Willie Jefferson was worried he might never get to play football again. And that was enough to scare him into maturing in a hurry.
Jefferson, whom the Texans signed as an undrafted rookie this offseason, was arrested twice in the fall of 2010 for marijuana-related incidents while he was still a student-athlete at Baylor.
After being dismissed by the team and then allowed to return, Jefferson said he met with head coach Art Briles following his sophomore season. Jefferson said the two decided it was best for Jefferson to leave the team.
So there he was that spring, a 20-year-old kid whose life had been consumed by football for 10 years, without the sport he loved, without his team, without a next step of action.
“Yeah, it was a wake-up call,” Jefferson said while shaking his head after walking off the Texans practice field during OTAs. “When I left Baylor, after leaving all my friends, it was really hard.”
So after leaving Baylor, Jefferson began working to move on from what he called “childish” behavior. He also wanted to make things right in the eyes of his parents.
“They were very upset, very disappointed,” Jefferson said. “As a child, you never want to disappoint your parents.”
But since then, Jefferson’s been trying to make up for his mistakes and prove to people that he has changed. Willie Jefferson Sr. said he saw a change in his son immediately after Jefferson left Baylor; his son started working harder than he ever had before. But before Jefferson had the chance to prove that change to others, he first needed a team to take a chance on him.
“I hoped somebody would want me but I just wasn’t sure,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson knew Ben Wells and Justin Isadore from his hometown of Beuomont, Texas. They were both graduates from Ozen High School, where Jefferson attended, and both played for Stephen F. Austin.
Those two helped talk Jefferson into heading to Stephen F. Austin but he had been on the radar of the Lumberjacks for some time. Head coach J.C. Harper said that his coaches recruit the Beaumont area.
Harper still remembers the first time Jefferson went to Stephen F. Austin to meet the coaches in their offices. A lot of times, Harper explained, a player will say they’re 6-5 or taller. He said he actually hears that quite a bit. But when Jefferson walked into the room, there was no question about it. He was tall. He was athletic. He had a giant wingspan. Jefferson was a physical freak, as Harper would soon find out. (He now compares him to former Dolphin Jason Taylor.)
Jefferson was very quiet that first day in the offices of the football program. See, he’s a good communicator but he’s not particularly loud and he wasn’t that day. But Harper said Jefferson fit in with the program right away. Before deciding to attend Stephen F. Austin, Jefferson also made a visit to Central Arkansas but decided to become a Lumberjack instead.
“We explained it that … ‘this is what it is. It’s a second opportunity to do things better, to do things right,’” Harper said. “He wanted to get things right. He was very serious about football.”
And Jefferson said he too viewed playing at his new school as a second chance, one he was determined not to squander.
“Willie wasn’t a real talkative guy but you could tell by the way he worked and the way he approached it as a second chance,” Stephen F. Austin defensive ends coach Kevin Carberry said. “He played very hard. You could see that through his actions, that it was important.”
Football has been really important in Jefferson’s life since he was a youngster. He began playing when he was around 10 or 11 years old. Back then, he was a wide receiver and that was the position he went to Baylor to play. As a high school senior at Ozen, he was named a second-team 4A all-state receiver.
Jefferson is also a twin. His twin brother, Phillip, played football in high school too, but the two only played together for one year – ninth grade. After that, Phillip – who is a few inches shorter than Willie, transferred to Central High School in Beaumont after he grew tired of people calling him Willie’s little brother. And from 10th grade on, the two competed against each other.
“They was for each other but they liked the competition,” Willie Jefferson Sr. said. “They were very competitive. Willie was playing WR in high school. (Phillip) was playing safety. I told Phillip, ‘son, you know you can’t take it light against your brother.’
“Sometimes Willie would come out on top, sometimes Phillip would come out on top.”
Jefferson Sr. even remembers the two playing against each other in a game at Lamar University. As the father of two twin sons on competing teams, he sat in the middle, as to not look biased.
Phillip was a good athlete but things just seemed to come to Willie more naturally. He has wanted to be a professional athlete for many years.
When Jefferson went to Baylor, he remained a receiver. As a freshman, he caught five passes for 101 yards and a touchdown, playing in all 12 of Baylor’s games. His first career reception came in the third game of his collegiate career and went for an 18-yard touchdown in a win against Northwestern State.
In his sophomore season, the Bears turned the 6-5 receiver into a tight end but his off-the-field run-ins with the law didn’t allow Jefferson much of a chance to get on the field.
That spring, while Jefferson was still with the Bears, their new defensive coordinator, Phil Bennett, wanted Jefferson to play defensive end for him. Bennett had been watching the wiry receiver and had an idea.
And that idea worked … just not at Baylor.
“I think it’s a great decision,” said a chuckling Carberry, who joined Stephen F. Austin to coach DEs before Jefferson’s final season. “It made my job easier, that’s for sure.”
See, while Jefferson played defensive end for Baylor that spring, the decision for him to leave the school was made before he ever got to suit up in a real game on defense. But he was impressive enough as a defensive end to make Stephen F. Austin want him.
