By: Eric Smith
Justin Jefferson's shimmering career thus far — the record-breaking rookie season, the spectacular catches and newfound stardom — was all part of the plan. It had been in the works for years, more than a decade.
Put another way, Jefferson was made for this. Made for the NFL.
"He was bred to be a main contributor," Jefferson's brother, Jordan, said. "His upbringing was for him to be the top guy."
The Vikings megastar explained it in his own words:
"It comes easier since I had two older brothers that did it before me," Jefferson said. "They went through things before I did, made mistakes that I got to learn from … they paved the path for me and made it easier for me in my life.
"I've been in the right places at the right time, had the right coaches and teammates … I've been blessed, honestly, for my whole career," Jefferson added. "But I have to keep paving my way."
The family history is well-known, especially down in his native Louisiana.
Jordan Jefferson started 32 games as LSU's quarterback between 2008-11, going 24-8 as a starter for the Tigers. Rickey Jefferson, the middle brother, was a defensive back who played 37 career games and recorded four interceptions at LSU between 2013-16.
Justin followed the same path as his brothers, from Destrehan High School just outside of New Orleans, to LSU, which sits just 75 miles up Interstate 10.
The wide receiver enjoyed plenty of college success, too, helping lead the Tigers to a 2019 national title and cementing himself as one of the nation's top playmakers.
But the similarities ended there for the brothers, as neither Jordan nor Rickey was drafted or played a game in the NFL. Justin was determined to change that trajectory for his family.
"What motivates me?" Jefferson said, repeating a question on a recent Friday afternoon at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center. "I love the game of football.
"But also, my brothers not being able to live the same dream I have of being in the NFL and being a top pick," Jefferson added. "I want to let them live through me."
Jefferson did indeed make it to the NFL, as the Vikings tabbed him with the 22nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
View photos of Vikings first round draft pick WR Justin Jefferson and his first day at TCO Performance Center.
The fifth wide receiver off the board, 18 different teams passed him up before he landed in Minnesota. (Miami, Jacksonville and Las Vegas each made multiple first-round picks before Jefferson's name was called).
Jefferson promptly outclassed the rest of his counterparts by setting a Super Bowl-era rookie record with an even 1,400 receiving yards. He totaled 88 receptions (which set a Vikings rookie record) and hauled in seven touchdowns.
Perhaps the sudden success surprised others around the league, but not the Jefferson family, which includes his parents, John and Elaine.
The roots for his phenomenal rookie season were actually laid a decade-plus prior in Baton Rouge, where an elementary school-aged Justin got an up-close look at a blueblood college program.
"To be able to go inside of the LSU locker room when you're 8 years old? I didn't get that opportunity until I was 17," Jordan Jefferson said.
Justin hung out back then with Patrick Peterson, a two-time All-American cornerback who was Jordan's roommate. And there were a handful of other Tigers that eventually made their way to the NFL, too.
"The best of the best. The best players go there to play against the other best players in the country in the SEC," Justin said. "It was always a high standard at LSU, and that's one of the reasons why it was so easy for me to come into the league.
"I went up against top players every single week, and the NFL is the same … going up against top players every single game," he added. "LSU definitely got me ready for it, but I'm lucky I got to see it at a young age."
Not that Jefferson was satisfied with that production in his NFL debut. He honed his craft this offseason and carried that worth ethic into his second year with the Vikings.
The result? Well, he's already surpassed the 1,000-yard receiving mark, joining Hall of Famer Randy Moss as the only Vikings players to hit the mark in their first two seasons in the NFL.
"One thing about J.J., he's not comfortable with who he is," said Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. "He just wants to get better. You see him in practice, man, he's flying around, running around.
"That's important, man, just to see somebody that's not complacent with their talent, and he's got a God-given talent," Cook added. "Hard work matches talent, and you've got a guy right there."
View the best photos of Vikings rookie WR Justin Jefferson from the 2020 season.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer added:
"He's very confident. I don't think any of this stuff bothers him. He thinks he's a great player, and he is a great player. He really doesn't have any prima donna in him, as far as not working in practice or being late or anything like that. He just goes about his business. I think he just loves to go play and loves to practice, and I think he loves the limelight, too. I think he loves catching the ball and scoring touchdowns. Hopefully he can continue to do that."
Jefferson laughed when asked about playing in prime time, something he and the Vikings will be in when they host the Steelers in Week 14 for Thursday Night Football.
"I like the bright lights," he said with a smile. "The whole world is watching. That's the only game on, and I definitely like those big-time games, because that's when you see who are the big-time players."
But he also wanted to make a point about the middle part of Zimmer's praise, too.
Through Minnesota's first 12 games of the season, Jefferson was targeted at least 10 times in six contests. The Vikings went 4-2 in those games, with one loss coming in Week 2 on a missed last-second field goal. The other was Sunday in Detroit when he caught the go-ahead score with less than two minutes remaining and finished with career highs of 11 catches and 182 yards.
View the frame-by-frame shots of Justin Jefferson's first career touchdown he hauled in during the Week 3 Vikings-Titans game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
In the six games where he has been targeted fewer than 10 times? The Vikings are 1-5.
