CALGARY — Imagine trying to throw a football with Godzilla in your face.
That’s what quarterbacks experience when Willie Jefferson crashes across the line of scrimmage. At six-foot-seven the Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ defensive end casts a huge shadow. When Jefferson raises his arms, his fingers come close to grabbing a cloud.
“He’s a freak of nature,” said Ritchie Hall, Winnipeg’s defensive coordinator.
Former BC Lions’ quarterback Travis Lulay remembers the time Jefferson broke two of his ribs with a hit.
“You can’t throw the ball over him,” said Lulay. “It’s a dark, ominous cloud.
“If he comes off the edge with a swim move, he’s so tall and long . . . it’s a pretty intimidating sight.”
Jefferson swats passes out of the air with the ease of a hungry grizzly bear grabbing a salmon out of a river. His big paws and long reach could be a difference-maker when the Bombers face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in Sunday’s 107th Grey Cup presented by Shaw at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium.
“A pass knockdown is pretty much like a sack,” said Jefferson, a six-year CFL veteran who signed with the Bombers as a free agent in the off-season.
“Once my coach told me that, me being my size and me having my basketball background and stuff like that, knocking down balls is kind of second nature.”
He also was third in the CFL with 12 sacks, which added up to a league-high 106 yards lost. Throw in 24 defensive tackles along with an interception, and Jefferson’s season was good enough to earn him the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player honour.
There’s plenty of football players that are big. Lots of them are fast. Jefferson brings the added dimension of intelligence.
“The thing that really impresses me about him . . . goes beyond athletic ability,” said Hall. “It’s his football IQ.
“He’s very intelligent. He understands football, he understands what offences are doing and applies it to his game.”
Growing up in Beaumont, Tex., Jefferson played basketball until his senior year in high school. He’s applied the shoot-blocking skills he learned on the hardwood to the gridiron.
“Just to have the eye-hand coordination, tying to find the ball, trying to find the right place where the ball is going to be,” he said.
Bomber middle linebacker Adam Bighill said any time Jefferson knocks a ball on the ground it increases the odds of an offence being forced to punt.
“A knockdown down, it goes to second and long, that’s critical,” said Bighill. “Any time you can get offences into those situations from a knockdown, how critical that is for defences getting off the field.”
This year, when the Tiger-Cats faced second downs of seven or more yards, they converted about one-in-three chances.
Putting a player like Jefferson in the passing lane is like a stone in a quarterback’s shoe.
“The whole philosophy is how can we disrupt the quarterback,” said Hall. “If you can’t get to him, get in front of him and get your hands up.
“If you can disrupt him, and make it second-and-long situations, it makes it uncomfortable. That’s something he’s brought, and we benefit from it.”
“I think the big thing, more or less, is just take care of him,” said Revenberg, Hamilton’s nominee for Most Outstanding Canadian. “He’s really lanky.
“The big thing is getting on him and locking him down.”
Prior to joining the Bombers Jefferson spent three years with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, where he was a two-time CFL All-Star, and two seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, where he won a Grey Cup in 2015.
The Bombers haven’t appeared in the CFL’s championship game since 2011 and last hoisted the Grey Cup in 1990.
“I tell the guys, whenever they can, enjoy this moment,” said Jefferson. “You might not get it again. A lot of guys don’t get this opportunity ever in their careers.
“At the same time, when it’s time to lock in, be focused on playing football. This is the biggest game you will play in your life.”
When Jefferson first played football he was a receiver. He believes that it helped his development as a defensive end.
“It helped me with my hands and my footwork, and keeping offensive guys off me,” he said.
Another influence growing up was his twin brother Phillip.
“We were competitive growing up,” he said. “We always wanted to push each other. We always wanted to be the best at what we did.”
Winnipeg finished third in the West with an 11-7 record, meaning they needed two road victories to reach the final. The Bombers defeated Calgary 35-14 in the West Semi-Final, then downed Saskatchewan 20-13 to advance to the Grey Cup.
As important as those wins were, the Bombers must put them in the review mirror, said Jefferson.
“That’s what the meetings and stuff are for (this week), flush the win we had in Saskatchewan,” he said. “Get that feeling of joy out of our system and focus and get ready for this game.
“We want to move forward.”