February 13, 2020

In My Words | Willie Jefferson

These last few days have been incredible for me and my family. But being back here in Winnipeg now, it just feels right.

The relationships I’ve built with the guys who have been here for a while really do matter to me. Guys like Andrew Harris, Nik Demski, Paddy Neufeld, Stan (Bryant), Yosh (Jermarcus Hardrick), Darvin (Adams), Jackson (Jeffcoat), Thomas Miles, Bigs (Adam Bighill), Meddy (Justin Medlock), Remp (Chad Rempel)… those guys played a key role in my coming back because they made me feel comfortable here from Day 1.

Coach O’Shea made me feel very comfortable when I first got here last year, too. He told me he wasn’t trying to change who I am or put me in a box and ask me to be a robot. Coach Richie (Hall) was the same. He wanted me to learn the system, but be the player I am and be the baller I am. I felt like I did that, especially having Bigs and Jackson behind me. I wanted to be a vocal leader for the team and try to help make my teammates better.

In the end, it just felt wrong to leave that.

But it wasn’t an easy decision, either, and I’d like to explain some of the things that went into coming back to the Bombers.

First, I’m not sure what happened with the Dolphins. All I know is I had a great workout with them, but I guess once they changed their defensive coordinators I didn’t fit their scheme. They didn’t really get in contact with me after that and tell me their main reason. They didn’t tell my agent, either.

There was somebody I knew that worked there that I tried to get in contact with and ask them why, especially after I had a good workout. From what he told me it was a roster thing… they already had guys in positions they wanted and they were bringing younger guys in.

Even with that, all along I knew I would have a spot somewhere in Canada. If an opportunity came around I was ready to go to the NFL, but if not I was ready to come back here and do what I’ve been doing.

There were six CFL teams that reached out to me. B.C. was first and then Montreal when Vernon Adams checked in to see where my head was at. The only teams I didn’t really hear from were Ottawa, Saskatchewan and Edmonton, although the Eskimos did get in touch with me through my old agent.

They all asked what my contract number was and I wasn’t afraid to tell them. Some teams backed away then because they’ve already got big names signed to big deals on defence and offence.

Many people know that my wife Holly, my daughter Kelley and I spent last weekend in Toronto and Hamilton. The Argos got in touch with me right when the negotiation window opened and asked me to come down to see the city and go to a Raptors game. Then while I was in Toronto doing that, Hamilton got in touch with me and asked me to come down to view their facility and talk about their situation.

All of it was very cool.

I pretty much met with everybody in Toronto but the defensive staff. When I was there all the coaches were on their way back in. I have a really good relationship with Coach (Glen) Young, but he wasn’t in the city at the time. Also, I have a really good relationship with Mike Davis, their D-line coach. He had just left the city when we were flying in. I guess it was a good thing I didn’t see the people who I have those relationships with that might have made the decision even harder for me.

I spoke to Pinball and Coach Dinwiddie and saw the offensive staff like J. Jack (Jarious Jackson), Coach McAdoo and Markus Howell, and guys I was cool with back in Saskatchewan. It was good just to see them and shake their hands.

And when I was in Hamilton I had the chance to sit down with Coach Steinauer and talk Xs and Os. He talked about the history between him and Coach O’Shea and his relationship with JY (Jordan Younger) and Coach Stanley. He spoke about his career in the CFL and his transition to the NFL back to the CFL and his family life and living in Hamilton. It was a good visit. I always wanted to sit down with Coach O because he is a staple in this league as a coach and a former player. It was cool to see how he sees the game.

It was the same with Pinball (Clemons). I’ve never really had a chance to sit down with him and talk about anything. The first time I was able to see him and shake his hand was Grey Cup week at a breakfast when he was the speaker. He shook my hand then and we had a chance to talk a little bit, but it was really brief. When he got the job as GM in Toronto, he asked me to come up and see him. I had the chance to talk to him man-to-man and see where his career brought him and how things changed for him in the CFL. That was a great meeting. He’s a leader in the community and a real good person to have on your side as a mentor.

Teams sometimes do things to help influence your decision. Going to the Raptors game, for example, and seeing the Ticats had photoshopped me into a Hamilton jersey, teams do that to make you feel comfortable, at home and make you feel wanted.

In this league a lot of players sign one-year contracts just because they don’t know how things are going to go. So, when you get to an organization that goes all out for you, with stuff like the graphics with you in their jersey or they take you out to the Raptors game, it’s like here in Winnipeg when sometimes the players have the opportunity to go to Jets games. Those are some of the things that make you want to be here, make you want to be on the team. That kind of stuff can be important because some organizations don’t do that at all. They just want you to come in, punch the clock, do your work and just try and win games.

These trips were all about information gathering for me. I’ve had the opportunity to go to Toronto and Hamilton before to play games. But you’re just going in the day before and you have just a little time to experience the city and see what it has to bring. So, this was about the opportunity to bring my wife and daughter out there and show them that if we do go there, this is what it would be all about. The trips are important because, as I always say, ‘Happy wife, happy life.’ I’m a family man and I want them to be happy wherever we’re at. I want to be in a place where we are comfortable living, where the fans take care of us just as much as the organization.

I’ll be honest – Toronto was very nice. Hamilton was very nice, too. It just seemed that when it came down to the end, Winnipeg was the right fit for me, for my family. Like I said, I’ve built some good relationships here with my teammates, with the organization and with the community. It just didn’t feel right after everything we did last year to get up and leave and try to do that again somewhere else.

I said at the end of last season that I was tired of bouncing around from team to team. It’s not all about the money, really. I’m also trying to build a legacy for myself and my family. I want my family to be able to look back and see the things I did in Canada – whether it was in Edmonton, in Saskatchewan or Winnipeg – were done for the right reasons. I did it playing the game I love and I did it going hard.

When you go to a place that makes you feel at home, makes you feel wanted, makes you feel welcome, that’s a big part of your decision.

From Day 1 when I came here last year the community, the organization, the fans, the players… everybody showed me a lot of love. I’m not from a big city. I don’t want to be in a big city where there’s a lot of distractions. I like to spend a lot of time with my family, my friends. It’s not like I shelter myself – I come out here to play football and to have fun.

But I’m not here to be out in the city every night after practice. When I was young that was something I was interested in, but now it’s a subject I talk to people about. What are you out here for?

This is what I’m out here for: I’m here to win games, be a part of the community, help my organization and help players grow as men and athletes. I’m an open book to my teammates. They can come talk to me whenever about anything. I’ve been through a lot of things. I’ve grown as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a mentor and as a coach.

We’ve built something here in Winnipeg. I’m building something here in Winnipeg.

Again, why would I want to leave that and start over?

This is where I want to be.