October 21, 2021

Long Read | The emergence of Jackson Jeffcoat

Scroll through the Canadian Football League’s reams and reams of statistics and it reinforces what most across the country have been declaring all season: Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat is having a helluva season. A monster season, if you will.

He’s in a three-way tie with teammate Willie Jefferson and Jonathan Woodard of the Saskatchewan Roughriders for the league lead in quarterback sacks with seven; leads CFL with four forced fumbles and has added 21 tackles, first among Bombers defensive linemen. He’s a beast against the run and a nightmare for offensive tackles trying to stop his pursuit.

There are many components in the engine that drives Jeffcoat, all of which have been critical in his transformation into one of the CFL’s dominant defensive linemen. There is his dedication to his training, which saw him work out during the pandemic with speed coach Aharon Rosa and Tim Crowder, a former National Football Leaguer and star at his alma mater, University of Texas. There is his relentless work ethic, which has him studying film for hours and taking notes of aspects of his game he needs to improve – long before the Bombers assistant coaches get to him with suggestions.

There’s also a number he’s chasing. A BIG number: 102½.

It’s what that number represents in the bigger picture for Jeffcoat – particularly the pursuit of greatness and his relationship with his father – that says everything about one of the most popular men in the Blue Bombers clubhouse. So, let’s begin with 102 ½…

“This is how my brain works: My father had 102 ½ sacks in the NFL,” said Jeffcoat in a long conversation with this week. “And I’m not even close to that (he has 25 in his career – 24 in four seasons with the Blue Bombers and one in the NFL as a member of the Washington Football Team in 2014). Until I can get to that number, or close to that number, until I’m ready to be done it means I haven’t done all I can do.”

Jackson Jeffcoat’s father, for those who may not yet have been introduced, is Jim Jeffcoat – the two-time Super Bowl champion who played 15 seasons in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills and is a member of the league’s elite 100-sack club.

“What made him great? He never quit. He always went hard,” said Jeffcoat of his father. “And he stressed offensive linemen out because they’re like ‘This dude can run by me. This dude can run me over. This dude can use his hands to get by me. He can do it all.’

“I pride myself in that, too. I want to be able to jump off that ball and run by guys so that they’re thinking ‘Ahhh, he’s going to run by me again’ and that’s when I put a hand in their chest and run ‘em back. I’ve mastered some things, but have a lot of other moves I can do as well. That’s why I’m always working on my game. Always. I think I’m a better pass-rusher than he was, and he’ll even say it, too.”

Jeffcoat grins here. And there are some background details needed to explain the source of that smile.

Jackson and his twin sister Jacqueline were born in Dallas in 1990 at the same time their father was playing for the Cowboys (he also has an older brother Jaren and another sister, Jasmine). And he didn’t just follow his father into the game, he followed him into the trenches as a defensive lineman, first as a two-time first-team all-state defensive end at Plano West Senior High School and then as an All-American and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year during a superb collegiate career at the University of Texas.

Yet, for all that success – and the family name as part of his legacy – Jeffcoat wasn’t drafted in the NFL and instead signed with the Seattle Seahawks as an undrafted free agent and then later suited up with Washington. It was after a look-see from the Cleveland Browns in 2016 that Jeffcoat began to examine the CFL as an option. And his father played an important role in that decision, too.

“I’ve always looked up to my dad,” said Jeffcoat. “When I went undrafted in the NFL I was talking about how unfair it was. I said things like ‘I sacrificed all this stuff and I’ve got nothing for it.’ My dad said, ‘You’re not me. This is a different time period, you’re a different person. Things aren’t going to happen for you the way they happened for me and just because you didn’t get drafted doesn’t mean you’re not a good player. Create your own path, do your own thing.’

“All that is a testament to my parents. They raised me not to think I’m better than anyone else. “

Still, it can be overwhelming for some to live in the shadow of a legend. Jim Jeffcoat was named one of the Top 60 players in the history of the Cowboys, after all, and being measured against that can be, well, a lot. It’s never been about that with the Jeffcoats, however, and that says so very much about their relationship.

