes he thinks about how his son would be 14 this year and playing high school football as a freshman.

"As we're doing this interview, I'm sitting in my pickup truck and I've got a picture of Michael on my sun visor," Jurevicius said. "He's with me all the time."

You go, Joe.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com. Follow @mjfennelly.