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Mirko Jurkovic as positive as always entering final days

Family, friends, ex-Notre Dame teammates saying their goodbyes to former All-American

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

7:20 PM CST, January 6, 2013

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — In a surreal video preview of the BCS national title game posted last week on UND.com, former Notre Dame All-America guard Mirko Jurkovic identified his alma mater's ability to handle the Alabama offensive line as the key.

"Can we get off blocks and make plays?'' asked Jurkovic, 42, wearing a navy Notre Dame polo shirt and a goatee. "I believe we will.''

As he enters his final days, losing a 28-month fight against colon cancer, Jurkovic still believes life's too short to be anything but positive. The postgame radio host booked a hotel room in Miami and planned to attend Monday's game at Sun Life Stadium. He even tried finagling a sideline pass for his teenage son, Mirko Jr., because that is what dads who live for their children do. He never talked about dying because he was too busy living, such as when Jurkovic privately asked to shoot the video breakdown of the big game in early December just in case something unexpected happened.

Sadly, something has. Mirko has taken a turn for the worse.

"Mirko never complained or pitied himself,'' said Jack Nolan, the director of media productions at Notre Dame who worked with Jurkovic. "He lost weight. He didn't lose Mirko. One of the bravest men I've ever known.''

In the five-minute video, Jurkovic's voice sounded weaker and his body resembled a shell of the 289-pound frame he carried as a Notre Dame captain, but his mind was as sharp as ever. He reminisced about hoisting upperclassmen on his shoulders as a freshman on the 1988 Notre Dame national-championship team that beat West Virginia. He kidded that Notre Dame needed to end its 24-year title drought because embarrassed former teammates "don't want to be like the '85 Bears anymore ... and I'm a Chicago Bears fan.''

Indeed, Jurkovic rooted for the Bears growing up in Calumet City and starring at Thornton Fractional North. On the day the Bears drafted the guard in the ninth round of the 1992 NFL draft, Jurkovic said, "This is hard to put into words.''

Those who know Jurkovic understand how rare that is. Older brother John, — "Jurko'' — has talked sports on WMVP-AM 1000 since 2001, but Mirko always made it hard to remember which member of their Croatian family expressed his opinion for a living.

"He wasn't afraid to say what he meant,'' former Notre Dame quarterback Rick Mirer said. "He was part-serious but could lighten the mood in the entire room. He was a leader, a guy people followed because of his personality.''

Mirer was among the former Notre Dame players who flocked to South Florida and spent time before Monday's game sifting through memories of Mirko the way they did after Dean Brown, a starting tackle on the '88 champs, died suddenly in November. Tragically, that team already has lost six members.

"We were going to meet Mirko in Miami because that meant a lot to him,'' said former Notre Dame center Gene McGuire, Jurkovic's best friend. "There hasn't been a decision in my life since I left college that I made without talking to Mirko first. He never even got into fights at practice because everybody liked Mirko.''

McGuire rushed up from Panama City, Fla., on Wednesday after hearing Jurkovic had worsened. Lindsay Knapp flew in from Minneapolis. Reggie Brooks, Jurkovic's radio partner on Notre Dame postgame shows, visited. Tom Gorman, Tim Ryan. Ex-teammates joined Jurkovic's neighbors and Cal City buddies and people who knew Jurkovic as a salesman of orthopedic surgical equipment. Everybody came to comfort Jurkovic's wife, Angie, and their three children. Everybody took turns saying goodbye to the quintessential "Notre Dame Man'' as doctors brace family and friends for the sad inevitability.

In a somber tone Chicago seldom hears during afternoon-drive time, John Jurkovic explained how doctors took Mirko off antibiotics over the weekend to slowly, mercifully shut his system down.

"The doctor said, 'The good news is his heart and lungs are strong. The bad news is his heart and lungs are strong,' '' John said. "Classic him. Getting every ounce out of his body.''

That attitude was apparent on the last golf trip the Jurkovic brothers took in September to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Mirko finished playing 18 holes in the heat on the challenging TPC Sawgrass course and by the end of the round, according to Knapp, "he could barely stand.''

"But Mirko didn't want to make a big deal out of it and kept smiling, talking to people,'' Knapp said. "The last thing he said was, 'Where are we going to do this next year?' Always positive.

"It's just not going to be the same without him.''

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh