By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — Three New England Patriots team captains helped a local soldier celebrate his homecoming Saturday night.
Quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive lineman Vince Wilfork couldn't make the surprise party at the Claddagh Pub for U.S. Army Capt. Nassar G. Jabour Jr., 27, of Methuen.
But the three NFL football stars sent personal "thank you" messages on a special video prepared by the Patriots that was viewed on two television sets.
It was the highlight of the evening for more than 60 relatives and friends who showed up at the downtown pub to wish Jabour well as he begins his civilian life after the military service.
"Capt. Jabour, welcome home. Thank you for all of your service. We appreciate it," Brady said in the video, prompting loud applause and cheers
Jabour, who is described by family and friends as "a diehard Patriots fan," reacted with both shock and childlike joy after watching three of his favorite team's best players express their gratitude for his service.
"Ah, man, that was awesome," Jabour said, as Kool & The Gang's "Celebration" blared from a speaker.
"Never in a million years could I have expected that. I expected the party, but I couldn't ask for anything more," he said.
"My parents are awesome! They are so great. And now I got that (the video) for the rest of my life," he said.
Jabour was most thrilled about getting a message from Wilfork, "my favorite player of all times." He recalled wearing his No. 75 Wilfork football jersey during every Patriots football game he watched on TV in Afghanistan last fall,
Mom's invitation spurred Pats
The video was accompanied by an autographed photo of Brady and a cover letter from Pats spokesman Stacey James mentioning the enclosed DVD "has three of our captains extending thanks to your captain."
The Pats package was in response to a letter that Jabour's mother — Michele N. Struffolino — wrote the team in late May.
Struffolino briefed the Patriots on her son's nine years of service in the Army, including his years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
While she said her son dedicated his life to serving his country, she also stressed her son's commitment to being a future Pats season ticket holder. He put his name on the Pats waiting list seven years ago.
While Jabour was in Afghanistan, his contact with family over the Internet during the football season usually involved "calming and enjoyable conversations (about the Patriots) in the midst of stress," Struffolino said.
"Now that he is ready to begin a civilian life, which he has not had since he was 18, and while he looks for beginning a new career, his main requirement is that any position he take be within driving distance to Foxborough," she wrote.
Struffolino, a former local lawyer, is an assistant professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. She invited the Patriots to send a team member to the welcome home party, while requesting "some sign of support."
New England sports was the theme of Saturday night's party. Jabour dressed up in a Boston Celtics T-shirt. He said he was "still mourning" the Celtics' tough loss to eventual NBA Champion Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
Nicole Jabour, 30, wore a Boston Bruins T-shirt to her brother's party. A 1999 graduate of Central Catholic High School, Nicole traveled here from Bermuda, where she teaches school and lives with her husband, 6-year-old son and 1 1/2 year-old daughter.
Steven Liquori, Jabour's stepfather, wore his New England Patriots shirt with matching red and blue strands of plastic beads around his neck. He served as the master of ceremonies for the party and introduced the Pats video as a special message from "a couple of friends that wanted to come tonight so bad ... they just couldn't make it."
Most of the friends and relatives wore Patriots and Red Sox apparel.
Jabour's best friend, Capt. Jake Hohman, 27, of Pittsburgh, was the odd fan out at the party.
"I told his mom I wasn't going to be able to follow the dress code," said Hohman, a huge fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers — one of the Patriots biggest rivals.
"I didn't wear any Steelers or Penguins shirts. I just wore the Pirates hat so there wouldn't be any hard feelings," he quipped, noting his baseball team has been so bad in recent years that it's a safe team to root for in the midst of the Boston sports community.
Hohman said he's picked many arguments with Jabour over sports but nothing serious enough to spoil the close friendship they developed during two tours of duty together in Afghanistan.
"Nassar is probably the most passionate Army officer that I ever worked for," Hohman said.
"He cares more about what he's doing and cares more about his soldiers than anyone I know. He's a really good officer," he said.
Seeking roots in the Valley
Jabour, a Methuen native, graduated from Austin Preparatory School in Reading in 2003. Four years later, he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point by earning a spot on the dean's list all eight semesters and a bachelor's of science in mechanical engineering with honors. He later graduated from Ranger School and Sapper Leader Course, two of the Army's elite leadership schools.
During his first deployment, he served as a trained combat engineer while leading a group of more than 30 soldiers in combat on over 60 successful missions in one of the most dangerous areas in Afghanistan. His medals and commendations included the Bronze Star. Returning for a second deployment, Jabour oversaw engineer operations involving more than 1,000 soldiers conducting dangerous and complex missions throughout nine provinces in Afghanistan.
For his excellence as a combat engineer, he received the Steel de Fleury Medal.
Despite numerous honors, Jabour said he is not interested in a military career.
"My main reason for getting out of military is I am finally growing roots and I think this is the best place to do it — back in my hometown," Jabour said.
"I got on the season ticket list when I was 20. Back then, they told me it would be 15 to 20 years before I'm going to games. So I don't have a choice. I want to live in Massachusetts and cash in on my season ticket. I'm looking forward to when I'm 40 and able to go to the games," he said.
Since his return last week, he said, he's been living in Methuen with his father — Nassar G. Jabour Sr., who runs a construction company out of the city. His father and his younger brother — Zachary Jabour, 18, of Revere, were both at the party Saturday night.
Jabour said he hopes to eventually land a career as a professional engineer so he can afford to buy a home of his own, somewhere in the Merrimack Valley, if not Methuen.
Meanwhile, he is preparing himself for married life. He recently became engaged after proposing to his fiancee, Rachael Taft of Virginia, at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro — the highest mountain in Africa at 19,341 feet above sea level. He gave her a carabiner loop as a makeshift engagement ring, with a promise to give her a real ring later.
"My fiancee is a physical therapist in Germany, and she's got two months left," Jabour said.
"I met her when I broke my kneecap while snowboarding in Austria two years ago. It took me about three months to rehab for my second deployment," he said.
The upcoming Patriots football season will be an unusual one for Jabour, though normal for most Pats fans.
"It will feel good for me to be in the same time zone this year, surrounded by my own fans," he said.
Many of the games he watched in Afghanistan were broadcast at 3:30 a.m. He watched the game right up until it was 6 a.m. and time for him to go to work.