CALGARY — He was among the biggest free-agent fish to hit the talent pool this winter. Coming off a stellar 2018 season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Willie Jefferson was looking for a change of scenery and, in doing so, had the rare opportunity to pick whatever suitor he deemed worthy.
Offers would come from almost every team. After all, it wasn’t every day a player such as Jefferson — a 6-7, 248-pound experienced and proven defensive end — hits the open market.
The B.C. Lions, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts all put forth fair offers. But when Jefferson, who had taken a liking to passionate football fans on the Prairies during his time in Edmonton and Saskatchewan, looked at putting down new roots, it was Winnipeg he desired most.
"It’s just the feeling that I got being out here, like when I was in Saskatchewan, or even when like the first time I came to Canada, when I was a rookie playing with Edmonton. Being here is fun. Having those fans on your back," Jefferson said Thursday. "Seeing the players in Winnipeg and seeing the way they want to play for coach (Mike) O’Shea. Seeing the way they want to play for the city. I knew it was a good place to be."
Fast-forward nearly 10 months and Jefferson’s decision has paid off in a big way. On Thursday, the 28-year-old native of Beaumont, Texas, was named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player, edging out East Division nominee, Hamilton linebacker Simoni Lawrence.
Jefferson came as advertised, putting together an incredible 2019 campaign where he racked up a career-high 12 sacks, added 24 tackles and had one interception. He forced six fumbles, registered five tackles for a loss and set a new CFL record for most pass knockdowns by a defensive lineman, with 16.
Veteran linebacker Adam Bighill didn’t know much about Jefferson when he arrived for training camp in May. He knew, of course, who he was and used to make an effort to reach out to him after every game they played against each other. He did it as a sign of respect for another player he believed put as much into the game as he did each day.
His opinion of Jefferson was confirmed when they became teammates, working closely together in defensive meetings.
"Some guys rely more on their athletic ability to be able to adjust, no matter what, they try to make things happen without necessarily knowing where they need to go," said Bighill, who was the 2018 most outstanding defensive player. "But I will say, even coming and playing with us this year, he was even able to step up his football IQ even more, which was really great to see because he already started with a good football understanding."
Bighill wasn’t the only one pleasantly surprised by what they saw from Jefferson. Defensive co-ordinator Richie Hall was also impressed by what Jefferson brought to his defence — an intimidating presence who was also emerging as a leader.
"I never visualized that because a lot of time, the person that has all the ability doesn’t emerge into that type of a player," he said. "But he’s been selfless. He’s played within our scheme and he’s enjoyed playing in Winnipeg and that makes it a lot easier. He’s bought into what we want to do."
Hall said he marvelled at Jefferson’s size, including a seven-foot wingspan that could block out the sun. He knew when the Bombers signed him they were getting a franchise player. But Jefferson, he said, provided even more than that.
"He understands what offences are trying and he tries to combat it — and he works hard," Hall said. "A lot of times, when you have a great athlete, sometimes they don’t work as hard as they could or they rely so much on their athletic ability. But he’s always trying to work, bringing others to the table to make him a better football player. And when he’s a better football player, we’re a better defence and we’re a better football team."
"Oh, God, his passion for the game and his desire to be better. I love listening to Willie in the meeting room and looking at him and watching him learn," O’Shea said. "I like to listen to his questions and I like how he helps his teammates and he speaks from the heart. I like listening to him when he does that, too."
Jefferson viewed the award as validation for all the hard work he put in this year, and the people who helped him throughout his journey.
"I put in a lot of work this off-season and I had a lot of people to play for this year. Having my family up here with me, being married for a year to my wife Holly, having my daughter Kelley here, too," Jefferson said. "It also shows my desire of wanting to be a top-tier player. Going against guys like Charleston (Hughes), Odell (Willis), (John) Bowman — that’s the top-tier guys that I look up to.
"Since coming into the league, that’s the guys that I’m trying to be better than.
"So, for me, winning this trophy and showing those guys that I’ve been able to put my work in, trying to be like them, be a little bit better than them. Yeah, it means a lot."
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.