Position: Wide receiver
Played from 1978 to 1985
Four-time Pro Bowlers
Two Hall of Fame quarterbacks — Bob Griese and Fran Tarkenton — along with the phenom Fred Lynn have birthdays today, but we celebrate John Jefferson, J.J., who wore these spacey goggles and for three years made some of the most improbable and wonderful catches in the NFL.
J.J. played for Air Coryell San Diego Chargers … and it’s difficult to recapture just how mind-blowing those Chargers were in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Throughout the ’70s, the NFL was a run up the middle, run up the middle, run up the middle, throw deep every now and again just to keep everyone from falling asleep league. Yes, they only played 14 games up until 1978, but still Ken Anderson led the NFL in 1974 with 2,667 passing yards. That’s not even 200 yards per game, and it led the entire league.
Well, the league was dominated by defense, bludgeoned by defense, smothered by defense — the No Name Defense, the Purple People Eaters, the Steel Curtain — and you moved the ball by running, pounding, battering, bashing, bludgeoning — the 1972 Dolphins had two 1,000-yard rushers. So did the 1976 Steelers (though they were beaten by the Oakland Raiders powered by the bruising running of Mark van Eeghen and Clarence Davis and Pete Banaszak). Even the Roger Staubach Cowboys. considered so glamorous at the time, ran the ball 60% of the time with Tony Dorsett and the powerful Robert Newhouse, who it was said had thighs wider than most people’s waistlines.
So, in many ways, when the Air Coryell Chargers began throwing the ball downfield like crazy — it was like walking out of a movie theater into bright sunshine. Dan Fouts became the first NFL quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in 1979 (Joe Namath had done it in the AFL), and he was like no one else at the time — he would do this little backward shuffle after taking the snap, and his head would move back and forth as he scanned the field, and then, suddenly, he would zip the ball to one of his multitude of targets — Charlie Joiner, Clarence Williams, Mike Thomas, Bob Klein, a rookie named Kellen Winslow and, most exciting of all, John Jefferson.
Jefferson caught everything. That was his gift. In 1979, he was a second-year man out of out of Arizona State — he had 1,000 yards receiving his rookie year too, before Coryell revolutionized the team — and he was not especially big (about 6-foot-1), not overwhelmingly fast (he never made a catch of longer than 65 yards) and not impressively strong (he did not even weigh 200 pounds). But he was an acrobat. He could jump over any defender. He could contort his body to make one handed catches wherever the ball was thrown. There’s one famous play where Jefferson somehow caught ball over the top of Raiders great Lester Hayes. The catch was so amazing and ridiculous that Hayes just stood there, so dumbfounded that he forgot to touch Jefferson, who was on the ground at about the two-yard line. J.J. rolled himself into the end zone.
In 1980, Jefferson was at his best. Fouts threw for an absurd 4,715 yards — smashing the record by more than 600 yards. Jefferson led the league with 1,340 yards receiving and 13 touchdown receptions, and it seemed like every touchdown catch he made was more amazing than the last. Here’s one of them on YouTube — look fast, it happens right away.
Every week, you would wait for the highlights to see what preposterous catch John Jefferson had made.
It was then that Jefferson overplayed his hand. I have sometimes thought that the receiver in “Jerry Maguire” was loosely based on J.J. They were both from Arizona, and they both felt like they deserved better pay, and they were both probably right. J.J. held out for more money after the 1980 season, and he seemed to deserve it. But the Chargers apparently didn’t think so and traded him to Green Bay for Aundra Thompson and draft choices. J.J. was never the same player — or at least he was never as productive. Though Green Bay with quarterback Lynn Dickey was a passing team too, the Packers already had their star — James Lofton — and Jefferson just wasn’t featured. His numbers tumbled. He never again had 1,000 yards receiving our double-digit touchdowns. And by 1984, he was more of a bit player.
Meanwhile, the Chargers picked in 1981 picked up the amazing Wes Chandler, who was almost exactly the same size as Jefferson, had the same sort of dexterity and hands, and fit into the offense beautifully. One of the most underrated seasons in pro football history was Wes Chandler in the strike-shortened 1982 year — he had 1,032 yards receiving in eight games. Yeah. He was on pace for TWO THOUSAND receiving yards. So, people pretty quickly forgot all about John Jefferson.
My team, the Cleveland Browns, traded for Jefferson in 1985, and though I should have known better I was beyond excited. I still remembered Jefferson as the dynamic, astounding receiver he had been for the Chargers. I still thought that, with a change of scenery, with a new offense, with a new opportunity, the amazing J.J. might reemerge. But time doesn’t go in that direction, and the Jefferson the Browns acquired was slow and exhausted — he caught three passes before disappearing into a quiet retirement.
Many years later, I was walking around Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas with a fellow reporter, Blair Kerkhoff, when a man emerged from one of the athletic offices. Blair and the man had a short and pleasant chat, and then we walked again.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“That’s John Jefferson,” he said.
He was working for Kansas in the athletic department … and I had no idea. I have been lucky enough to meet and talk with many of the greatest American athletes. After a while, it becomes something like routine — part of the job. But seeing John Jefferson that day, meeting him later, there was something intimidating and wonderful about it that took me back to being a kid. For a short time, when I was still a kid, J.J. was the very ideal of cool.