DECORAH, Iowa — Avery Dugger needed some guidance. He was a fifth-grader struggling with the finer points of Nordic dancing, the traditional country dancing-like moves kids in Decorah spend years training to perform.
Learning how to thread the needle wasn’t always easy. Holding one foot and jumping through it with the other takes coordination, talent and work.
Whenever Dugger became frustrated, an older dancer, five years his senior, came over. He gave advice and encouragement. He worked with Dugger to master his footwork and rhythm.
Without him, Dugger wouldn’t have become a standout performer. He’ll never forget what Josey Jewell did for him.
“He would be patient with us when we were screwing around,” Dugger, a Decorah High School senior, said. “He would stay calm and show us what to do.”
Ninety-eight Iowa counties know Jewell as the Hawkeyes’ preseason first-team All-American linebacker and Butkus Award finalist with consecutive 100-tackle seasons. But in Winneshiek County, a town of 7,918 people know him as Nordic dancer, an uncle, fisherman and role model.
It’s here in Decorah, along the Upper Iowa River with cliffs, waterfalls and trees dotting the landscape, where stories flow and the real Jewell emerges. The one where football is just the start of his legacy.
“I told his mother once, ‘If he was my grandson I couldn’t be prouder,’” said former real estate agent and Decorah basketball and football coach Jim Friest.
• • •
Every day, Blake Courtney boarded the bus for elementary school. Every day, he sat next to Jewell, then a seventh-grader who didn’t mind sharing his seat with a younger student. The two are related. Their grandparents were first cousins. Plus, Courtney talked about Jewell’s favorite activity.
The two diagrammed plays and talked strategy. Everyone in Decorah ran the same plays as the high school team.
It was two kids who wanted to wear the Vikings’ royal blue and red jerseys spending their free time trying to find a way to do it.
For Courtney, it made his day.
“He is older,” Courtney said. “ It means a lot. It’s something you really look up to and know four years down the road he is going to be the varsity guy giving you high fives when you are still a little kid standing out there. You learn a lot more. You go into football with a lot more knowledge than before.”
• • •
Only children born every fifth year are eligible to be Nordic dancers. Selected kids train for 10 years and perform dances like the schottische near the courthouse at the town’s annual Nordic Fest.
It turns out 1994 was a Nordic dancing birth year. Jewell barely made the cutoff. His birthday is Christmas Day.
If he had his way, Jewell never would have attended the audition in third grade. The choice, though, wasn’t his.
“ His mom, I remember her telling me he didn’t want to necessarily try out to be a Nordic dancer,” said Ann Kephart, a Nordic dance director for Jewell’s class. “She just dropped him off at the tryout spot.”
Athleticism is a requirement. Coordination and strength is central to most of the dances. The boys perform pushups and hold up girls in various dances.
The wannabe football star stood out. The directors picked 16 boys. Jewell was one of them.
“ I am sure there were times when Josey was like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Kephart said.
• • •
Mike Tangen started dating Jewell’s sister, Jess, when Jewell was a young boy. Early in their relationship, Tangen loved to visit the Jewell’s home and bet Josey some unusual things.
Jewell was so competitive that he dropped everything to run around the perimeter of the house in less than a minute at Tangen’s prompting.
On this visit, Tangen proposed a wager that Jewell couldn’t do 500 pushups. Jewell wanted nothing to do with it. He wised up. He told Tangen that he knew he was pushing his buttons.
A little while later, a noise came from Jewell’s room. He was doing pushups.
“What are you doing?” Tangen yelled.
Jewell didn’t respond. He didn’t have time. His competitiveness got the best of him. He wasn’t going to talk until after he finished his 500th pushup.
“ That’s just the type of person he is,” Tangen said.
• • •
Bill Post knows his program values aren’t unique. The Decorah football coach is after hard-working kids who do the right thing and treat people with respect. He believes the characteristics he values are the same that make good men.
If any player was the embodiment of what he wants, it was Jewell. He was a straight-nosed kid who followed the rules. Jewell arrived early for weight-lifting sessions and stayed late after practice.
He did everything he was asked, pushed his teammates and led by example. Jewell commanded respect. For Post, the things Jewell did when he wasn’t on the field stand out as much as what he did on it.
“ To me, he represents what a football player should be about,” Post said.
• • •
Decorah won four football state championships between 1974-89. Rick Fromm, managing editor for Decorah Newspapers, lived in town for three of them.
The fifth title was elusive for two decades. Three times, the Vikings finished runner-up through 2008.
Then the Class of 2013 arrived. It was full of standout athletes, none better than Jewell. If anyone would bring another championship, it was Jewell and his classmates.
Fromm loved watching Jewell rush for 3,240 career yards and 42 touchdowns by running over and around defenders as a running back, but his favorite part was watching him play linebacker.