“I’m Jackson Jeffcoat. He’s Jim Jeffcoat. I’m my own person,” said Jeffcoat. “It’s funny, but we’re always competing against each other in everything even now. Me, him and my older brother are always competing against each other. Those guys play chess all the time. I’m playing BA (Brandon Alexander) all the time so I can get good so I can play them. But it’s anything… we play ‘Words With Friends’, we used to play Madden. Shooting shots in the gym, holding our breath under water while swimming. It’s whatever.

“When we were younger he’d play one-on-one with us, but when I started dunking he stopped playing me in basketball.”

It was following practice one day last month when Jeffcoat was spotted picking the brain of Bombers offensive line coach Marty Costello. Jeffcoat does that a lot – including regularly speaking with tackles Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick – all as part of his learning process and the honing of his craft.

“I want to understand the ‘why’ behind things,” said Jeffcoat. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do this year – not give the same rush, not give the same angle. Being older in the league has helped me, too. I’m doing more film study, but it’s also ‘Oh, I’ve seen this play before’ or ‘I know why they’re doing this and there’s no reason they would do this unless this play is coming.’

“I compete with myself every day. I’m watching film and already writing down ‘that wasn’t right, I need to do this better.’ Or ‘my angle wasn’t good, I need to get that better.’ I’m very hard on myself. I want to perfect my craft and be the best I can be. I don’t’ think I’ll ever be my best. I mean, I put a lot of work into this, but there will always be something where I’m going ‘Man, I could have done that a lot better.’”

It’s that approach which has been so important in Jeffcoat’s continuing development and his step into CFL elite status. Interestingly, as the Bombers have dominated teams this year the weekly praise from opposition coaches and players now often has them making specific reference to the brilliance of Jeffcoat this season while, as usual, praising Willie Jefferson and Adam Bighill.

So, there are two things represented in that: the growth in Jeffcoat’s game and the growth in the respect from across the league. It also says something about Jeffcoat’s comfort level with the Bombers and his place in the CFL.

“To be honest, when I first came here it was to get film to go back to the NFL,” he said. “I got a workout with Cincinnati after one year with the Bombers and didn’t get signed so it was ‘OK, back to the CFL.’ And from then I said I’m going to play and finish my career in the CFL.

“This is the road I’m on. The other road (NFL) was so much more stressful. What I’ve also realized is you can’t beat being on a team with a group of guys you feel are like your brothers. I didn’t have that feeling when I was in the NFL. Honestly, I didn’t have it in college, either.

“This is a great league. It’s competitive. It’s fun. I’m not sure everyone down south understands that. Some of the noise you hear about it in the States is ‘Oh, it’s inferior league… oh, guys are drinking beers at halftime… it’s not hard.’ My first year here wasn’t easy until I started to play because it wasn’t what I was accustomed to. But you adjust. Even in my first year I got a lot more comfortable in the game and being here in Canada.

“There’s something special about this league and that’s why I think more has to be done to preserve it and to promote it. More people in the States, more people in Canada, need to know how special it is.”

It’s 20-plus minutes into our conversation and Jeffcoat is becoming more animated. He’s laughing and smiling one moment then, in the next instant, is seriously detailing how studying martial arts has helped him with his hand play at the line of scrimmage. There is happiness and pride in his face when he speaks of his father and his family. Most notable is the passion and intensity in his voice when he talks about his brothers in the Bombers locker room.

Finally, the word ‘drive’ comes up as a term to try and encapsulate all of the above.

“That’s the way it is with all of us in that room,” said Jeffcoat. “That’s what makes this team special. We think, ‘We’ve got to win another one. Let’s go win it again.’ Plus, for some people this would be their first time, so we want to go win it in a new year with a new team.

“All that gets me excited just thinking about it because I like the challenge. And I think that’s why we’ve done so well – we like this challenge, we’re not getting distracted by anything ahead. It’s who’s in front of us right now. Whoever is in front of us right now, we’re going to kick their butts.”