By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — Asked to unpack his acceptance speech for the CFL’s defensive player-of-the-year award, Willie Jefferson says it’s about having a football home.
“I just want to thank the CFL for letting me come out here and letting me be me. Not having hide behind a fence to be the person that I want to be, the athlete I want to be,” Jefferson said Thursday after accepting the trophy.
It was a two-way-street moment for the six-foot-seven, 248-pound terrorizer of quarterbacks.
Recognition of his CFL-record 16 pass knockdowns, league-leading six forced fumbles and 12 sacks in 2019 made the Winnipeg Blue Bombers defensive end want to recognize the league.
“There’s a lot of guys from a lot of different places with different background stories,” Jefferson explained Friday.
“Canada has given a lot of those guys the NFL has shut the door on, an opportunity to still play the game of football, provide for their families and be able to grow a brand and interact with fans.”
The 28-year-old from Beaumont, Texas, has spent six seasons in the CFL and won a Grey Cup with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015.
Jefferson was a league all-star with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2017 and 2018 before signing a one-year contract with the Bombers prior to 2019.
His speed, reach and range is a headache for opposing quarterbacks. The pass rusher will be a consideration for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday’s Grey Cup game in Calgary.
“He’s a great talent,” Ticats offensive tackle Chris Van Zeyl acknowledged. “He poses certain problems to offences and if you’re not at your best than bad things can happen.”
Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell can recall a bad thing happening when Jefferson was an Eskimo.
“I don’t want to be disrespectful, but he’s a freak,” Mitchell said earlier this season. “The very first play I pulled it and tried to throw it over his head and he knocks the ball in the air.
“He’s looking at the ball coming back down and I’m like ‘how am I going to stop this guy from catching the ball?’ I jumped on his back.”
Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson wondered aloud in October why Jefferson isn’t in the NFL.
“He’s six-foot-seven, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he can run, he has hands,” Dickenson said. “To be honest, it’s crazy to my mind why he’s not in the NFL. You just don’t find guys with what God gave him.”
Jefferson was cut from the Houston Texans as a rookie in 2013 for violating unspecified team rules. He also had an unsuccessful tryout with the Washington Redskins in 2016.
Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea dismissed Dickenson’s question as gamesmanship Friday, but given Jefferson’s impact in the CFL, Dickenson isn’t alone in his query.
“I’m just as surprised as he is,” Jefferson said. “I’ve put my name in the hat for the NFL a couple of times. My name just hasn’t been pulled.
“I don’t have a problem with that because I always have a home here in Canada to play football. I’m not crying myself to sleep at night waiting on an NFL opportunity.
“I get a sense of pride when I go home after the season and tell people I play football in Canada. If they don’t know it, I get a chance to explain it to them.”
A free agent again after this season, there will be a market for his talents in the CFL, if not south of the border.
“A lot of ups,” Jefferson said. “I know I will have opportunities to see what opportunities the NFL has for me coming into next year, but if the NFL doesn’t have anything for sure for me, I will for sure be coming back to the CFL.”
In the meantime, there’s another trophy he wants Sunday.
“This would mean everything to me just to win a Grey Cup alongside winning defensive player of the year,” Jefferson said. “To go home with both of those accolades this year would put me at the top.”
“I’ve won the Grey Cup before as a young player. Now that I’m an older player, guys look up to me and things like that, have a lot of guys on my back, have a lot of people back at home looking up to me.
“It would mean everything to me.”
— With files from Bill Graveland