It’s a big number and an even bigger accomplishment – 100 games in the Canadian Football League – that just seems to perfectly fit a big player and even bigger character like Willie Jefferson.
Saturday’s Banjo Bowl will be the 100th career CFL game for Jefferson, the dominant Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end and the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player. And when bluebombers.com asked to sit down with him for a one-on-one to talk about hitting the century mark in games played, it was clear the 30-year-old proud product of Beaumont, Texas had been thinking about the accomplishment.
“It does mean something. It means a lot,” Jefferson began. “And I think about it because a lot of guys don’t get to 100 games, a lot of guys don’t get to see 50 games. So, just to be able to stick around, to be able to make plays, be able to get my name known and to see 100 games is amazing. And the fact I’m going to be able to have my family (wife Holly and daughter Kelley) at IG Field there to see it… that’s monumental stuff for me.”
Jefferson often references his wife and daughter because, admittedly, the pair have helped both mature and ground him. And in many ways, they’ve also helped him to see the world differently, too.
“My first year up here, I wasn’t thinking about counting games and things like that,” Jefferson said. “But then I got to know some of the guys in the league and I saw them cross that accomplishment off their list, guys like Odell (Willis), John Bowman, Charleston (Hughes) and I saw how much 100 games meant to them.
“Those stepping stones in your career, those landmarks are special. Like I said, there are lots of guys who just don’t get to play that long with injuries, with contracts and the business side of things. So when you do get a chance to play for a long time you’ve got to cherish it. I cherish moments like this. I played with a lot of good guys on a lot of good teams and to still be here playing at the level I’m playing and to have an impact with the team and the fans and the community… it’s a chapter in my legacy, I guess.”
WILLIE J: BY THE NUMBERS
Games played: 99
Forced fumbles: 13
CFL All-Star: 3 times (2017, 2018, 2019)
CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player: 1 (2019)
Team Most Outstanding Player: 2 (Winnipeg, 2019; Saskatchewan, 2018)
Team Most Outstanding Defensive Player: 2 (Winnipeg, 2019; Saskatchewan, 2018)
Grey Cup champion: 2 (Winnipeg, 2019; Edmonton, 2015)
First CFL game: June 29, 2014 Edmonton @ BC.
First sack: July 14, 2014 – Quarterback: Ottawa’s Henry Burris
First multiple sack game: July 17, 2014 vs. Winnipeg (plus six tackles) – Quarterback: Drew Willy
First TD: August, 25, 2017 (with Saskatchewan) – First blocked then recovered a punt by Hugh O’Neill of Edmonton and returned 22 yards for score
First interception: November 19, 2017 (East Final, with Saskatchewan); Quarterback: Ricky Ray
First interception for a TD: 2018 Banjo Bowl (with Saskatchewan), returned 97 yards; Quarterback: Matt Nichols
Career multiple sack games: 8 (including playoffs)
Most sacks in a game as a Bomber: 3 (twice, both with Winnipeg – August 23, 2019 at Edmonton; November 24th – 107th Grey Cup vs Hamilton).
Most tackles in a game: 9 (with Saskatchewan, vs. Toronto, July 29, 2017)
Notable: Set CFL record for most pass knockdowns by a defensive lineman – 16 – with the Bombers in 2019.
It could be said Jefferson’s best trait – besides using his obvious skills to disrupt offensive game plans – might be his effervescence. Yes, while his 6-7, 252-pound frame means he can often blot out the sun, he also has the kind of infectious charm that can simply light up a room. Indeed, Jefferson does more than just live in the moment, he soaks up every nanosecond of it. And that’s a dramatic change from when he suited up for his first game with Edmonton in a game against the B.C. Lions in Vancouver.
“Things change, “ he said. “I look at my first trip to the Grey Cup (in 2015 with Edmonton) and compare it to my last trip. My first trip I was young and didn’t really know a lot about the CFL. I was just playing ball, playing my role. So then it was, ‘OK, we won another game. We won a championship.’
“But to come here in 2019 and to see how we made it to the Grey Cup and being a part of that grind, to have a chance to sit back and see the young guys take it all in for the first time… I remember saying to them, ‘Take advantage of this time because you never know if you’re going to make it back to another one. Experience what you want to experience.’”
That’s another part of Jefferson’s game that has continued to evolve since his arrival in Edmonton seven years ago. He’ll punctuate sacks or big moments in games with a dance, a flip or a Dragon Ball FighterZ move. He’ll get the crowd fired up before and during a game, and even occasionally win over fans in enemy territory.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) September 7, 2021
Again, it’s all part of his goal to live his career in the here and now, to appreciate the 99 games he’s played and No. 100 on Saturday against the Riders.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,” said Jefferson. “I’ve done some things a lot of players wish they could have done and I’m happy about that. I look back now and I remember the older guys telling me this when I was young: have fun. Do the things you want to do and enjoy it, because there will be a time when you won’t be able to do them anymore.
“It’s happened to Odell and to John Bowman. And those guys, even though they’re out of the game, they still call me, still critique me and I take it all in. I’m serious about what I put out there and who I am on the field. It’s big for me to play 100 games. And for them not to be here when I’m doing this just says something about this game and how it evolves… it doesn’t wait for anybody.
“That’s why you’ve got to have that passion and that fire to make plays, to have fun with your teammates and build that camaraderie. It can be here and then you’re gone. That’s why you have to take it all in, all the moments, with the people you have.”