John Jefferson beamed with pride as he saw the dreams of his son become reality.
On April 23, Justin Jefferson was selected with the 22nd selection in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings, a little less than three years after departing Destrehan High School for LSU while graded as a two-star recruit by college scouting analysts. Now, he’ll make millions of dollars and be a recognized name nationally among sports fans – at least, the few remaining unaware of his dominant season as part of LSU’s reigning national champion.
The third among a trio of siblings in the Jefferson family to establish themselves as a star at LSU, behind older brothers Jordan and Rickey, Justin became the highest drafted St. Charles Parish product since Hahnville’s Laron Landry was picked sixth overall in 2007. For further context, the 22 spot is two slots higher than former Destrehan great Ed Reed was drafted in 2002 – Reed was most recently in the national spotlight upon his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year.
For John, it was a truly special moment to share with his son, who watched the draft alongside his family at their St. Rose home.
“It was surreal in a lot of ways,” John said. “When he got that phone call, it was before it was televised. We thought it was going to be Philadelphia, but they went with someone else. So then it’s Minnesota and we were all so excited for him. That was a great experience for all of us.”
He said he knew the process leading up to draft night was a stressful one on Justin, particularly with the way the coronavirus pandemic altered draft preparation plans – team visits had to be cancelled among other concessions this year, and the draft itself was in fact a virtually done process – Justin no doubt would have been among those invited to participate at the live draft setting, as a nearly universal 1st round projected pick.
“He’d talked to the Eagles, the Raiders, all of the teams that picked wide receivers (prior to the Vikings pick),” John said. “It’s a stressful process, because you never know, especially with the situation with coronavirus this year. You expected it to be a little bit different. When the time came, I think he was kind of relieved. And I know he’s excited to be part of the Vikings organization.”
One would expect any father to be proud of his son reaching such a peak. It no doubt made the moment even sweeter knowing how hard Justin worked to get there.
Justin was not a ballyhooed prospect when he arrived at Destrehan as a 5’7, 155 pound freshman. At the time he was being groomed to play quarterback, like brother Jordan did once upon a time for the Wildcats in the school’s unbeaten 2007 state championship season. But Justin grew up fast. He’d round into a 6’3, 185 pound collegiate prospect, and he was moved to wide receiver, where he emerged as a go-to guy as an upperclassman.
He didn’t have the pomp and circumstance of a National Signing Day to soak in. Jefferson still had work to do in order to qualify academically to play at the next level. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron conveyed a message, however: if Justin’s hard work continued, and he reached his marks, a scholarship would be waiting for him at the school he watched each of his brothers excel for, where he wanted to be all along.
Justin indeed nailed down the marks he needed and joined the LSU roster in 2017. After a season to accumulate himself, Justin quickly established himself as one of the team’s top receivers – and one of Joe Burrow’s favorite targets – hauling in 54 catches for 875 yards and six touchdowns.
A year later, Justin, Burrow and the entire LSU offense exploded to record arguably the finest offensive season in collegiate history en route to an unbeaten season and national crown. Jefferson played his role for sure: 111 catches, 1,540 yards, 18 touchdowns, and a massive coming out party in LSU’s national semifinal victory over Oklahoma that saw him record 14 catches, 227 yards and four touchdowns.
Draft analyst Mike Detillier said prior to the draft that star ratings can’t measure the size of a player’s heart, when speaking of Jefferson’s emergence. John saw that was the case on a regular basis when it came to his son. And a former college athlete himself playing basketball at the University of Nebraska, John knew what it took to continue advancing levels.
“Even though he was rated as a two-star, we all knew he had a lot of potential if he worked at it,” John said. “He had a natural gift and a natural competitiveness in him. When LSU gave him the opportunity, he took advantage of it. He worked very hard and LSU put him in the best position to be successful. They gave him the opportunity to work on his game to be where he is today, and I give them kudos for it.
“Justin’s always been underrated. He’s worked very hard to get to this level, and that’s now among the top receivers in the country.”
Of course, John knows some local NFL fans might be a bit conflicted on certain Sundays that pit the Vikings against their beloved New Orleans Saints. The two teams have a complicated history, some might say: Minnesota has knocked New Orleans out of the postseason in two of the past three years and on four total occasions, more than any other team. But the one time the Saints got the better of Minnesota in the playoffs, it was en route to the franchise’s lone Super Bowl win in 2010.
“Yeah, absolutely,” John said with a laugh. “I have a lot of family members who are Saints fans and they were saying, ‘Anywhere but Minnesota!’ I know they’ll still cheer for him. Just if they play the Saints, it might be a bit of either-or for them. I know I’m looking forward to that.”