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Josey Jewell's toughness has him knocking on the NFL's door, but it's the linebacker's tenderness that has given hope to a young cancer patient fighting for his life.

By Dan Parr | Published Dec. 14, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa – In the oncology unit at the University of Iowa Hospital, a palpable buzz could be felt as Hawkeye football players were making a pre-Christmas visit in 2016, bringing gifts to young patients.

Parker Hopkins, who had just celebrated his second birthday two months earlier, was in room No. 88, along with members of his family. He was worn down from his latest chemotherapy treatment and wanted to see Herky, the Iowa football mascot.

Instead, Josey Jewell walked into the room and unknowingly right into Parker's life.

"Nobody in the room knew exactly what to say," said Kiefer Hopkins, Parker's dad and a lifelong Hawkeyes fan who was starstruck when he saw the 6-foot-2, 236-pound Iowa defender.

They had never met before that day, but Jewell talked to the family as if he had known them for years.

The hulking middle linebacker knelt next to Parker and handed him a gift. It was a remote control car, one that lost a wheel a week later when dad accidentally stepped on it.

That day in the hospital, a connection sparked between Josey and Parker, an odd pairing of sorts, but two people who found inspiration in each other and who share much more in common than what appears at first glance.

Jewell will go down as one of the greatest linebackers in Iowa history, but he's been an underdog all his life. The Iowa farm kid named after Clint Eastwood's brusque character in the film The Outlaw Josey Wales was the two-star recruit no one wanted.

Parker, named after Peter Parker, the comic-book character who becomes Spiderman, wasn't given much of a chance either, having been diagnosed with cancer just 22 months into his life. He's too young to comprehend what he's up against, but knows how to fight, and he knows Jewell is by his side battling with him.

Two superheroes teaming up to beat the odds. Together, they're out to prove no one fights alone.

On Aug. 17, 2016, Parker was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a form of cancer that starts in the bone marrow. Following four rounds of chemo, he went into remission shortly after his first meeting with Josey. Doctors told Kiefer and his wife, Jordan, there was a 3 percent chance of a relapse.

Almost a year to the day of his diagnosis, doctors informed the Hopkins family Parker had in fact relapsed, news that Kiefer says was harder to hear than the original verdict.

In need of a bone marrow transplant, Parker would be spending football season in the hospital. Texts from Josey asking when he could visit the toddler followed soon after the news was posted to Parker's Facebook page, and not long after that, Josey returned to see his ally in their fight.

The patient and player were with each other constantly, whether face to face, hand in hand, or just in thought.

During "The Wave" – a tradition at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium where fans, players and coaches from both teams take a moment between the first and second quarters to acknowledge the kids watching from their hospital rooms overlooking the field – it was Parker whom Josey was thinking about, trying to spot his friend from his 11th-floor window.

This past fall, Parker constantly had Josey on his mind, too, as he recovered from an Oct. 9 transplant that was made possible through a bone marrow donation from Maddux, his older brother by two years.

Doctors told the Hopkins family that children have a difficult time getting out of bed after transplant surgery. But Parker was up to the challenge.

During his hospital stay, he willed all the strength in his little body in order to walk over to the window each day, point to the football field and say, "That's where Josey plays."

Aside from the sound of cows mooing off in the distance and the creak of the office door as it swings open with well-wishers who come calling for Josey's father, Bob, and brother, Robby, it's relatively quiet on the Jewell family farm in Decorah, Iowa, on this cold December day.

The farm, located near the Iowa-Minnesota border about 130 miles north of the Iowa campus, has been in the Jewell family since 1876. It's a place steeped in tradition, family values, back-breaking work and, a few times a year, turkey poop.

The Jewells raise cattle and turkey. They also grow corn, alfalfa, oats and soybeans.

This 1,200-acre farm, cloaked in sunlight from a wide-open sky except for the sprinkles of shadows from the hills and bluffs that dot the land, provide the sturdy foundation for the growing legend of Josey Jewell.

It served as a gigantic playground for Josey and his three siblings. He and Robby used to rush to finish their chores so they could go hunting or fishing in the Upper Iowa River that runs through the middle of the farm.

"This has been a little slice of heaven out here," Bob said. "Being able to raise four good kids on a farm, doing it together. It doesn't get much better than that. The football thing is just frosting."

That said, Bob admits to rough times on the farm when he worried about finances.

"You always carry a lot of debt on the farm," he said. "The old adage is a farmer is always going to be land-rich and cash-poor. And that's true."

Josey, before he was 10 years old, was thinking about how he could use football as a platform to help others. He would say several times as a young kid that he was going to play in the NFL and save the family farm.

Bob says the farm doesn't need saving right now and that he doesn't expect Josey to invest the resources provided by an NFL salary in it, but Josey will want to help.