Lumberjacks head coach Harper said some coaches on his staff have relationships with Baylor’s coaches and heard about Jefferson’s strides on the defensive side of the ball.
“It was a change,” Jefferson said about the position change. “I can’t really say I was upset but I can’t say I was really happy about the change. As you can see, it worked out for the best.”
While at Stephen F. Austin for two years, Jefferson did get a chance to line up on offense in certain situations – like on the goal line – too.
Carberry said there are similarities between a receiver and a defensive end. The work a receiver needs to do to break off a jam at the line of scrimmage is similar to the way a defensive end needs to break through an offensive line to get at a quarterback.
And in his first season as a Lumberjack, Jefferson made it look easy. Jefferson is one of the best pure athletes Haprer has coached. But what he said impressed him the most was Jefferson’s ability to run. While other players get tired, Jefferson doesn’t; he just kept running. Harper thinks that will give his former player an edge in the NFL.
In his first season as a defensive end at Stephen F. Austin, Jefferson played in all 11 games and had 15 sacks for 114 yards in total losses. He also had two interceptions; he returned both for touchdowns, to go along with 29 tackles.
His 15 sacks ranked him first in the Southland Conference and fourth in the nation. His 4.5-sack game against McNeese State was a school record.
“I just worked hard,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to play football and I wasn’t going to stop no matter what position I played or where I was at. I just gave my all to be where I wanted to be.”
In 2012, Jefferson had another good season, but not as good as his junior year. He had eight sacks for a loss of 63 yards, 36 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss.
“I think everybody is different,” Carberry said. “Some guys can play multiple positions. The thing about Willie is that he didn’t have any self pity about trying a new position. He tried to make the most of it. He was always just trying to get better. Never any complacency. I’ve seen it happen with other guys. They think they’re getting jerked around by the coaches.”
And now, as he works with the Texans at the NFL level this spring, Jefferson is learning yet another position – his fourth since entering college. The Texans expect Jefferson to become an outside linebacker to fit into Houston’s 3-4 defense. To do so, Jefferson knows he’ll have to put on some weight. The Texans list him at 233 pounds and he’s already working on getting to his goal weight of 255. He said he never thought he’d end up playing linebacker in the NFL, but so far, he’s pretty happy with the way things have worked out.
Jefferson is thrilled to be in the NFL and his father’s thrilled his son is a Texan. Willie Sr. said he’s always been a Houston NFL fan. When the Oilers left town, his allegiance never shifted to Tennessee and when the Texans came to town, he was immediately a fan.
“I think I kind of pushed him to root for the Texans, being in my house,” said Willie Sr., who said he talks to his son three or four times per week. “This is a Texans’ house, not a Cowgirl or one of those other teams.”
And a part of playing for the Texans as a defensive player and as a linebacker means playing for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and linebackers coach Reggie Herring. Jefferson has enjoyed working with his new Texans coaches and high-level NFL talent.
“When they tell you what they want you to do from a coaching standpoint you listen,” Jefferson said. “When a guy like coach Wade Phillips … he’s coached a lot of Hall of Famers. I couldn’t sit there and not listen to him because I want to be where he coached those players to be at some day.”
Just about every day during OTAs, Jefferson works in a small group of linebackers in a side group. He, along with Sam Montgomery and Whitney Mercilus, worked together. He said those sessions have been helping him a lot.
“He’s doing some good stuff,” said head coach Gary Kubiak, who added that Jefferson reminded him of Bryan Braman, who has been with the team for two seasons.
During the second round of OTAs, Jefferson made what was perhaps the play of the week, when he jumped up and snagged a pass out of mid-air. He returned it the other way for what would have been a touchdown. “The pick-six,” said his father, who had already heard about the play.
Jefferson’s been doing his best to impress the Texans’ coaches on the field and off of it. He said when the Texans signed him, what they talked about the most was his behavior while at Baylor over two years ago. The Texans pride themselves on bringing in character guys.
Recently, Browns wideout Josh Gordon was suspended for the first two games of this season after violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. Gordon was arrested with Jefferson at Baylor – the first of two arrests for Jefferson. Gordon claims cough medicine with codeine was the reason for the failed test.
Jefferson seems determined to keep his past in the past. He doesn’t go out much anymore and tries to stay in his room whenever he’s not on the field. He said it’s all a part of the change he made in his life and his mission to prove to people that he has changed.
Harper doesn’t think that will be a problem.
“To me, he is nothing but a role model,” said Harper, who has been the head coach at Stephen F. Austin since 2007. “There were never any negatives. He always led by example. He took to coaching very well. The word I would use is ‘focus.’ He was always very focused on what he wanted to do and that comes with maturity. He wanted to grow up. If you take a risk and they mature, it’s worth the risk.”
Before Jefferson’s pro day at Stephen F. Austin, his father sat him down. Jefferson told him that being an NFL player was the job he wanted. His father looked at him, told him that he had some things (the arrests) working against him, which meant he needed to work even harder. And his son agreed.
“This is a dream for him,” Willie Sr. said, “and it seems like he’s on a good path.”