Phil Jurkovec is the next face of Notre Dame football (but don't tell him that)

Whistling in the dark

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

GIBSONIA, Pa. — The next face of Notre Dame football is smiling.

And sweating. It’s a few minutes after 5 p.m. on May 24, a sunny Thursday, and Phil Jurkovec just finished a workout.

He’s sitting at the dining room table in his family’s red brick house just north of Pittsburgh, decked out in a damp gray Under Armour dry-fit shirt and black mesh shorts. His 19-month-old sister, Leah — who proudly sports a blue Notre Dame cheerleader outfit — is giggling as she climbs the chair across from him.

Meanwhile, his mother, Sara, is telling a story. She’s standing in the doorway to the dining room, recalling with a faint grin their family’s 2016 visit to Penn State. Back then, Phil was one of the most coveted uncommitted prospects in the country, a skinny 6-foot-5 quarterback with scholarship offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Alabama and Ohio State. He was only a sophomore at Pine-Richland High School, but his tape had already traveled.

Phil, too, had begun to evaluate his options. His first visit to Notre Dame came on Oct. 17, 2015, when he watched the 6-1 Irish outrun rival USC. In the six months that followed, Phil added visits to Pittsburgh, Penn State, Pittsburgh (again), Notre Dame (again) and Ohio State.

He returned to Happy Valley for Penn State’s annual Blue-White Game on April 16, 2016, sitting among 65,000 fans to watch a celebrated scrimmage. His parents saw the possibilities, and they also attempted to sell their son.

“At Penn State, the home-state school, it was very impressive,” Sara Jurkovec says. “We drove home from that trip, and Jim (Jurkovec) and I were in the front seat, like, ‘Wow.’ At every turn we were very impressed.”

But Phil wasn’t listening.

On the contrary, he was whistling.

“There was this whistling going on in the back seat. It was the Notre Dame fight song,” Sara says with a laugh.

Exactly one month later, Phil committed to Notre Dame during an unofficial visit. After leaving South Bend, he pulled off the interstate at the first available rest stop and called Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to deliver the news.

And, barely two years after that, the Irish signee is sitting in the dining room, sweating and smiling.

“I’ve always loved that fight song,” Phil Jurkovec says with a grin.

Phil Jurkovec works out Thursday, May 24 at Outer Limits Fitness in Valencia, Pa.

The beginning

It wasn’t just the fight song.

From a young age, for whatever reason, Phil favored Notre Dame. Maybe it was the gold helmets, or the national spotlight, or the fact that his grandmother on his mother’s side is 100 percent Irish (and cooks a mean stew). Maybe it was all of those things; maybe it was none of them.

“I honestly don’t know,” Phil says with a shrug. “I just always liked it.”

In preschool, Phil — the second-oldest of six Jurkovec kids — started asking for Irish gear. A poster of the Four Horsemen and a “PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION TODAY” banner hung in his childhood bedroom. For years, he wore a Notre Dame Joe Montana jersey.

Like Montana, Jurkovec was a quarterback from western Pennsylvania.

But not at first.

“Immediately when I saw him and saw how athletic he was, I said, ‘What position do you play?’ ” recalls Todd Jochem, who coached a 10-year-old Phil in a youth league and later served as his quarterbacks coach at Pine-Richland. “(He said), ‘I was a defensive end and a tight end.’

“I’m like, ‘OK, bud. We’re going to put you at quarterback so you touch the ball on every play.’ ”

And, the more he touched the ball, the more people started talking.

“It was like a folktale growing up,” says Eric Kasperowicz, Phil’s head coach at Pine-Richland. “He was always the biggest kid. He was someone that you were well aware of in the youth program — that he was bigger and faster than everybody else.”

The folktales

OK, so let’s talk folktales. Ever hear the one about the Central Catholic game?

It was midway through Jurkovec’s junior season, and Pine-Richland ran up against a dominant defense that featured three future FBS scholarship players — Notre Dame linebacker David Adams and nose guard Kurt Hinish, and Pittsburgh cornerback Damar Hamlin.

Then, to make matters worse, Phil tore a ligament in the thumb on his throwing hand in the first half.

But he didn’t stop playing, and he didn’t stop throwing.

“It was crazy,” Jochem says. “In the first half we knew (something was wrong). The trainer walked away and gave me that look like, ‘This isn’t good.’ So they taped it, put a glove on. His first pass of the second half was a wobbler. It was like, ‘Oh boy, here we go.’

“But then after that he threw a 40-yard bullet down the sideline over the shoulder to our receiver, and from then on out he was just on fire. It was incredible, and I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know if the tape did it or the adrenaline or what. But he was just on fire.”

Jurkovec — who still sports a thin vertical scar down his right thumb — had surgery and missed the remainder of his junior season … but not before he completed 25 of 36 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns, and rushed 22 times for 111 yards and two more scores.

Of course, Pine-Richland ultimately fell 48-35 to a Central Catholic squad that finished the season 14-2.

But that, in itself, is saying something.

