Raised in cradle of quarterbacks, Pine-Richland's Jurkovec follows Western Pa. legends as next star
With teammates lurking in the hallway like paparazzi peeking through a weight-room window, pretending to snap photos with their smartphones, Pine-Richland's Phil Jurkovec just smiled at their silliness.
Far more comfortable when sharing the limelight with his friends, the Notre Dame recruit isn't entirely at ease with his new label as the next great quarterback from Western Pennsylvania. Especially not when the accolades single him out from his teammates.
“I don't especially enjoy (the hype),” Jurkovec said. “I just love playing the game. I've always loved it. Just playing with all my friends that I've grown up with, that's the part that I really like.”
But when raised in the cradle of quarterbacks, where Pro Football Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Dan Marino set the standard, someone occasionally will receive that “next great one” label.
And for now, it's Jurkovec's to wear.
A year ago against Class AAAA competition, the 6-foot-5, 200-pounder became just the second quarterback in WPIAL history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. Tall, quick and athletic with a lively arm, he enters his junior season with many more eyes on him.
He likely would be a Friday night star anywhere in the country, but as a superstar quarterback in Western Pennsylvania, there always is a little more fanfare.
“You know the history (of the great quarterbacks here), so the general question is always: Who's the next one?” said former West Allegheny quarterback Tyler Palko, who wore the label in the early 2000s. “(Some asked) is Tyler Palko the next one? Is Phil Jurkovec the next one? The legacy at quarterback goes all the way back to Johnny Unitas. I think the ones that understand that legacy understand you have almost a duty to carry that on.”
Palko, who starred for Pitt and played in the NFL, now works in Missouri for consulting firm Solutions 21, a Pittsburgh-based company that develops business talent. When he committed to the Panthers, he was quickly labeled the next Marino, a common theme in Pittsburgh.
“I wouldn't say it was a pressure to carry that torch, but almost an honor,” Palko added. “You want to represent Western Pennsylvania with pride. Football means a lot to this area, and you want to carry that on.”
Those who have worn it well say the “greatness” label certainly is a source of pride but also comes with a bright spotlight and some lofty expectations.
Jurkovec already is aware.
“I've heard some big expectations,” he said with a laugh, “but no bigger than what I expect for myself. I think that's the important part.”
Western Pennsylvania has six quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and many others have reached the NFL, with some in the college hall of fame. With a verbal commitment to Notre Dame, Jurkovec is sure to hear comparisons, especially with Montana, who once quarterbacked the Irish.
“He has a long way to go before that characterization can really be true,” Jurkovec's father, Jim, said. “I think it's good encouragement, and it certainly lays out the challenge for him to work hard and get better. When you hear some of the names that he's compared to, he knows he doesn't rank with them at this point. He knows that it's going to take a lot of effort to get to the point where he can hopefully be in that category.”
In the spotlight
A few decades ago the “next great” spotlight found Brashear's Major Harris and then Perry's Rod Rutherford, two Pittsburgh kids who starred on City League fields. Later, Palko, Penn Hills' Anthony Morelli and Jeannette's Terrelle Pryor were WPIAL quarterbacks with the label.
They found measures of success.
Now, it's on Jurkovec, a two-sport star who is ranked among the nation's best quarterback recruits.
“Everything you do, you're in the spotlight,” said Morelli, a former five-star recruit who earned an invite to the Elite 11 Camp in 2003. “Whether you win a game and you look like the hero. Or you throw an 80-yard bomb and everybody's saying you're the next greatest quarterback coming out of Western Pennsylvania. Or you lose a game, and then you're the worst thing that ever happened and overrated. It's very tough.
“It can be a distraction at times, but you've just got to really focus on winning football games and try not to put too much pressure on yourself.”
After Penn Hills, Morelli started for Penn State, had a brief stint with the Arizona Cardinals and played professionally in the Arena Football League. He now runs X-Factor Sports Performance Center and QB Academy in Westfield, Ind.
