Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2012 Issue

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 52 of 55

Where Have You Gone? Mirko Jurkovic, 1988-91 Defensive/Offensive Lineman Former All-American is tough as ever while battling cancer By Lou Somogyi At another time in his life, Mirko Jurkovic might have thought that playing at Notre Dame for offensive line coach Joe Moore and head coach Lou Holtz might be his most difficult challenge. Compared to the last two years, those four seasons were the salad days. In August 2010, the then-40-year-old father of three children was diagnosed with colon cancer. After undergoing a full colectomy, he went through eight months of chemotherapy before receiving a clean bill of health. However, in October 2011, a bowel obstruction revealed new nodules of cancer that had infiltrated his system. Since then, Jurkovic has undergone new rounds of treatment. They have progressed well enough that he can now take treatment every three weeks as opposed to two. “My hope is that it continues to stay in control and that next year I can go four weeks to keep it under control,” Jurkovic said. Chemotherapy will become a regular regimen in his life because his current battle is treated as a chronic condition, not just a spot that can be measured. “Put it this way: When I have to stop doing chemo, it’s a bad sign,” said Jurkovic, who says the sessions are “10 times harder” than anything he did on the gridiron. “In football, you have control. You work harder, you get prepared, you can accomplish things. Here are things that are out of control. You’re at the mercy of so many others … but you appreciate things for what they are and take a different perspective.” While he’s reluctant to equate battling for one’s life with the intense competition on a football field, he is thankful that athletics provided him the instincts to not be willing to accept setbacks. “You put a game plan together and you figure out what you’ve got to do, what it’s going to take,” said Jurkovic, who moved back to the South Bend area nine years ago. “Then you have support from wife, kids, family, extended family and friends, and you start to realize you’re not alone. There’s an incredible community of patients that are going through it, and you quit feeling sorry for yourself and figure out what you’ve got to do next. “Then you enjoy every day a little more, and you get through it like anything else. I don’t think people realize the strength they have inside themselves until they’re dealt with something like that. Once they have it, people tend to be stronger than they thought they were.” Glory Days Jurkovic’s parents immigrated to the United States from Croatia in 1967 and settled in at Calumet City, Ill. Although English was Jurkovic’s second language, his senior course load at Thornton Fractional North High included advanced placement calculus and honors physics. Older brother John already was a Division I-AA All-American at Eastern Illinois as a defensive end, but Mirko was an even more sought-after prospect. His only two recruiting trips were to Michigan and Notre Dame (he canceled trips to Alabama and Georgia), and he opted for the Irish because it was slightly closer to home — “my parents didn’t like traveling too far from the village,” he joked — and because Notre Dame had natural grass as its playing surface, whereas Michigan and other Big Ten schools had Astroturf that exacerbated the pain in his knees. “FieldTurf is an unbelievable blessing compared to Astroturf,” he said of the future possibility of Notre Dame installing it in its stadium. Although overshadowed by fellow freshman starters Raghib “Rocket” Ismail at wideout, tight end Derek Brown and outside linebacker Arnold Ale, Jurkovic became a top reserve along the defensive front, behind George “Boo” Williams. He played in all 12 games for the national champs, with his longest stints of eight minutes apiece coming in victories against No. 1 Miami (31-30) and No. 2 USC (27-10). With everyone scheduled back for the 1989 defensive line, Jurkovic was shifted to the offense the following spring to be groomed behind senior right guard Tim Grunhard. “That was the first time I heard the saying that you go from the d-line to the o-line — and then to the bus line out of town,” joked Jurkovic, who played the most among all the reserve linemen during that 12-1 season in 1989. In 1990-91, Jurkovic was the starting right guard and earned consensus All-America notice his senior year. During Jurkovic’s four seasons at Notre Dame, the Irish posted an 11-4 record against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10 