“They pretty much crushed everybody they played,” Jochem says of Central Catholic. “Just because of Phil, we were within six points with three minutes to go. And we couldn’t stop anybody.

“We couldn’t fight our way out of a wet paper bag. But he willed us to stay in that game.”

And, speaking of will, ever hear the one about the Manheim game? OK, so fast-forward past Phil’s surgery, past months of practice and preparation, past 14 consecutive wins to start his senior season.

It was the 2017 PIAA Class 6A state semifinal playoff game. This time, Phil wasn’t smiling. He was barely standing.

He was sick.

Like, really sick. Sick enough to lose 15 pounds in less than two weeks and miss the majority of Pine-Richland’s practices. Sick enough to require a pregame IV. Sick enough that he couldn’t ride the bus to the game with his teammates.

But not sick enough to seriously consider sitting out.

“It was tough, especially the week going up to it, because I think he only practiced one day,” Kasperowicz says. “He didn’t even practice in a walk-through on Thursday. So we had other preparations with more of a wildcat package or our second quarterback running our offense.

“We had a couple plans there ready to go, but ultimately — down deep — I had a good feeling he would be ready and he wouldn’t let it keep him out.”

The virus didn’t keep him out, but Manheim Township also didn’t keep him upright. Jurkovec took more hits in that game than any other in his prep career.

“He’d be lying down and his linemen would be looking at him, like, ‘Is he going to get up?’ ” Sara Jurkovec says.

He got up, and he got even. In an ugly 28-7 win, Jurkovec completed 20 of 33 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and he rushed for 85 yards and a 31-yard score.

“I felt horrible,” says Jurkovec, whose Rams won a state title a week later.

“I don’t know what Jim and Sara said, but I was never concerned that he wasn’t going to play,” Jochem adds. “You’d have to peel him off his deathbed for him not to play.”

Pine-Richland quarterback Phil Jurkovec runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Central Catholic in the fourth quarter of the WPIAL 6A championship at Heinz Field Saturday, November 18, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (Photo courtesy Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

The robot

Bill Nichol is in the robot business.

For the last 10 years, the Penn State graduate has operated Outer Limits Athletic Performance out of a repurposed garage with brown siding in Valencia, Pa., built onto the side of a sloping hill.

Inside, there’s an office, several rows of machines, stacks of free weights, framed posters of the muscular system, a dry-erase board filled with rows of the facility’s all-time records, a basketball hoop and a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger taped to a mirror that reads, “THE WORST THING I CAN BE, IS THE SAME AS EVERYBODY ELSE”.

There’s also Nichol, wearing a black shirt and a backwards baseball hat, exuding endless waves of enthusiasm.

Phil Jurkovec works out Thursday, May 24 at Outer Limits Fitness in Valencia, Pa.

“I always say that we make people a better machine,” Nichol explains. “A machine would make every foul shot and throw every touchdown pass, because it would be perfect. If you train your proprioception (body control), you train your mind-muscle connection.

“Then as long as you’re doing your skill work with your quarterbacks coach or you’re shooting 500 foul shots to make sure your body knows that motion, you have a higher potential of making more of those foul shots, because you’re a better machine. You’re a better robot.”

By that logic, Phil Jurkovec is hardly human. The dual-sport athlete started training at Outer Limits in eighth grade, and he hasn’t stopped since. He’s back today, on May 24, 15 minutes early for a 3 p.m. workout. He’s quickly joined by Robby Carmody, a Mars (Pa.) Area High School basketball standout and a fellow Notre Dame signee.

Years ago, Jurkovec and Carmody played on the same AAU basketball team. And though they’re pursuing different sports, they continue to push each other.

“They want the next level, and they want it so bad that they’re willing to do whatever you tell them,” Nichol says. “They’re just like a sponge. They’ll take on the information. If you say, ‘Go eat this protein,’ they’re going to do it. They’re going to come back and they’re early for their workouts and ready to go.

“Everything else is by the numbers with our training formula. It’s going to work. It just takes someone with the motivation to really harness it.”

Jurkovec is plenty motivated.

Carmody makes sure of that.

Today, that’s evident in the depth hurdle — an exercise where the athlete jumps off a box, lands with both feet and redirects his or her energy to leap over a hurdle. At the tail end of a leg workout, the lean 228-pound quarterback clears 36 inches, then 40 inches, then 44 inches.

“This is easy money,” Carmody says, volunteering to join the competition. And just like that, it’s on.

Robby Carmody leaps over a barrier as Phil Jurkovec, right and trainer Bill Nichol watch on Thursday, May 24 at Outer Limits Fitness in Valencia, Pa.

Phil clears 45 inches, and Robby does the same.

Phil clears 46 inches, and Robby does the same.

The rest of the gym stops and eagerly turns to watch.

“The competition gets me going,” Jurkovec says, wearing that sweaty grin.

Forty-eight inches: check.

Fifty inches: easy.

Fifty-one inches: no problem.

Finally, Phil falters, and Carmody clears 52 inches.