Yes, Jefferson wants the ball. But not for his own accolades. The belief from many, including him, is that scheming plays for him simply helps the Vikings offense be more explosive, potent and successful.
So, how does he balance being confident without that coming across as selfish?
"It's the way you carry yourself, the way you treat your teammates and people around the building," Jefferson said. "I've never come off as a diva and never complained about anything. I always keep a smile on my face and am mostly positive about things.
"When I'm not getting the ball and I happen to be open, it's just communicating with coaches and Kirk [Cousins] about what they saw and me being open on certain plays," Jefferson added. "Me being a diva is out of the question. I just love playing the game and love being around my teammates. And I love winning."
That above question was also posed to first-year Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who played 16 NFL seasons and amassed 11,373 receiving yards and 63 touchdowns in his career.
McCardell offered a chuckle and quickly downplayed the notion that Jefferson is anything but a team-first guy.
"I always want the guy that always wants the ball," McCardell said. "That's the mindset he's supposed to have, and the mindset that I breed in [the wide receivers group].
"When you're on the field and it's a pass play? You should want the ball. Sometimes you may get labeled as a diva. But, really, no. It's about wanting the ball," McCardell added. "I think a diva shows people up and isn't a part of what the team wants to do. Justin understands what his role is on this team, and he goes out and does it very, very well."
In fact, McCardell added, if you really want to measure Jefferson on something, pick the thing beating inside his chest. His desire. His will.
"It's a love for the game. He's been brought up that way, being around his brothers. You've got to give everything you've got when you're on the field," McCardell commented about Jefferson's heart. "You're supposed to make plays and help your team win, whether it's blocking, making a big play, short catch, long run, whatever. When it's crunch time, he wants the ball.
"The guys that you know are big-time players, they want the ball in the moment of truth," McCardell added. "If you want to judge a guy around the league, judge him by whether he steps up when it's time to, or whether he fades into the background. He's a guy that steps up all the time, and wants it all the time."
Jordan Jefferson added: "He has that internal aspect of who he is helps make him the player he is. You can find anybody who is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. But to have the tenacity, the desire to be great … that's something where he separates himself from a lot of wide receivers."
Jefferson is now just 28 games into his NFL career. And he's kept up his record pace that he started as a rookie.
The NFL record for the most receiving yards by a player in his first two NFL seasons is 2,755 yards, and is held by Odell Beckham, Jr., another former LSU star. Moss, by the way, is second on that list at 2,726 yards. Jefferson now ranks third with 2,609.
Jefferson has naturally drawn comparisons to Moss, who took the league by storm early on and eventually ended up enshrined in Canton, Ohio.
Jefferson recently paid homage to Moss by wearing No. 84's image on a T-shirt in warmups against the Packers, a team Moss routinely torched in his career. Jefferson then did the same, with eight catches for 169 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Yet even though similarities will be made between the two, McCardell wants his wide receiver to simply focus on the task at hand.
"Randy is Randy … a great, Hall-of-Fame receiver," McCardell said. "But Randy did what he did, and now Justin is doing what he's doing. It's a different time and era.
"I tell him, 'Just go be Justin.' He's his own receiver," McCardell added. "I want Justin Jefferson to be Justin Jefferson. That's it."
Jefferson has interacted with Moss a few times since being drafted, and said he's well-aware of the elite history of Moss, Cris Carter and other Vikings wide receivers in team history.
And yes, he said he knew he had to ball out if he wore a Moss shirt in warmups.
But Justin Jefferson accepts that. He also wants to do his own thing, create his own legacy. He's off to a good start.
"I'm not trying to be like anyone else. I have my own style, my own swagger," Jefferson said. "I definitely look up to greats like him, greats like Carter. But I don't try to imitate them. I try to be the best player I can be.
"[Moss] had so many different stats and achievements that he accomplished in his career. He has a Gold Jacket, and I definitely want that," Jefferson added. "But I just have to keep playing my own game. I think I'm doing pretty good so far."
My Cause My Cleats
Jefferson is known for highlight-reel plays and flashy footwear.
View photos of Vikings WR Justin Jefferson unboxing his custom cleats for the NFL's 2021 My Cause My Cleats initiative. He is representing the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ) organization.
The Vikings wide receiver will certainly have the latter part covered in the Vikings game against the Steelers, as he will celebrate the league's My Cause My Cleats initiative by honoring Northside Achievement Zone.
Jefferson's multi-colored cleats feature a mix of green, blue and purple, with white shoelaces. And they also include the initials of his mom, dad and two brothers.
He aims to bring awareness to an organization whose mission is to end generational poverty and build a culture of achievement in North Minneapolis in which all low-income children of color graduate from high school ready for college or a career. Northside Achievement Zone partners with parents and scholars to overcome racial and income gaps in housing, employment, wellness, early childhood and K-12 education.
View photos of Vikings players' custom cleats in honor of the NFL's 2021 My Cause My Cleats initiative that allows players to express their commitment to causes that are important to them.
"I wanted to choose Northside Achievement Zone because I wanted to give back to the community," Jefferson said. "I always want to share my love around Minneapolis, and the Northside is really struggling right now.
"Just wanted to shed light on them and bring some hope to their community," Jefferson said.