September 18, 2019

One-on-one with Willie Jefferson

Willie Jefferson, August 15, 2019, IG Field

It’s a common scene that unfolds repeatedly when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers line up defensively each week. There are any number of variations to it and reasons for it, but the picture essentially looks like this:

  • There is Willie Jefferson swatting or snatching passes out of the sky, sometimes returning them the distance for a Pick-6.
  • There is Willie Jefferson bulldozing his way through offensive linemen en route to disrupting any offensive game plan.
  • There is Willie Jefferson forcing fumbles, recovering fumbles and ferociously tracking down running backs.
  • And, invariably, the scene closes with Jefferson – we like to refer to him as ‘Willie The Conqueror’ – grinning, flexing, hamming it up for the camera – or all of the above.

All of this has made the Bombers mammoth defensive end a leading candidate for the Canadian Football League’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award, but also someone who has muscled his way into the Most Outstanding Player discussion.

All that aside, chatted with Jefferson about life, liberty and the pursuit of quarterbacks in our fourth ‘One-on-One’ installment…

Maybe we could begin by having you tell us a bit about growing up in Beaumont, Texas…

Love to… born on January 31st, 1991 and then raised there. Grew up on the south side with my mom and dad, my older brother and my twin brother in a good family environment.

My mom worked for Southwestern Bell for a while and retired in 2009; my dad had always been working for the Port of Beaumont and is still doing that today.

My twin brother graduated from Prairie View and became a middle-school football coach and is a teacher. My older brother is in Cincinnati and is the manager of a casino-hotel. I’ve got sisters back at home, too. It’s a big family that has always been close. I would say I’m a mama’s boy.

I had a wonderful time growing up, but like most places, there’s crime that can make things hard. I’m just thankful for my mom and my dad for getting me and my brothers involved sports early.

Were you always the biggest kid on the playground?

I was always an in-between guy growing up, not the most athletic, but athletic. I didn’t get my growth spurt until going into the ninth grade. At first I was a basketball guy… early middle school and then high school I was mainly playing basketball and doing AAU tournaments in the summer.

Then going into my junior year of high school I got into 7-on-7 (football), lifting weights and running routes. Coming out of high school I was a receiver.

I could see you dominating at basketball. Is that why you still talk about playing?

It’s something I do now, I just don’t get paid. It’s more to stay in shape and have fun with my friends. I have close friends from Beaumont who play basketball overseas and when they come home for Christmas and we get together we talk about it.

I’m not saying I would go over there and be a star player, but I could be a role player to help me stay in shape and add another paycheque, maybe have a little fun and see the world.

This question comes up all the time with me, so I’m sure you hear it a ton: why isn’t Willie Jefferson in the NFL? You have had a couple of shots, but what’s your take?

I do get that question a lot. It’s hard for me to answer because I know what type of player I am and what players are in the NFL. I know I can play in the NFL.

If I have to give somebody an answer I would say that my rookie year when I got released (from the Houston Texans), I can honestly say that was bad judgement on my part. After that, it’s like a snowball effect. I don’t know why I didn’t get picked up with the way I played.

But I came up here and got a Grey Cup ring (with Edmonton in 2015) and then when I went back in ’16 (with Washington), the only reason I got released was because of the numbers. They had Ryan Kerrigan, a pro bowler, and then had Trent Murphy and Preston Smith on the other side… I’m not saying there was no need for me, but they were already stacked at that position.

After that, I didn’t want to just wait. I’m not the type of guy to sit around to see how things were going to go when there was a spot for me in Canada with it being like my second home. I knew that if I didn’t have a shot in the NFL I could always come back here and be welcome and be a dominant player who could make a lot of plays.

Did you, or do you still have any bitterness about your NFL experience?

It can leave a bad taste in your mouth. But I love playing football up here and it’s fun to be around the guys and see the country.

When I think about the NFL, it’s not about playing, it’s about the money. That’s the only thing. It’s not about proving I could play in that league, it’s about being able to set up my family. I’m 28, turning 29 in January. I’m not waiting on the NFL and I’m sure they’re not waiting on me. It is what it is.

Football fans in this town knew how good you were before you signed here, but one of the things we’ve all seen – and this is something Mike O’Shea has mentioned, too – is the pure joy you seem to bring every day. Nobody has more fun out there than you. What’s the foundation of that?

Man, it’s just about having the opportunity to come out here and be me, play the game of football and get paid to do it to help take care of my family.

I like coming out here and performing to the highest level I can because I know now that can help bring a lot of happiness to other folks. There are a lot of people in the stands who are down and when they see us making plays on defence, or the offence make plays, it can lift them up. That’s something I learned just talking to people outside of football and in the offseason.

You just can’t take stuff like this for granted. I know a lot of guys at home right now training and they don’t know if they’re ever going to get a call to play football. I wake up every day and know I have a job and can come out here and play football.

The other thing is there are some guys who come in and punch the clock, do what they have to do, and then leave. I feel they do that because they’re not comfortable with who they are and think they have to come out here and do things a certain way or be a certain way. I come out here and I play within the scheme, but I play football to have fun. I’m not out here being a robot. I want to have fun and be me.

You’ve also said it’s just as important to you to be a good teammate as anything else. Can you expand on that? 

If you’re out here doing your own thing, that can make guys resent you, resent being on the field with you. That makes it harder for you. As a football player it’s hardly ever just one-on-one – you’ve got to work as a team. Somebody has to set something up for me to win, I have to set something up for a teammate to win.

I don’t want to be that guy that doesn’t help. I think I’m great because I am a great teammate and guys want to help and do what they have to do to get me open.

You have your wife and your daughter up here visiting right now… can I ask how becoming a husband and then a father may have changed your perspective, not just on the game, but on everything?

Becoming a husband, I had to step up and worry about somebody else. But becoming a dad completely changed my outlook on life. Now I have to take care of two people and be somebody that’s not just my wife, but my daughter can look up to and be proud of. I think about that and things like just protecting them.

Then when I put my uniform on and come out here and people are yelling my name or know my name, or when I make a big play and I see the smiles on their faces… that’s heartwarming for me. It means a lot to me and my family.

One last one… I keep coming back to how much fun you seem to be having out here on a daily basis. You followed Chris Jones from Edmonton to Saskatchewan, but after he left for the NFL, why has Winnipeg been such a good fit for you?

It’s the personalities on the team. Nobody’s a ‘me’ guy. Everybody here is about the team and family. Coach O’Shea is a big family guy. Coach Jones was a big family guy.

That spreads out to everybody. You can’t come out here and be upset or mad about anything. Nobody brings that kind of energy to practice or even to the facility.

Me and Jackson (Jeffcoat) have a great relationship. Same with Craig (Roh) and the other guys on the defensive line, a couple of guys on the offensive line… the receivers… I pretty much know everybody at every position. That’s the kind of team bonding you want. I don’t ever want to look over and say, ‘Who is that?’

I love playing football here. I love the guys I’m around.