Inside the office at the farm, the walls are covered in family photos, Iowa football posters and newspaper clippings. A sign on the wall reads:

On this farm
We do hard work
We do respect
We do caring
We do animals
We do planting
We do harvesting
We do faith & love
We do family

On this day, the door might as well be a revolving one, with friends and fellow farmers popping in and out. All of them have something to say about Josey.

Frank Besson enters the room and speaks with a booming voice in a Cajun accent. He's in town from Grand Isle, La,. for hunting season.

"Hey, congratulations," Besson says. "All-American."

"He's the kind of football player I wish I was," says Dave Dunlavy, wearing his Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt.

Jimmy Dotzenrod gets the whole room to erupt in laughter with the first thing he says about Josey.

"He didn't start to like me until he was 18 years old and I'm still not sure if he's fond of me or not," Dotzenrod says.

Yes, as Robby puts it, his little brother can be hard for people to read.

If he had to harvest words, Josey would be in a lifelong drought. He doesn't say much, and while he has a soft side, he also has an edge to him. He's stubborn and stoic.

"Even when he was growing up, he was kind of hard-nosed," said his mother, Paula.

He's a lot like his grandfather, Robert, from his physique to his strength to his toughness and demeanor. If not for a brain tumor and the subsequent surgery that left him deaf in one ear, Robert -- a fullback in his days at Decorah High School -- would've been the first member of the Jewell family to play at Iowa.

Instead, it was Josey who got to live that dream.

It was an Iowa assistant who saw things in Jewell that no one else did: Toughness. Focus. No frills. Pride. Reese Morgan, the Hawkeyes' defensive line coach, throws out adjectives to describe Jewell like they're candy. But it was anything but a sweet first meeting when Morgan came out to scout the Decorah High linebacker and running back.

Jewell's trademark edge was on full display that day. The two-star recruit, accustomed to being overlooked, was expecting to be disrespected. He was ready to dismiss Morgan just as quick as he approached him.

"He had a big chip on his shoulder," Morgan recalled. "When I first got there, he said, 'I suppose you're trying to get me to walk on.' I said, 'I'm here to get information to convince our coaches that you deserve a scholarship.' "

On that same visit, Morgan ran into a coach from a Division II school. "What are you doing here?" the coach asked Morgan.

"I'm here to see Josey Jewell," Morgan replied.

The D-II coach looked at Morgan like he was crazier than a wild turkey.

"He can't play Division I," the coach said.

Morgan wasn't having it. While everyone else could only see an undersized player who wouldn't be fast enough to play major college football, Morgan saw a gargantuan competitor with enough athletic ability to be something special.

Jewell didn't have any Division I offers at the time and was poised to go to Division III Luther College, the school just down the road from the farm and the one attended by all three of his older siblings.

Morgan was persistent in selling Jewell to his boss. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz listened.

"Reese is really understated," Ferentz said. "But if he mentions a guy a couple times, then you need to pay attention."

At that point, the hay was in the barn. The offer was made just before National Signing Day, and Jewell left home for Iowa City, where he would show colleges across the country they had made an egregious mistake.

While Jewell has put on about 45 pounds since he arrived at Iowa, some scouts still see him as undersized and too slow.

He's won awards, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. But the committee that oversees the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker, left him off its list of finalists this year.

For every accolade, Jewell can find someone somewhere who has slighted him. In fact, he seeks them out. He goes on Twitter and will search his name just to find out what people are saying about him.

"I kind of like the negativity," he said. An understatement from an understated guy.

His fellow starting linebacker and roommate, Bo Bower, knows the truth about the Butkus Award snub: It will stick with Jewell for the rest of his life.

"It's motivation for him. It really is," Bower said. "It makes him mad. It's a calm rage. He likes to prove people wrong. He's been doing a really good job of it."

Jewell could pick up more doubters on the way to the next level, and it's a certainty he'll be hunting for them.

The old not-big-enough, not-fast-enough naysaying he encountered early in his career at Iowa is starting to creep back into the new narrative, which leads to the next question: Does he have what it takes to overcome his physical limitations?

Chad Greenway, the former Iowa linebacker and first-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings who played 11 NFL seasons before retiring in March, has a very similar backstory to Jewell's. Both grew up on a farm (Greenway in South Dakota), both were unheralded recruits, both beat the odds as they rose to stardom at Iowa, and both are now considered among the best to play linebacker for the Hawkeyes.

Greenway believes Jewell has an edge over his competition because of his background, and he knows from experience.

"It's a tremendous advantage (growing up on a farm)," Greenway said. "Not necessarily with respect to football in general, but just a mentality when it comes to life. It's really a mentality of putting everything into something without a guaranteed result. One thing that you can't control can screw up everything. Weather. Drought. Whatever it might be."

In the case of Greenway, the thing out of his control was the misperception of Iowa-bred linebackers. He relays a story from his experience at the 2006 combine to drive his point home.

