Justin Jefferson’s extension through the eyes of his WR coaches: ‘He’s a special kid’


The gray-haired man could not take his eyes off the kid. The young player looked like a toothpick — long and thin. Jerry Sullivan, an LSU football staffer who had coached wide receivers for over four decades, expected a humdrum afternoon. Until he spotted the kid, this energetic string bean with floppy braids who moved differently.

Sullivan knew the kid’s last name: Jefferson.

Between drills, Sullivan covered his mouth and asked another nearby coach, “What’s his first name?” Justin. Sullivan kept watching, marveling at the movements. It was a ballet on grass, like a jet ski on water. Sullivan, who had helped develop Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, thought he had found the perfect blank canvas.

Once the practice ended, Sullivan approached Jefferson. The coach grabbed the player’s shoulder pads, catching Jefferson off guard.

“You don’t know me,” Sullivan said. “But I know who you are. You’ve got a lot of skill. Work your butt off, and you’ve got a chance to be a pretty good player.”

That night, Jefferson’s father, John, called his son and asked how practice went.

Justin replied that he did not know where to go or what to do.

“But …” Justin said before proceeding to tell his dad about his encounter with Sullivan.

Sullivan and John Jefferson laughed about it in the ensuing years as Justin became one of the best receivers in college football and, ultimately, a first-round pick. They laughed again about it Monday in the aftermath of Justin signing a mammoth four-year, $140 million extension with the Minnesota Vikings.

Now 79 and retired, Sullivan, who still trains Justin during the offseasons, said, “In my heart, it’s, like, real special to me. Because he’s really special. He’s a special kid.”

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Justin’s uniqueness as a player is obvious. Four 1,000-yard seasons to start a career. More receiving yards than any wideout over the first four seasons of his career. Fast, quick, tough. An exceptional ball tracker. Aptitude, charisma, aura. Justin is or has all of that.

But Sullivan also cares about Jefferson the person. The squeaky laugh. His smile when he’s around his parents. The amount of time he spends with his older brother, Jordan. The appreciation he has for his oldest brother, Rickey.

Last summer, the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans came to the TCO Performance Center for joint practices. A few times, during those weeks, opposing coaches asked Vikings wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell about Jefferson. “Is he a good dude? Like, how does he treat you? Does he listen? What’s he like?”

“I was, like, ‘Oh, these guys have no idea,’” McCardell said Tuesday. “These guys have no clue.”

A good dude? Does he listen?

Laughable questions. Hilarious.

“Coaching him,” McCardell said, “is the easiest job in the world.”

Jefferson listens, absorbs, believes, cares and, maybe most importantly, trusts. He entered the NFL wanting a coach who would match his passion to be the best. When he found one in McCardell, he went out of his way to make sure McCardell didn’t leave. Literally. Jefferson directly asked general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell to keep McCardell on staff after the team fired Mike Zimmer.

Their relationship transcends football, too. On Tuesday, a couple of hours after Jefferson’s news conference to discuss his contract, his mother, Elaine, walked up to McCardell, hugged him and said, “Where were you? Where were you? You needed to be a part of the press conference!” McCardell spoke to the family for a couple of minutes, shook hands with John, then walked away and hollered, “I’m already on to the next one!”

Perhaps that’s how Jefferson will stay motivated moving forward. He’ll find a way. He always has, and the best always do. He was too small in high school, once 138 pounds soaking wet, so frustrated to be so light that he complained to his parents. Largely for that reason, despite both of his brothers playing at LSU, recruiting websites ranked him as a two-star.

At LSU, the media and fans raved about Terrace Marshall Jr. and Ja’Marr Chase. Five-stars. No-brainer athletic talents who had always charted their own course. Neither wanted to play in the slot during the Tigers’ 2019 national championship run, so Jefferson volunteered, according to Sullivan. Whatever would help the team win.

There was a narrative created around Jefferson ahead of the 2020 draft. Slot-only guy. Unable to beat press coverage. Doesn’t have the straight-line speed necessary to get open.

He heard the slights, internalized them and used them as fuel. Then, Sullivan said Monday, the Philadelphia Eagles told Jefferson they’d draft him at No. 21 when he was available.

He was available. But they didn’t draft him. Instead, the Eagles chose Jalen Reagor, and with the very next pick, the Vikings made Jefferson the fifth receiver selected in the first round.

“All the little chips that add up,” Sullivan said.

Jefferson embraced O’Connell upon the head coach’s arrival. The receiver supported Kirk Cousins publicly. When the extension conversation surfaced, he said simply, “It comes with the game.”

Privately, he and McCardell strategized how to approach the contract negotiations. McCardell held out for a contract in Tampa Bay and was traded to San Diego. The approach worked out for him, but it also shaped his perspective.

“Just be professional about it,” McCardell told Jefferson. “You don’t need to get involved. Let your agent handle it. Everybody knows you deserve it. You know you deserve it. It’s going to happen. You want to be the face of the Vikings, and you will, so let it play out.”

The Vikings began negotiations last summer. The two sides talked for several months but could not settle on the contract length or guaranteed money. They tabled the discussions and agreed to keep it out of the media, a testament to the trust each side had for the other.

Negotiations resumed recently and culminated in the biggest non-quarterback contract in NFL history. Finalizing the deal cemented Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell’s plan to create a younger roster with more long-term flexibility.

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It made McCardell ecstatic. He thought about how Jefferson’s presence at mandatory minicamp would heighten the intensity. He began planning how he’d continue to push him to become more of an active leader.

As for Sullivan? The gray-haired man sent the kid the following text:

Thrilled and happy for you. You earned it by being a great player and a great person. With a great heart.

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(Photo: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)





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