Josey Jewell’s family farm in northeast Iowa houses about 130 cattle across 1,200 acres. And as a kid, it was Jewell’s job to make sure they were fed.
He’d pour grain from a silo into a cart to take to the animals. He’d tend to the fences in the summertime. He’d take on other chores across the property that also features about 18,000 turkeys and “a lot” of corn.
“You have to do stuff with repetition,” Jewell said. “You have to do it day after day. Even if you don’t want to do it, you gotta do it.”
These days, a similar type of meticulous, humble routine has resulted in machine-like tackling. Jewell racked up 437 career stops during a wildly productive career at Iowa that concluded with unanimous All-America honors. His next challenge is bringing that to the Broncos, after Denver selected him in the fourth round of last month’s NFL draft.
“He’s ultra-competitive,” Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace said of Jewell. “Like, ultra-, ultra-competitive. I can’t describe the level of toughness this kid has.”
Jewell grew up in Decorah, Iowa, a town with a population of about 8,000 amongst the high limestone bluffs along the upper Iowa River. Jewell, who is named after Clint Eastwood’s title character in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” learned the value of hard work and time management while working on the farm.
He quickly applied that efficiency to the football field. Jewell was Decorah High School’s leading tackler as a junior and senior, plus a lead-blocking fullback so intimidating that opposing defenders often backed away. He already had a knack for making stops behind the line of scrimmage “in the blink of an eye,” coach Bill Post said. And after Decorah lost in the state championship game as a junior in 2011, Jewell helped lead his team to a title the following season.
“That (championship-game loss) really rubbed him the wrong way,” Post said of Jewell. “… That really set his determination wheels into play. The next year, he came back as a senior just playing lights out.”
But premier recruiting interest did not arrive until late, when Iowa offered Jewell a scholarship just before signing day. That opportunity fulfilled a childhood dream, as Jewell’s grandfather Robert was also a star fullback at Decorah High School but could not continue his football career with the Hawkeyes because of a brain tumor.
Jewell thrived in an Iowa defensive scheme that relies on its linebackers to gobble up tackles. He’d “throw a fit,” Wallace said, when coaches would try to manage his workload by limiting his reps in practice, laser-focused on the importance of drilling small fundamental details during game prep. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Jewell became the only three-time captain in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s 20-year tenure at the school, recognition for Jewell’s businesslike approach. A highlight during Jewell’s senior season — when he compiled 136 tackles and was the Big Ten defensive player of the year — came against Penn State, when he made two consecutive stops (including one against No. 2 overall draft pick Saquon Barkley) inside his team’s 2-yard line to help force a field goal.
“It’s just his innate ability to find the football,” Wallace said. “He does a (heck) of a job of picking a line, committing to a line and going and getting it. … There’s obvious moments in every game where you’re like, ‘Boy, that’s something that a select few of the guys playing that position are able to do.’ ”
That natural instinct and tenacity does not necessarily translate well to the various tests during the pre-draft process. Jewell ran the 40-yard dash in a disappointing 4.82 seconds at the NFL combine, then reduced that time to 4.68 seconds at Iowa’s pro day. But while questions lingered about Jewell’s athleticism, he impressed the Broncos during a trip to Dove Valley.
Jewell also called Denver his favorite team visit before the draft, noting the culture and coaching staff “kind of feels like what I’ve grown up with.” He hopes to contribute immediately on special teams, then challenge for time in a deep linebacking corps.
That quest began Friday, with the opening of rookie minicamp. Jewell knows earning a spot on the Broncos’ roster will require maintaining a meticulous and humble routine.
Luckily, he acquired that mind-set as a child, while tasked with making sure 130 cattle were fed each day.
“I try to think people see me as an average player, and I want to use that to better myself,” Jewell said. “I don’t ever want to overvalue myself or look at myself like I’m better than I really am. I always want to think less of myself, so I keep on pushing myself.
“I learned that from my family, growing up on the farm.”