DECORAH, Iowa — There was this time when Josey Jewell, as a teenager, tried to take a few friends across the Upper Iowa River to a cabin on his family farm. The river had recently flooded, and their pickup slid through the mud into a tree. So to free the truck, Josey and the boys decided to cut down the tree.
A solid plan, it seemed, until the tree fell on the truck.
Josey’s father, Bobby, and older brother, Robby, third-and fourth-generation Jewell farmers, tell this tale with visible amusement, reveling in the moments that helped shape one of the great defenders in Iowa Hawkeyes football history.
Josey the football hero and Josey the farm kid are forever intertwined.
Jewell’s rise in Iowa City is rooted on a 1,200-acre tract of rolling hills and natural playground space with room aplenty to nurture Thanksgiving-ready organic turkeys and to raise corn, beans and cattle. Amid the antics on the river, Josey, the youngest of four siblings, learned the importance of work from his many unpleasant encounters with the tasty birds served this week alongside stuffing and sweet potatoes.
His take on turkey? It’s delicious on the dinner table — but a real nuisance to get there.
“With hard work comes reward,” Robby Jewell said. “He saw that first on the farm.”
The story of Josey Jewell has been recounted often.
How Bobby and Paula Jewell named him after “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” as portrayed by Clint Eastwood. How Josey broke his hand on the farm at age 4, and his dad could only think of what it might mean for the kid’s football career. How despite his astonishing accomplishments on the high school gridiron, the Hawkeyes hedged until late in offering him a scholarship.
It’s the stuff of legend now.
A leading candidate for the Butkus, Nagurski and Bednarik awards, Jewell has accumulated 41 starts and 418 career tackles, fifth in school history and more than any Iowa player of the past decade. As the presumptive All-America middle linebacker readies for his final regular-season game Friday at Nebraska, his legacy is secure.
“He’s just a grinder,” fellow linebacker Ben Niemann said. “He brings it every day.”
HIS DAYS OF GRINDING BEGAN in the two large turkey sheds on the Jewell farm. Josey disliked few chores more than scrubbing the troughs from which the turkeys drank. It was tedious. Think of it like watching hours of game film, only much more disgusting.
From the day the turkeys hatch and arrive at the Jewell farm, they require close attention.
The birds are prone to drown in rain storms if water seeps into their undeveloped ear canals. Young turkeys seek heat constantly, even in the warmth of the barn, and often huddle together, dying by suffocation.
“These are not the smartest animals,” Josey said.
Infection is a concern. So are predators such as coyotes, raccoons, hawks and owls.
“The only thing dumber than a turkey is a guy who raises them,” said Bobby Jewell, repeating a lined passed down from his father.
When the turkeys are fully grown after 16 weeks, they weigh 20 pounds and fill nine semi trucks en route to the processing plant. But that’s only after they’re loaded them into crates at the farm. Careful not to handle the turkeys too harshly and cause bruising, Josey recalls that the turkeys pack quite a punch. Wings to the face were common.
And don’t get him started on the process of cleaning the barn after the turkeys departed. After using a skid-loader to remove as much waste as possible, the farmers must shovel out the remaining six-to eight-inch heaps of wood shavings layered with feces.
“The only thing that was a positive,” Josey said, “is getting a workout in.”
Spoken like a true grinder.
“Don’t tell him he can’t,” Bobby Jewell said. “Because that’s what motivates him.”
MOTIVATION FOR JEWELL AS A KID USUALLY INVOLVED the promise of finishing his chores with enough time left in the day to enjoy seemingly endless methods of recreation on the farm.
And always, there was trouble to find. Young Josey accidentally shoved a kayak through the back window of the farm pickup. He underestimated his strength another time and rolled the door on the turkey shed so far up into the housing that it was stuck for months.
Mostly, he learned about life.
“Day after day, repetition after repetition,” Jewell said, “it provided me with knowledge about how important the details are in life, the importance of the fundamentals. There’s an honesty about going out and working every day. It instilled values in me. Not wanting to do something every day — but you’ve got to do it — when it’s hard work, there’s a resiliency that comes from that.
“In your daily job, you have to go to work. You can’t skip days. If you skip days on the farm, animals die. I think that translated into what happens when I play football.”
Jewell, in fact, has parlayed the farm experiences into a lifestyle.
Everything is coming together for him in these final days as an Iowa student-athlete. He’s set to graduate next month. He’s getting married next July to Micole Lansing, his high school sweetheart from a neighboring town.
When the Hawkeyes enjoyed an open weekend in October, Josey and Micole returned to near the farm to take engagement photos. Although he proposed last spring inside Kinnick Stadium, Josey wouldn’t consider another setting to commemorate their upcoming union.
“That’s where all of our life lessons began,” he said.
His class project-turned-fledgling company, Outlaw Farming Technologies, has spawned a GPS-based livestock fencing product that illustrates the fruit of Jewell’s labor.
And the NFL, once inconceivable, beckons for Jewell.
WITHOUT HIS UPBRINGING, NONE OF IT EXISTS. And no matter where football takes him, he will always come back to the farm — both figuratively and literally.
“If he doesn’t have a pond or a river nearby,” Robby Jewell said, “he will go insane.”
You’ll get no argument from the younger Jewell. Asked if he might settle down in the city after playing in the NFL, Josey answers in a second.
“No, no, no,” he said.
He gets confused in Chicago, where he’s visited for Big Ten media days and to play at Northwestern. Even Iowa City, with a metro population of slightly more than 160,000, is too large for his liking.
“Anywhere near [the farm] would be awesome,” Jewell said. “I’ve always thought about out West, too, like in Wyoming or Montana.”
Likely, though, he’ll find his way back to Iowa, he said. The family farm is burned into his soul.
If the Hawkeyes had not offered that scholarship in January 2013, Josey likely would have lived at home and attended Luther College like Robby, who played football and baseball at the Division III school. Their sisters Jess (discus and shot put) and Sam (basketball) also competed at Luther.
“I didn’t see this for myself,” Josey said. “I saw myself on the farm.”
In Josey’s voice today, you can hear the lessons preached by his father, mixed with the temperament — even the cadence — of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
Josey Jewell is the classic combination of farm and football.
He was born on Christmas Day 1994. And if Paula had given birth to a girl, she and Bobby planned to name the baby Josie, with a soft “s.” Bobby’s mother, Rosie Jewell, had concerns about the male version of the name.
Other kids would tease him, she warned her son. Never happened, according to Bobby.
But there was that time when Josey and his friends, on a Fourth of July weekend, shot a bottle rocket from a moving car. It apparently worried a neighbor, who called the police. Soon, five patrol cars, including a pair of state troopers, showed up at the Jewell’s farmhouse.
“Maybe they thought it was the Outlaw Josey Wales,” Bobby Jewell said.
No big deal in the end. All part of the farm boy legend that is Josey Jewell.