As the hours of the 2013 NFL draft slogged by, Tony Jefferson's emotions raced past confusion and despair.
“I was angry,” he says. “So angry.”
He had been a blue-chip high school recruit and delivered three productive seasons for one of the most prominent college programs in the country. Why, all of a sudden, did no one want him? Why wasn’t he drafted? He’d left Oklahoma early in anticipation of guaranteed NFL riches. Instead, he was hurtling into a void he’d never even fathomed.
“It was mind-boggling,” said his father, Tony Sr., who sat beside his son in the family’s San Diego home during the draft.
But Tony Sr., a heavyweight boxer turned preacher, had always told his son: “A righteous man falls seven times so he can get back up.” It was an ideal to which Jefferson would cling as he fought to build a pro career from the ashes of his undrafted agony.
Four years later, Jefferson smiles easily as he recalls those days. He has just come off the practice field in Owings Mills, sweating through the purple and black uniform of the team that gave him $36 million to be its starting safety. And even though he has been a Raven for just a few months, he already feels essential to the team’s ecosystem.
He busts on rookies for their eccentric fashion choices and schemes elaborate coverage tricks with fellow safety Eric Weddle. When free-agent receiver Jeremy Maclin came to town for a recruiting visit, he attended an NBA Finals party with various Ravens players. The host? Tony Jefferson.
He inherited his buoyant personality from Tony Sr. “Put me in a room full of KKK members, and I’ll be laughing and playing pool with them by the end of the day,” the elder Jefferson booms.
But to understand how this newly minted NFL star came to his current position of comfort in Baltimore, you need to realize Tony Jr. is still the guy who could not grasp why the football world turned up its nose at him four years ago.
Jefferson, 25, displays an astonishing recall of the details from his first preseason games with the Arizona Cardinals, when he was out to prove every team in the league had made a terrible mistake. He still speaks of those days in the present tense, as if he’s reliving them constantly.
Every morning, he scrawled the same message on the dry-erase board in his locker: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
First game against the Green Bay Packers, he didn’t play until the last five minutes but made three tackles. Second game against the Dallas Cowboys, he entered in the second quarter and almost immediately intercepted a pass. He intercepted another to seal the game late. Third game, didn’t play a down. “At that point I’m upset,” he remembers, his voice hardening. Fourth and final preseason game against the Denver Broncos, he was stuck on the sideline until the fourth quarter. Finally unleashed, he whipped off a tackle for loss, a fumble recovery, a pass deflection and a sack to halt the Broncos’ final drive.
Still, he thought the Cardinals might cut him the next morning. When he arrived and saw a rival safety’s locker cleaned out instead, he ducked into a bathroom and “cried like a baby.”
He was an NFL player, though in many ways, his fight was just beginning.
Road to the snub
As a kid growing up in San Diego, Jefferson had no reason to believe he’d one day need to scrap for a job. Tony Sr. started him playing youth football before he even reached elementary school, and he was always one of the best players, a natural seek-and-destroy force.
Aggression was his default state. He rooted for the Raiders, even though he lived in Chargers country. And he was crestfallen when district lines prevented him from donning the silver and black for the Balboa Raiders in Pop Warner ball. Off the field, he pretended to be a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.
The future NFL star was actually the little guy in his family home. Tony Sr. is 6 feet 3 and 285 pounds, and Jefferson’s mother, Adria, is 5-10. His older brother was a football star and even his sister is taller than him.
“It’s because I’m bow-legged,” the 5-11 Jefferson said, laughing.
His softer side was most likely to come out in the company of his grandmother, Audrey Rush, who made him fresh salads and “the world’s best green beans” to help him diet and let him listen to the rap music his father strictly forbade.
“She was one of the realest, kindest people ever to walk this earth,” he said of his nana, who died two years ago.
He tries to balance her sweetness with Tony Sr.’s discipline when parenting his own son, 2-year-old Tony Jefferson III (aka TJ3 or “Stink”).
As he neared high school, Jefferson also began boxing. Tony Sr. had been an Olympic contender in the super heavyweight division and saw similar talent in his son, who naturally kept his hands high and flashed a deadly uppercut.
To this day, Jefferson works out in boxing gyms when he’s home in California, and he hasn’t ruled out attempting to fight when he’s done with football.
But Tony Sr. did not believe his son could play football, box and balance a high school workload. He was convinced Tony Jr.’s passion and greatest talent lay on the field rather than in the gym, so he urged him to set his gloves aside.