"I was told by NFL scouts at the combine, basically, 'Why would we draft you? There's never been a linebacker from Iowa who's had a good career,' " he said. "They would name all these players that were good college players at Iowa that were linebackers but didn't translate to the NFL. There wasn't much I could tell them other than the fact that in my mind, I knew I was going to do what it takes to be that guy and to work appropriately to get myself to that level."

The farm instincts paid off for Greenway, and the Vikings. He made two Pro Bowls, and averaged 100 tackles a season before retiring, shattering whatever stereotypes might have existed about Iowa linebackers.

Greenway believes those same instincts will be the great equalizer for Jewell at the next level, although no one's expecting him to look like a star in pre-draft workouts, including Ferentz.

"Josey's not what I would call a combine guy," Ferentz said. "He's not 6-3, he's not going to run a 4.4 (40-yard dash). But if you're not careful, you're going to miss a lot of good players that way. My advice is just watch the film."

The film will show a player who runs a little bit faster than most people when he sees the football. It will show a redshirt freshman with no quit in him playing harder and faster than the rest of his teammates in a blowout bowl matchup against Tennessee. The film will show him stopping Saquon Barkley, at the time the Heisman front-runner, dead in his tracks this past season in a game where Jewell finished with an eye-popping stat line: 16 tackles (3 for loss), 1 interception, 1 fumble recovery and 2 pass breakups.

The film will show a lot, but it won't show everything teams should know about him.

His best moments leading up to the draft -- the ones that leave teams saying we have to pick that guy -- probably will come away from the cameras. In meeting rooms when NFL evaluators look Jewell in the eye and take the measure of his character, they'll see a cold stare -- Jewell has a way of looking right through people -- but they might also see the same things Reese Morgan saw five years ago in an undersized teenager that nobody believed in.

Jewell has a way of leading without saying a word. He's the only three-time team captain in Iowa football history.

"He's as clean a prospect as you'll find in terms of his off-the-field evaluation," said an NFC scout. "I don't expect him to test off the charts, but I think he's a starting linebacker on Sundays for somebody."

Ferentz has seen this movie before. Former Iowa guard Marshal Yanda, a third-round pick of the Ravens who's been selected to six Pro Bowls, comes to mind when he thinks about what lies ahead for Jewell and the team that drafts him.

Ferentz guesses Jewell will probably get drafted in the second or third round, and a few years from now, he expects the GM that drafts him to look back and say, "Oh (expletive). We made a good pick here."

A green bracelet sits on Jewell's right wrist to remind him of Parker and the fight they're in together. It's a tight fit, but it rests just below the scar on his right hand from the time he broke two metacarpal bones as a youngster in an accident on the farm, a mishap that happened while helping his dad move an auger.

On that day in the hospital when Josey and Parker first met, Kiefer handed Jewell a bag of wristbands. It took a little bit of work, but he eventually was able to slide one of them on.

"His wrist was so big that he had to stretch it out to get it on," Kiefer said. "It looked like it was cutting off the circulation in his hand. I felt bad for the guy."

Inscribed on the wristband is "Parker's Army" and the phrase "No one fights alone".

Since the day he put it on over a year ago, Jewell has never taken it off. It's collected dirt and grime from football fields in at least eight different states. He's worn it so long that it's changed colors from a bright gold to dark green.

"Every time you look at it, you get a little something from it," Jewell said.

In the spring, Jewell plans to wear the wristband when he makes the biggest run of his life. Parker's dad gets choked up at the thought of seeing Jewell running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine with the bracelet on.

"It brings tears to my eyes just to think about it," Kiefer said. "It means he's still thinking about Parker. The fact that he's still thinking about Parker means the world to us.

"(When) he gets drafted, it's not just a win for him; it's a win for all of us."

When Jewell sets up at the starting line at the combine, he'll be by himself, but he won't be alone.

He'll have Parker and his entire family cheering for him from their home in Muscatine, 330 miles from Indianapolis. He'll have the work ethic he learned from growing up on his fourth-generation family farm to aid him. He'll have the motivation from everyone who told him he wasn't good enough along the way.

Josey Jewell doesn't live in the same world as the rest of us. Where he lives, anything is possible.

The football player no one wanted becomes a legend. The child diagnosed with cancer is undeterred, even though he doesn't fully understand what he's fighting.

You can lift yourself and those around you through sheer force of will.

Fate isn't something predetermined. It's something you squeeze in the palm of your scarred hand and mold until it takes the shape you desire.

It might seem like a miracle, but to Jewell it's just life.

"He might not realize it as that hometown country boy, but he's an inspiration to a lot of people," Kiefer said.

Jewell's toughness has him knocking on the door of the NFL. His tenderness might not count for much in the football world, but it's a reminder of what's truly important in life.

No one fights alone.

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