Let’s begin by describing it as a ‘phenomenon’ or, perhaps more specifically, ‘The Willie Jefferson Experience.’
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers dominant defensive end has this aura about him, a warming energy that pulls you in like a tractor beam through his mega-watt smile and his genuineness. And, simply put, it’s why so many within the organization – and its rabid fan base, of course – are ecstatic the dominant defensive end put his name on a one-year contract extension this week with the club to remain in blue and gold in 2024.
— Winnipeg Blue Bombers (@Wpg_BlueBombers) December 5, 2023
After all, the 32-year-old product has embraced both this team and this town so enthusiastically – along with carving out a nine-year career in the Canadian Football League and life in Canada in general – he has morphed into in the flesh, walking, talking billboard/infomercial for all that is right about the three-down game.
A nugget from his media conference on Tuesday to serve as evidence… Jefferson was asked about where he’s at now in his career – so full of joy every single day – compared to what his first days in Edmonton were like after stints in the NFL. His answer was long, but hardly rambling. And it said so much about the man and his place in this league.
“It’s a totally different me right now,” he began. “I know who I am, I know what I bring to the table, I know what the organization needs from me, wants from me. I know what I need to bring to be great, to be successful now. That’s me, eight-nine years into my career.
“When I first came into the CFL in 2014, with Edmonton – gold teeth, Southside fade – I just wanted to make a team, be on a team for a year. I just wanted to stick, make plays. I wanted to get back to the NFL. Now, I couldn’t care less about the NFL. I love seeing young guys make a name for themselves, make plays, get paid in the CFL, when they haven’t had the opportunity (elsewhere). But if they have the opportunity to go down south to the NFL and make a name for themselves, put the CFL on the map even more than what it is, I enjoy that.
“I enjoy seeing guys like Nathan Rourke go down there and make such a buzz in the NFL. I love seeing guys like (Brandon) Zylstra go down there, have a tenure in the NFL, guys like (Alex) Singleton. That makes me happy for the young guys. It gives the young guys hope.”
There’s more to the answer, but a brief pause here for more context which speaks again to the Willie Jefferson experience/phenomenon. Married now to his wife Holly and with two daughters in Kelley and Reilley, the Jeffersons call Winnipeg home and together, they bring an infectious approach to their every day. That extends off the field, too, as Jefferson was honoured this past spring for his work in the community with the club’s prestigious Ed Kotowich ‘Good Guy Award.’ Holly is heavily involved with the organization, too, as the Blue Bombers Women’s Club host.
“For me, I’ve built my legacy here in the CFL. I love the CFL, I love travelling all around Canada to play football in each and every one of these stadiums, against each and every one of these teams, organizations. You get to meet some great players, get to see some great athletes.
“When I came here in 2014, I was really just trying to find a way to get out. Fast forward to 2023-2024, Willie Jefferson… I’m just trying to get more young guys from the States to come to the CFL, to experience the CFL, to get the chance to get back to the NFL. If you don’t have the opportunity right now, come play in the CFL, give it a chance, have some fun. Come travel the country, come make some connections with some people that you have absolutely no idea about. Come do that, come have some fun. It is what it is.”
Jefferson is the first to re-sign from the Blue Bombers long list of free agents – now down to 35. He doesn’t use an agent and said negotiations on his extension was simple, adding:
“We’re trying to build something special. The culture here is great. The atmosphere here is great. The fans are great. The organization is wonderful. I’m just happy we were able to get the deal done. No dilly-dally, no hesitations. I knew what I wanted, and the team was ready to give me everything I wanted plus a little bit more. I’m happy. I’m satisfied.”
Jefferson’s return to the Blue Bombers is valuable because of his experience, his community work, his aura and the leadership he brings to the room. On the field he’s still as dominant as any defender in the league after being named a CFL All-Star for a fifth time, honoured as the club’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player for a third time while leading the team in sacks and again topping the league in pass knockdowns.
He spoke Tuesday about his desire to stay in Winnipeg and continuing to ‘spread excellence around.’
“I’m 32, birthday in January, 33. I still feel like I’m dominant. I’m a problem,” he said with a grin. “It’s going to take more than one guy to stop me to get to the quarterback. Even if you bring two or three guys to me, don’t throw the ball my way because I’ll knock the ball down. Until you can stop me, or until I’m tired of playing football, I’m here, I’m in Winnipeg. I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. Kyle (Walters), Wade (Miller), or coach O’Shea decide to make a move then maybe. But I’m here, I love it here, people love me here. I’m pretty sure you don’t want me to leave.”
Jefferson touched on so many subjects on Tuesday, including how he and his family have embraced living in Winnipeg. One of the other topics that he spoke intently on was the legacy he has built and continues to build in this town.
“It’s huge,” he said. “That’s exactly one of the reasons why I chose to stay. We’ve built something amazing here in Winnipeg, something that is hard to bottle up and we’ve been able to do that for the last four years. Me being a part of that is huge. Me being close to Coach Richie, being close to Wade, being close to Kyle, being close to coach O’Shea, Darren (Cameron), Matt (Gulakow), Jennifer (Thompson), Miss Carol (Barrott)… getting to know all these people and all these fans, my wife being a part of the organization, it makes the ‘legacy’ word a lot bigger. I don’t want to go anywhere and start over, start anew.”
“I understand I am who I am, and my name has a certain status in this league. I feel like my name would be so much bigger here all in one place. I feel like Winnipeg is the right place for me with the staff, the organization, the coaches, with the players that we bring in, the players that we’ve had, the relationships that I’ve built with guys that have been on the team and are not on the team anymore.
“They know who I am,” he added. “They know the passion I bring to the game, the passion I bring to this city. When you come to Winnipeg, you already know the vibe. There’s going to be crazy fans in the stands. As soon as you get off the plane, the thing that’s going to ring in your ears is ‘Come on down to Winnipeg.’ You gotta play against our defence, you gotta play against a great offence, you gotta play against amazing special teams.
“We have great coaches and it’s hard to win here as an opposing team. I don’t want to leave that and be a part of something else when I was a part of building that, you feel me?”
Absolutely and 100 per cent.
Willie Jefferson is still bringing it, and he’s continuing to bring more people on board for the ride every single day.