“I can’t let you show me up like this,” Jurkovec says, shaking his head.

Eventually, though, Carmody pulls away, topping out at a personal-best 56 inches. He clears the bar while Nichol shouts and records it on his phone.

“That’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a gym,” the trainer says.

The shining lights

Jurkovec closed his Pine-Richland football career with 11,144 yards of total offense, which ranked second in Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) history (despite missing half of his junior season).

He notched a state record for single-season yardage (5,180) in 2017, passing for 3,969 yards and 39 touchdowns and rushing for 1,211 yards and 24 scores. On the basketball court, he finished as the second-leading scorer in Pine-Richland history with 1,656 career points.

In 2017, he was the first athlete from Pennsylvania’s highest classification (6A) to be named to all-state teams in both football and basketball in 50 years.

It’s not an exaggeration to call Jurkovec a local celebrity.

It’s also fair to conclude that the accomplished quarterback doesn’t care.

“We had a little youth camp out here. We had 120 rugrats running around out here last night, and he was out here working and throwing to them,” Kasperowicz says, sitting on a bench that overlooks Pine-Richland’s football field. “He’s like LeBron James around here. But he just smiles. None of it has gone to his head.”

Maybe that’s because, at home, the determined teenager with the dark blond hair is still just Phillip. He happily shares a bedroom with his 4-year-old brother, Matthias. In a house stuffed with six kids and endless activities, his mother says he’s “just in the mix.”

Phil Jurkovec poses with his younger brother Matthias at his home Thursday, May 24 in Gibsonia, Pa.

Jurkovec’s greatest talent, perhaps, isn’t his ability to throw a football.

It’s an ignorance to the fact that all that talent even exists.

“It’s a failure to see the shining lights,” says Darnell Dinkins, a former eight-year NFL tight end from the Pittsburgh area who has trained Jurkovec for the past two years. “In this world, success sometimes leads to complacency, because if the goal is to be known only, then we achieve that by articles. We achieve that by write-ups, and now I’ve got what I want and I lose that desire to keep moving forward.

“With Phil, it’s not about the fact that he just threw three or four touchdowns. It’s really about what he didn’t do. That type of professional attitude toward development and perfecting his craft is something that you really don’t see from a kid in high school — definitely not a kid in high school that’s had the success that he’s had.”

All success aside, Jurkovec didn’t arrive as a ready-made folktale. He entered high school with funky footwork and a looping throwing motion. Through endless hours spent standing in front of a mirror honing his delivery, or five workouts a week at Outer Limits, he made himself into a better machine.

“The easy answer to that is just his competitiveness, his work ethic,” Kasperowicz says, when asked what separates Jurkovec from other athletes.

“He’ll just outwork you, period. Whatever it is, whether it’s the weight room, film study, on the field on that rep or that play, he’ll outwork you over and over again and beat you down until you have nothing left.”

Pine-Richland head coach Eric Kasperowicz (left) hugs quarterback Phil Jurkovec after the Rams defeated St. Joseph’s Prep, 41-21, in the PIAA Class 6A state championship.

The expectations

Sitting with pristine posture at his dining room table, Phil Jurkovec politely takes exception to the question.

What are your expectations for your freshman season at Notre Dame?

“I don’t really like having expectations, because expectations mean you’re entitled to something,” Jurkovec says. “I’m going in feeling like I’m not entitled to anything. I’m just going to work for everything I get. I’m going to push myself to the limit mentally and physically. I’m just going to be the best teammate I can.

“The only goal for me is really to win, and I don’t really care who does that as a quarterback. If I’m not on the field and the quarterback’s winning, then that’s what we’re going with. That’s the only goal for me. We have to win.”

Riding the wave of a 10-win season, and with nearly its entire defense returning, Notre Dame has an opportunity to win big in 2018. But it also needs improved quarterback play to do that.

Senior Brandon Wimbush was an erratic passer in his first season as the Irish starter last fall, completing just 49.8 percent of his passes before watching junior backup Ian Book lead ND to a Citrus Bowl win over LSU. Wimbush appeared to take positive strides last spring, but there’s no telling whether that will translate in September.

And, if it doesn’t, could a four-star freshman grab the reins?

“His biggest advantage, even coming to Notre Dame, is that he’s going to walk into the quarterback room and he will be without a doubt the most impressive athlete in that room,” Jochem says. “He’s going to come in weighing 235 pounds. He’s 6-5, runs somewhere under a 4.8-40, can throw the ball.

“He’s going to have this advantage that he’s going to look like a leader, look like a quarterback. My suspicion is he’ll be deferential in the drills and stuff, but once he gets out in a team setting, I would be shocked if it’s not immediately apparent that it’s his team, his huddle. That’s just how he’ll perform.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him standing on the ledge, leading the band in the alma mater after the games.”

Better believe, when his time comes, Phil Jurkovec will be smiling and singing.

Or whistling at the very least. ❚

Phil Jurkovec poses for a portrait at his home May 24 at his home in Gibsonia, Pa.

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