at the time of the game — including 7-2 versus the top three. His final game was a 39-28 defeat of No. 3 Florida in the Sugar Bowl in which the offensive line and fullback Jerome Bettis took over to the tune of 245 yards rushing in the second half. His most memorable moment, though, came during his junior year with the 29-20 victory versus defending national champ and No. 2 Miami, which featured an impenetrable fortress led by No. 1 NFL pick Russell Maryland. In the fourth quarter, with Ismail moved to running back, the Irish drove 77 yards to up their lead to 29-20. Later backed up at their 4-yard line with the game still on the line, the Irish ran out the clock against Miami’s stacked look. Ismail finished with 100 yards rushing and Notre Dame 276 overall against a unit permitting just 62 yards per game on the ground. “We hadn’t done this before, but there in the huddle we were holding hands as linemen,” recalled Jurkovic of the esprit de corps. “The running backs and receivers were just hitting us on the helmet to indicate how well we were doing. Then in the locker room as we just sat by our lockers, Joe Moore cried and hugged each one of us. “There were a lot of great games, but those are the two I still remember like it was yesterday.” Jurkovic said the most difficult practices came during preparation for teams that the Irish were expected to beat by several touchdowns. “The weeks that we knew we would pound people, Joe Moore literally pounded us during the week,” Jurkovic recalled. “You absolutely had no chance to let your mind wander and be complacent because if you did in practice … he was pretty tough when he wanted to be.” Beyond Football Reports of Jurkovic’s tender knees didn’t help his draft status, but the ninth-round draft choice of the Chicago Bears refused to use that as an alibi for playing only one year in the NFL. “Everyone’s got something that hurts,” Jurkovic said. “The bottom line is I didn’t do enough to make the coaches keep me.” Jurkovic married his wife, Angela, a Purdue graduate, in 1993, and worked at Preston Trucking for several years before latching on in 1999 with Stryker, one of the world’s leading medical technology companies. Although he’s in the sales end of the industry, Jurkovic often is in the operating room with the physicians, and that has included former teammate and now Notre Dame team physician Dr. Brian Ratigan, one of his closest friends. The union of Jurkovic and his wife has produced son Mirko (15), and daughters Claire (13) and Samantha (10). “Little Mirk” already is a starting right guard as a sophomore for South Bend St. Joseph High, Claire is a budding volleyball prospect and Samantha might have the most athletic ability of everyone in the family. “When other parents were buying books to read to their children, we were trying to trip them when they walked to make sure they’re coordinated,” cracked Jurkovic. Upon his return to South Bend in 2003, the affable Jurkovic was asked by Notre Dame to team with former running back Reggie Brooks (1989‑92) to help host the university’s postgame radio show. He has continued in that capacity to this day in the weeks where he didn’t have chemotherapy, and served as the color analyst for Don Criqui of the IMG Network in this year’s Purdue game. His continued work with Notre Dame and Stryker, plus the love and support from family and friends, has kept his spirits undaunted. “I’ve often said that life after football is much easier than football, because you go to Notre Dame to get prepared for life,” Jurkovic said. There is no manual during one’s school days on how to battle cancer, but just like in his playing days, Jurkovic is paving a way to create positive and long gains. The Gift Of Gab Certain families just have the gift-of-gab gene. The Golics are among them, with former Notre Dame stars Bob (1975-78) and Mike (1981-84) both hosting their own radio shows. The Jurkovics — Jon and Mirko — also have become quite comfortable behind the microphone. John Jurkovic, who played in the NFL from 1991-99, is an afternoon host on ESPN 1000 in Chicago. Meanwhile, for the past nine years, Mirko Jurkovic has been an active voice on Notre Dame’s website and postgame radio show, where his football knowledge, previous playing experience, accurate and candid articulation and quick wit have served him well. “I’m still waiting to do a national championship game,” Jurkovic said. “I’ve said for years they’re not a great team until they get a great defense. We’re starting to show that.” — Lou Somogyi

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - Oct. 8, 2012 Issue