Morelli and Palko would have similar advice for Jurkovec: slow down, don't focus on his Notre Dame years yet, appreciate high school football and win.
“It goes by so fast,” Morelli said. “If I could do it all over again, I'd just enjoy it a little bit more. … I know everything is probably moving kind of fast for him, but the best advice I would give him is to just take a deep breath, step back and really enjoy it because one day it will all go away.”
Harris and Rutherford came along a little before college recruiting invaded the internet, but Palko, Morelli and Pryor became stars into the digital age.
Pryor was Rivals' top-ranked recruit overall in 2008. Palko was the nation's eighth-best dual-threat QB in 2002, and Morelli was the No. 2 pro-style passer in 2004.
Jurkovec's profile already fits in nicely.
The site 247sports.com ranks him as the top dual-threat quarterback and its ninth player overall in the 2018 class. Scout.com and ESPN both rank Jurkovec fourth among junior QBs. Rivals hasn't yet ranked the 2018 class but has him among the site's Top 100.
“I do look at (the rankings), but I don't pay much attention to it,” said Jurkovec, who is quick to credit his family for keeping him humble. “I'm thankful to all the recruiting services that have put me in among the top players. But I don't think it means that much.”
Jurkovec committed in May to Notre Dame, a school that also featured Terry Hanratty from Butler and Paul Failla from North Allegheny at quarterback. Jurkovec, who attended Catholic school as a kid, chose the Irish from among 16 scholarship offers, with Pitt, Penn State and Ohio State among them.
One of five siblings with a sixth on the way, Jurkovec's family hails from Shaler, but moved to Mt. Lebanon and later Pine Township when Phil was in grade school.
“He was always a bigger kid that nobody could tackle,” Pine-Richland coach Eric Kasperowicz said. “I heard about him in middle school. He was a pretty lanky kid who could run real well. Had a good arm but needed to work on some fundamentals.
“Once he got into the program in ninth grade you could see pretty early on that he was head and shoulders above everybody else.”
Working in a spread offense that is matched well to his dual-threat skills, Jurkovec completed 176 of 264 passes for 2,560 yards, 20 touchdowns and only four interceptions as a sophomore. He rushed for 1,250 yards and scored 11 times on 130 carries as a first-year starter, with five 100-yard rushing games included.
The only other WPIAL quarterback ever with a 2,000/1,000 season was Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams, who accomplished the feat in Class A in 2012.
“Phil has a great family and has a great head on his shoulders,” Kasperowicz said. “He's a humble, hard-working kid that understands what got him to where he's at now.”
Once a standout dual-threat quarterback at North Hills, Kasperowicz experienced a similar situation.
“But probably not as good,” he said laughing, “and obviously without half of the internet and all that stuff which quadruples (the attention) for him.”
In recent decades, no one drew more eyes than Pryor, who now is a receiver with the Cleveland Browns. Jurkovec is the WPIAL's best dual-threat QB since the Jeannette star. Pryor's coach at Jeannette, Ray Reitz, visited Pine-Richland in July and watched Jurkovec in a passing camp.
“I thought he was pretty smooth,” said Reitz, an assistant at Greensburg Salem. “He threw the ball well. But those seven-on-sevens are just the passing part. When you get in the shotgun and he's running the ball, that's a whole other dynamic for defenses to stop.”
If the buzz around him is anything like it was around Pryor, Pine-Richland will have tales to tell the next two years. Reitz recalled one night after a Jeannette game when a man in a truck waited at the stadium's gate for Pryor's autograph.
“That night it was on eBay,” Reitz said. “The guy showed up again in the playoffs, and we chased him away. You don't realize what a fishbowl they're in until you go through it.”
Jurkovec's stardom isn't there quite yet, but he still has two years of high school ahead.
“I try to dream big, but I'm just focused on playing the best football that I can possibly play,” Jurkovec said. “Wherever it takes me, it takes me.”