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Iowa unearths a rare gem in linebacker Josey Jewell

If you want a symbol for No. 5 Iowa's surprising season, look no further than Josey Jewell.

A no-name recruit. Tough as nails. Making plays all over the field as the Hawkeyes' middle linebacker and leading tackler (77 stops).

Better yet, he's an Iowa kid, raised on a corn farm in Decorah -- a town of about 8,000 people in the northeast corner of the state near the Minnesota border.

"I always dreamed of being an Iowa Hawkeye," he says.

It was a dream deferred for a couple generations for the Jewell family. His grandfather, Robert Sr., was a star fullback who earned a scholarship to play for the Hawkeyes in 1945. He made it to Iowa City but never to the football field. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor, spent six weeks in the hospital and returned home to tend the family's 2,000-acre farm.

Josey would be the one to fulfill the family dream. His father, Bobby, tells a story he swears is true. When Josey was almost 4 years old, he was out on the farm trying to help move a piece of machinery. He got caught up in a wheel and broke his hand. Bobby's first thought was, "Oh, no. I messed up this kid's future as a football player."

Bobby doesn't know exactly why he thought that. There was just something about Josey's rough-and-tumble demeanor, even then, that convinced him his son would do great things in football. Anyway, he remembers the date of the accident: Dec. 2, 1998. That's because when he looked up at the TV in the hospital waiting area, he saw Kirk Ferentz being introduced as Iowa's new coach.

"I said to myself, 'Maybe someday Josey can play for this man,'" Bobby recalls.

That nearly didn't happen.

A natural athlete from a family full of them, Josey starred in four sports at Decorah High School and led his team to the Class 3A state title as a senior. But he was also just 190 pounds, playing linebacker and running back for a small school in an out-of-the-way recruiting area. He drew interest from mostly lower-division programs and a partial scholarship offer from FCS Northern Iowa -- "They said they'd pay for his books," Bobby Jewell said. "That irritated Josey."

Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan stayed in contact with Jewell for months but couldn't promise anything. Finally, on the Sunday night before signing day in 2013, the Hawkeyes pulled the trigger.

"The first thing I think about is how close we came to not offering him a scholarship," Ferentz said on Saturday, after Jewell had 15 tackles in a 35-27 win at Indiana. "Our astute judgment of ability, I guess."

Jewell, a redshirt sophomore, has put on more than 40 pounds since coming to campus. He worked his way into the starting lineup late last season and was one of the few bright spots in the Hawkeyes' dismal TaxSlayer.com Bowl loss to Tennessee, earning defensive MVP honors after making 14 tackles.

This year, he's grown into "a tremendous leader" and "a magnetic guy," Ferentz said. Jewell is even drawing rave reviews from famous predecessors at his position.

Jewell barks out the play calls and gets everybody on the defense lined up properly. But for the most part, much like his grandfather, Jewell rarely says anything more than absolutely necessary.

How does an underclassmen who's so quiet lead others so well? It's all in the way Jewell carries himself.

"It's kind of like, he has this bad-ass mentality," senior outside linebacker Cole Fisher said. "He’s a tough, hard-nosed dude. People see that and it inspires them to play the same way."

That leads us back to that tremendous name, Josey Jewell.

His father is a fan of the 1976 Clint Eastwood movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and decided that the family already had enough Roberts (Josey's older brother is named Robbie). Naming him after a tough guy in a Western somehow fit perfectly. Josey's high school coach, Bill Post, noted how in his stance the linebacker always has his hands down to his side "like he's about to draw out six-shooters. He's got that air to him. An ornery streak."

Nobody was prouder of Josey than his grandfather. Robert Jewell Sr. died about an hour before the kickoff of this year's Iowa-Wisconsin game. The Hawkeyes won 10-6 and got some help when Badgers quarterback Joel Stave stumbled and fumbled near the goal line in a crucial moment.

"Josey says that grandpa reached out and tripped him," Bobby Jewell said. "He was the 12th man on the field that day."

Fields of dreams. Heavenly intervention. Corn farms. Yep, this is an Iowa story all right. And Josey Jewell makes for a perfect leading man.