Jefferson did so and blossomed into an All-American defender at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista. He flirted with several other big-time college programs before he chose Oklahoma because of the stability he perceived in coach Bob Stoops’ operation.
He was a freshman All-American for the Sooners and started 25 of 26 games as a sophomore and junior. His path to the NFL appeared smooth, until he felt tightness in his hamstring on the eve of the pre-draft scouting combine.
Don’t run the 40-yard dash if you don’t feel right, his trainer told him. “But my competitiveness took over and I wanted to show what I had,” Jefferson said.
He ran his first 40-yard dash in a disappointing 4.75 seconds and felt his hamstring pop during his second. He was devastated.
His hamstring still bothered him three weeks later at Oklahoma’s pro day, so he couldn’t wipe away the bad taste from that 4.75. Nonetheless, his agent said he’d be picked in the third or fourth round.
“There was never any type of talk or concern about not being drafted,” Jefferson said. “Ever.”
Thus the rage boiled in his gut as he sat there, watching safeties he’d never heard of, guys who hadn’t even played the previous season, go in the fourth and fifth rounds.
Jefferson actually hoped the Ravens might take him. He’d enjoyed meeting with the team’s staff at the combine. But he realized that was a long shot after they selected Matt Elam in the first round.
By the end of the third day, 254 players had been picked. And Jefferson still did not have a team.
He said he never believed his story would end there. He saw no point in feeling depressed. Instead, he forced his way onto the Cardinals and made the best of his opportunities when starting safety Tyrann Mathieu was injured. For three years, his job never felt guaranteed, and fighting for it became his de facto mode of existence.
In his fourth season, after strength coach Buddy Morris had called him fat the previous summer, a more chiseled Jefferson became a full-time starter and one of the best safeties in the league, according to Pro Football Focus grades.
With free agency looming, he had once more made himself into a player everyone wanted.
Weddle studies the broader NFL and especially the safety position. So he kept an eye on Jefferson during his breakout year in Arizona. As the offseason dawned, he reached out to the budding star, offering his friendship and counsel if Jefferson wanted either.
Jefferson, of course, knew all about Weddle, who’d been an All-Pro for his hometown Chargers. Asked when he started watching his future teammate, he chuckled and said, “Probably middle school, old as he is.”
Shortly after Weddle struck up the relationship, Ravens coaches asked what he thought of Jefferson as a potential free-agent target. So the veteran put on his general manager’s cap.
With Brandon Williams headed for a long-term deal at nose tackle and C.J. Mosley patrolling the middle at linebacker, Weddle envisioned Jefferson as the last piece to a long-term core for the defense.
“He’s physical, explosive and he’s only going to get better,” Weddle said. “I not only look at this season but for the future as far as building this team. He can be that guy to lead this defense. From the outside looking in, when I move on, the Ravens D is still going to be good.”
Weddle was enthusiastic enough about the signing that, when it snowed on one of Jefferson’s first days in Baltimore, he picked his new teammate up and drove him to work. In the months since, his appreciation for Jefferson has deepened considerably.
They’re both Swiss-Army-knife players who drill opposing ballcarriers as easily as they fall into deep coverage. But their kinship goes beyond that to an almost mystical understanding of one another’s rhythms and intentions.
“No disrespect to any of the guys I’ve played with, but it’s nice not to have to explain why I do certain things or why I’m doing this in this coverage,” Weddle said. “From day one, he already had a feel for how I play and how to work off me. … It frees me up a lot more mentally. I don’t have to tell him after each play why I did this or, before the snap, let’s do this. He already knows. That is just light years ahead of most guys I’ve played with. I’ve loved every guy I’ve played with, but he’s just on another level.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh marvels at how quickly Jefferson and Weddle developed their rapport. By day three of the team’s first week of offseason activities, they were giving the starting offense fits.
“I would say, Tony Jefferson, my impressions would be A-plus in every area,” Harbaugh said. “I see him in the weight room, I see him in the conditioning and I see him in the meeting room. I see his knowledge of the defense already; I see how he and Eric interact back there. We are doing a great job of disguising our looks, and we are causing the offense a lot of trouble.”
Jefferson believes he has found the place he was meant to play (he turned down several more lucrative offers to sign with the Ravens). Now, he plans to show everyone.
“This is my most important year,” he said. “This is where you really make your mark on the league and stamp yourself in a division like this. I’ve got a lot to prove. It’s not pressure, exactly. It’s pressure I like. I can’t wait to put on the pads, honestly.”