Jewell, a two-time all-state selection, played with reckless abandon, throwing his body at ball carriers, turning the game into a slugfest.
One time, Fromm noticed an opposing fan leaving a game early. He asked the man why.
“ He goes, ‘I have to go because that 42 is going to kill somebody and I don’t want to see it,’” Fromm said.
He laughs, recalling the memory.
“So that is Josey,” Fromm said.
And it’s what draws the town to Jewell.
“He has always done with it humility,” Fromm said. “He always plays very confidently and very, very hard on the field, but he will be the last one to tell you how great he was or how good he was on the field. That is just not him.”
• • •
Jewell’s family rents the land that Andy Lillegraven’s family owns. Every so often, Lillegraven sees Jewell on there. He always stops to chat.
In 2012, Lillegraven would sneak away from his middle-school friends and head to the stands to watch Jewell play. He loved Jewell’s physicality.
Lillegraven is now a Decorah senior offensive and defensive lineman. Jewell is a senior linebacker for Iowa. Lillegraven wants to discuss football and pick Jewell’s brain. He never does.
Everyone talks to him about the Hawkeyes. It never feels like the right thing to do.
“ I know he gets a lot of attention for football, so if I see him I say, ‘How is it going?’” Lillegraven said. “Talk about the farm stuff.”
• • •
Fromm watched a YouTube video a few years ago. Jewell is wakeboarding, trying to avoid rocks littering the Upper Iowa River, while being pulled by a truck as it races along the banks.
“ He is going like hell and just having a great time,” Fromm said.
When it ended, someone turned to Fromm and asked what Jewell’s mom would think of this. It wasn’t the safest activity.
Fromm couldn’t help but smile.
“His mom was driving the truck,” Fromm said. “I don’t know if he’s fearless or what. He just seems like he just takes life and enjoys it to the fullest. Whatever he is involved in, he is committed to.”
• • •
Seemingly everyone in town remembers the 2012 state title football game because they were all there. Just like they remember the heartbreak from 2011, the 21-14 championship loss to Union La Porte City for the fourth runner-up finish.
This time, they remember Jewell because he ensured the number didn’t increase. Jewell’s performance was straight out of a Hollywood script. He displayed every trait the town loved in a 49-21 win over Bishop Heelan. His physicality set the tone. His 4 tackles and 1 interception keyed the defense.
“ We used to call him the human highlight film,” said Steve White, the owner of Mabe’s Pizza.
He lived up to the nickname in the UNI-Dome. Jewell rushed for 160 yards and 3 touchdowns. The play Jake Muhlbauer, then a middle-school student, remembers is Jewell’s 23-yard diving reception on a wheel route.
“ It was, how do you do this?” said Muhlbauer, now a Decorah senior running back/safety. “He had such athleticism and determination. It was amazing.”
Decorah brought home the elusive fifth title. The victory mattered. So did who delivered it.
“ Decorah takes a lot of pride,” Fromm said, “especially in the school system, in trying to be good whether it’s academic or sports, and he pretty much epitomizes that attitude.”
• • •
The Halling comes across as a mating ritual as a dance. It culminates when the male kicks a hat off a broomstick held on a chair by the female.
Jewell was a natural Nordic dancer. His athleticism helped and it showed in the Halling.
Most dancers use a heel kick to knock off the hat. Jewell worked a backflip into how he removed it.
“ Nobody else was doing moves like that,” Dugger said.
Kephart worried as Jewell lined up to perform the backflip in his final dance entering his senior year. Nordic Fest is held in July. Football practice started a few weeks later. She didn’t want a potential dancing injury to impact the eventual state championship season.
When Jewell landed safely, Kephart let out a sigh of relief. The rest of the crowd cheered wildly.
“He liked to show off with his backflips,” Kephart said.
• • •
The Decorah football roster listed Jewell at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds his senior year. Iowa football staff thought he stood an inch shorter, and potentially 10 pounds less.
He cut a mean image on a high school football field, but it wasn’t what college coaches wanted to see. Jewell was too small to be a prototypical linebacker and teams were concerned about his quickness as a safety.
Despite his impressive highlights, he entered his senior basketball season without a Division I football scholarship offer. Friest, the former Decorah basketball and football coach, saw Jewell before getting on the bus for a basketball road game. He told Jewell they both knew he was a Big Ten-caliber athlete.
“ He had a really big smile,” Friest said.
Not as big as when Iowa offered him a scholarship three days before signing day in February 2013.
• • •
Jewell loves to fish. Tangen wasn’t much of a fisherman. Jewell volunteered to take Tangen’s son, Jaden, on the water.
Tangen still remembers the joy on Jaden’s face when Jewell handed him his pole and helped him reel in a fish.
Thanks to Jewel, Jaden, now 5, is an obsessed angler.
“ That has had a huge impact,” Tangen said. “He’s even got me into it. I take Jaden fishing more now. For sure it really sparked his interest in fishing.”
• • •
One player kept killing Aaron Hageman’s slow pitch softball team. About a year ago, the dude kept smacking the ball all over the field and ran around the bases like a gazelle.
He made a comment to a teammate about the guy. His buddy said two words.
“ I didn’t even recognize him at first,” Hageman said. “That explained why he was so fast.”
He should have. Hageman is the manager at Sports World, the downtown Decorah sporting goods store that sells replica Jewell Iowa jerseys. Hageman sees the jerseys all around town. When first put on sale, they became as popular in northeast Iowa as Running Man Challenge videos on social media last year.
“They flew off the shelves,” Hageman said.
• • •
After nailing his backflip, Jewell and the rest of the 1994-born Nordic dancers headed to Catalina Island in California for a senior trip in 2012.
Kephart sent the teenagers out to convince tourists to watch their outdoor performance later in the day. She didn’t expect the boys to be too enthusiastic about their task. To her surprise, Jewell was one of the first to put on his knickers, walk up to strangers and sell them on the dancing.
A few weeks later, Kephart received a graduation gift thank-you note. Jewell wrote mostly about his time dancing and confirmed what Kephart saw from Jewell in California.
“ It was a big part of his high school and the memories that were made,” Kephart said. “They were wonderful to him.”
• • •
Post isn’t a fan of mentioning Jewell’s name around his football team. He wants each team to develop its own personality. Post also doesn’t want to discourage kids by telling stories of an athlete doing feats they may never accomplish.
He won’t say “Jewell this” or “Jewell that.” Post prefers to mention the 2012 team. The entire squad followed Jewell’s lead. The team exhibited the physicality and football IQ that Post desires.
Not everyone can play like Jewell, but they can follow those standards. To Post, that’s most important.
“I let his name speak for itself,” Post said.
• • •
The players let Jewell’s number do the talking.
“Once we got to high school, the 42 jersey was kind of sacred,” Muhlbauer said. “If you wore that, you had to be a stud. That is what we all wanted to be.”
The current team grew up watching Jewell. The kids idolize him. He won a state title. He went on to Iowa. Jewell is their image of the Vitruvian Man.
“He never wanted to get taken down,” said Muhlbauer, a running back. “That is what I wanted to be. I never wanted to go down easy.”
Jewell seems bigger than life every Saturday on TV, but their first thoughts go back to larger high school opponents unable to stop him. He taught them why drive and determination are important.
“The biggest thing is he wasn’t scared of anybody,” Decorah senior linebacker Cole Tweten said. “In high school, he was probably under 200 pounds. It shows smaller guys you don’t have to be afraid of anybody. You can still run people over.”
They speak about him with reverence as each player shares a different story from Jewell’s high school days.
Some stories seem over the top, as if plucked from a Saturday Night Live Bill Brasky skit. Like the time Jewell was hungry after a workout and the only thing around the locker room was a can of protein powder. So Jewell started eating it raw. No liquid. No mixture. Just powder.
Whether it happened isn’t the point. The story fits the Jewell they remember watching.
“He is kind of a badass,” Tweten said.
It’s why they love him. It’s why they play how they do. They want to live up to his legacy.
“He sets the bar,” Lillegraven said. “He has great work ethic and then being a good person and staying humble. He lives the life by doing things the way people here think it should be done.”
• • •
Everyone in Decorah seems to know Jewell. Then there is Christine, a waitress at Mabe’s Pizza. She has yet to meet him.
“I’m probably the only one here that can say that,” she said.
Christine works in town, but lives a few minutes across the Minnesota border. She doesn’t feel like she is missing out because he hears about him from patrons.
“People hear his name and it brings a smile to everyone’s face,” she said. “It’s a unique thing. It doesn’t happen with anyone else. It’s like they all remember a story with him.”
• • •
Jewell pauses for a split second, unsure how to respond. When asked if he ever considered giving a speech at the high school, it’s as if he never considered the thought.
It’s probably because he hasn’t.
“Maybe when I’m older,” Jewell said. “I don’t think I’m out of high school enough yet to come back and share my experience. I don’t know if I’m as knowledgeable as other people.”
The answer doesn’t surprise Post. This is Jewell being the same kid he was five years ago.
“I think it’s because he hasn’t made it to the big time and he had such a struggle getting to Iowa and them taking him on that he maybe feels a little self-conscious,” Post said. “That maybe he’s not as good as everyone thinks he is.”
Post knows better. So does Decorah.
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