I'm here to see the captain—but the Portland Timbers' media-relations staff is being noncommittal.
They say the schedule is tight this week. That availability is minimal. That today, Jack Jewsbury has a post-practice Q&A session with members of the Little Timbers Fan Club, all geared up and gathered in the wood-paneled west grandstand at Jeld-Wen Field.
Granted, it's a travel week, five days after a bitter 3-2 loss to archrival Seattle, and it's the very morning that rumors about the job security of Portland's head coach and some of its big-name players start to swirl around the depths of the internet. The air, already infused with the nervous energy that comes with seven straight winless matches, is tinged with tension.
I ask to sit in on the kids' Q&A and there's reluctant agreement. While walking over, I'm quietly asked not to report on Jewsbury's interrogation.
I can't help but grin. And agree.
What follows is just the sort of thing a media-relations staffer would want all over the record, on a big screen and broadcast on a livestream: Jewsbury is jovial, his smile broad as he answers the children's wide-eyed queries with wit and self-deprecation. The kids laugh and cheer. The parents swoon. I pick up some juicy off-the-record material, like what kind of candy Jewsbury prefers and whether or not Captain Jack likes pirates. (Go ahead, subpoena me.)
Jewsbury is the Timbers' first-ever Major League Soccer All-Star selection after being voted by fans onto the league's First XI alongside midfielders David Beckham and Brek Shea. Jewsbury leads Portland in goals and assists. He's worn the captain's armband every match, and after he finishes up to applause from the kids, I slip out of my seat and approach Portland's on-field leader. If he's in a crunch for time, Jewsbury's Midwest sensibility won't let him show it.
"I think [the All-Star selection] is more of a team award," Jewsbury says, equal parts admirably and adorably, about what's obviously a solo honor. "Without guys getting in on the end of crosses and putting in the hard work at training, these things don't come for individuals."
Sound like he has a little captain in him?
Born in Joplin, Missouri, Jewsbury was a state-record goal scorer at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, Missouri, and played college footy at storied Saint Louis University. He was drafted by Sporting Kansas City (formerly the Wizards) and played eight MLS seasons in his home state, but while MLS' foothold slowly strengthened in Kansas City and a spanking-new stadium was being constructed, Jewsbury's playing time diminished. In mid-February, with his minutes looking increasingly occupied in Kansas City, Jewsbury met with Sporting's general manager and said he'd be open to a trade.
"To be quite honest, I don't think [an All-Star selection] could've been possible in Kansas City," Jewsbury says, his tan, angular face and trimmed goatee looking more SoCal surfer than Midwest soccer star. "I'm not sure how big a role I would've played there. Coming here, having the confidence of the coaches and the staff and being one of the veteran guys, it's definitely helped at this point in my career."
The transition hasn't always been as free and easy as the midfielder's set-piece delivery: Jewsbury arrived in Portland weeks before the start of the season and was quickly handed the captain's band. Now that he's bested career highs in goals (5) and points (11) midway through his first All-Star season, Captain Jack can admit it may have been a tad awkward at first.
"My main thing that day was I wanted to make sure the guys embraced [me as captain]," Jewsbury says. "I was sort of the new guy in town, and they'd been training together for months."
Jelling with teammates would take care of itself, Jewsbury figured, but cross-country relocation of his family was a whole new deal.
Wife Brittany and two-year old daughter Aubrey joined Jewsbury in Portland quickly after the trade, and the family began adjusting to a new corner of the country, after becoming accustomed to having family just a three-hour drive away on match days. Now with 1,800 miles between them, flight arrangements are involved if the Jewsburys want to host family at their Multnomah Village home.
The Timbers captain admits trades are always toughest on the families.
"We come in here every day, and after a week or so, you're bonding with every guy in the locker room," Jewsbury says, noting his family has been welcomed "with open arms" by the other players' wives, especially new mom Ashley Pore, whose husband, former Portland Division-2 star Ryan Pore, played with Jewsbury in Kansas City.
Still, despite familiar faces, the Pacific Northwest and Midwest certainly have their differences.
"The whole green thing is still new to us," Jewsbury says. "I didn't really have any expectations [about Portland]. The word people continually threw out was, 'It's a weird place.'"
He smiles. "I didn't really know what to take from that or what to think, but it definitely is. It's a weird place, and I think people embrace that here and probably take it to another level. It's fun."
That fun (and eventual weirdness) extended to the pitch early for Portland, who despite early losses were greeted as liberators by raucous fans and promptly went on a five-match home winning streak. Lately, however, Portland has struggled, putting nearly two months' worth of matches between wins.
Jewsbury says the vibe around Timberland has changed.
"At some point, during that win streak, we'd come out here and even I'd say, 'This is unbelievable'—like, 'it doesn't feel like we're going to lose,'" Jewsbury says before sort of chuckling and shaking his head. "When you're flying high, even some of those games where we weren't playing so great, things were going our way.
"Now we're getting punished," Jewsbury continues. "But if you ride the wave and continue playing consistent soccer, you'll get out of it. That's what we have to get our heads around."
He sees his role as a calming voice on a young team coming together through the rocky rigors of pro soccer, let alone a team's inaugural big-league campaign. With head coach John Spencer's forthright assessments of the club leading local media coverage, Captain Jack positions himself as less of an enforcer and more of a good cop, and Spencer calls his captain "a good link between the coaching staff and the locker room."
"I'm not out there to kill guys, because I make the same mistakes everyone else is making," Jewsbury says. "The reality of this league is you're going to go through lulls."
Every team experiences it, and everyone is put on edge. Players start to press, and all of the sudden, negative feelings seem to build on their own. In nine pro seasons, Jewsbury says he's attended "at least nine meetings" where, as a team, "We sit down as a group and say, 'Hey, let's not put our heads down.'"
That meeting has occurred for the 2011 Timbers, and the response was Portland's first road victory over the weekend at Chicago. Jewsbury scored the lone goal on a penalty kick in a 1-0 win over the Fire, and Portland suddenly had that old feeling again: The Timbers were aggressive and matched their opponent physically. They scored first, overcame a key injury on defense and held firm behind show-stopping play from goalkeeper Troy Perkins. And after telling the Timbers they needed to "man up" early in the week, Spencer called his team "mentally strong."
"We've been in a bit of a rut for the past month, month and a half," says Jewsbury, who's played every minute of the Timbers' inaugural MLS season. "It feels great to get that first [road win], to get that weight off your chest."
Winning and weightless, I only wonder what the kids will ask Jewsbury next time they quiz him.