The story was written for Minnesota Vikings rookie receiver Justin Jefferson from the moment he picked up a football but the final chapter always ended with him playing at LSU, not in the NFL.
Going to Louisiana State University was the only thing that mattered to Jefferson as a kid. That was his ultimate goal and he never let his mind wander much further.
As a kid, he watched LSU games religiously from the family’s living room, then got to watch in person as oldest brother Jordan starred at quarterback for the Tigers. As if that wasn’t motivation enough, middle brother Rickey was a Tigers safety. Justin lived vicariously through them in the stands at Death Valley, dreaming of some day following their footsteps to the field.
“I’ve been seeing LSU games for the past 12 years,” Jefferson said. “Just seeing all the different guys that come in and come out.”
He finally lived out his dream, signing with LSU after a solid career at Destrehan High School in Destrehan, La. He immediately started writing a new chapter, and as it turned out, LSU was only the beginning.
'Destined for greatness'
Steve Robicheaux retired this spring after serving nearly 20 years as head football coach at Destrehan High School. Needless to say, he’s grown quite familiar with the Jefferson family over the years.
He coached Jordan, who led the program to a state championship and finished his career with a perfect 21-0 record as a starter, as well as Rickey, a solid player in his own right.
“We couldn’t wait to get our hands on Justin after having his brothers, there’s no doubt about that,” Robicheaux said. “He resembled Jordan more than Rickey because of his lanky frame. In the back of our minds, Justin was going to take us back to the promise land.”
While he started his career as a quarterback — the resemblance to his brother was too much for Robicheaux to pass up — it wasn’t long before Jefferson found his niche as a receiver.
“We had a need and put him out there, and I remember that spring scrimmage he went crazy,” Robicheaux said. “The rest is history. We never thought about moving him after that. It worked out tremendously for us. And for him.”
Not only did Jefferson have natural abilities as a route runner and pass catcher, he had a knack for making the big play when his team needed it most. Still, the thing the helped Jefferson get to the next level more than anything else, according to Robicheaux, was getting to watch his brothers do it before him.
“There ain’t no doubt,” he said. “He grew up in the same house as them and saw everything that went into it. He pretty much had his own seat in the crowd at LSU and was always over there watching. He got to see what it looks like, and I think that helped him.”
Of course, Jefferson also helped himself along the way, never resting on his laurels and taking his career to heights not many could have imagined. Except those that know him best.
“Does this surprise me?” Robicheaux said. “Not at all. It doesn’t because he had the pedigree, he had the skills, and he worked really hard on his craft. He was destined for greatness.”
'He will be in the NFL'
For everything Jefferson brought to the field — athleticism dripping off his lanky frame — he arrived at LSU as a relative nobody in the grand scheme of things, a no-star recruit, according to ESPN. He struggled to find playing time during his first year on campus, only appearing in a couple of games in garbage time.
Still, longtime NFL receivers guru Jerry Sullivan saw Jefferson’s potential from the moment he laid eyes on him. He was a consultant at LSU at the time and had an inkling that Jefferson was going to be something special.
“I remember we were at practice during Justin’s first year on campus and Jerry Sullivan came up to us and told us, ‘He will be in the NFL some day,’ ” Robicheaux said. “We were surprised because he had just left our place at something like 170 pounds soaking wet. We were like, ‘Well, I guess he sees something in him.’ And sure enough, he did.”
Not only did Jefferson prove Sullivan right, he made him look downright prophetic in the process. Jefferson’s ability as a receiver was unmistakable as he rapidly developed alongside fellow LSU star receiver Ja’Marr Chase.
That development culminated last year as Jefferson recorded 111 catches for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns, emerging as a top target for No. 1 overall pick Joe Burrow, and helping guide LSU to a national championship.
Asked about his rise up the ranks, Jefferson credited it in part to watching LSU games from the stands and being around the locker room with his brothers. He said he was learning more than he knew at the time.
“That helped me a lot,” Jefferson said. “It got me to see all those different types of players, all of those big-time players that are making noise in the league, and seeing all that, it got me more educated than a lot of young players.”
“You learn a lot from those different guys,” he added. “They have been preaching to me these different techniques and different ways to become a better player. Now, I have to work on those different things to get better.”
'Work for what I want'
Admittedly, for Jefferson, the start to his NFL career has not gone according to plan. After selecting Jefferson in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft as the replacement to star receiver Stefon Diggs, the Vikings have looked dreadful. They’re 0-2 heading into Sunday’s game against the Tennessee Titans at U.S. Bank Stadium.
That’s been bothersome to Jefferson. Let’s just say losing isn’t something he’s used to after going undefeated last year.
“Just got to bounce back and find that energy that this organization has been having for the last couple of years,” he said. “We have to have that swagger back that (coach Mike Zimmer) was talking about.”
That swagger could come from of getting the ball to Jefferson with more regularity. He turned heads throughout training camp, and while he has the skills to perform at a high level, the Vikings appear to be bringing him on slowly. So far, he has been nothing more than a tertiary option for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“He’s still getting in the mix,” Zimmer said. “He’s still learning, like a lot of our young guys. The learning curve is steep. He’s very, very talented, and I think we see that with some of the plays when he does get the ball in his hands.”
It’s on offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak to get the ball in his hands more often. Talent-wise, Jefferson might be the best weapon at his disposal outside of star running back Dalvin Cook and star receiver Adam Thielen.
“You’re going to see more and more of him,” Kubiak said. “He’s responded, and I thought he did a really good job last week. We have to go find some more in him this week. I think Justin is holding up his end of the bargain, and we as coaches have got to keep him coming along.”
While it could take some time for Jefferson to develop chemistry with Cousins, as soon as he does, his teammates are confident he will make an impact.
“He’s somebody who wants to be great,” Thielen said. “I’ve said that several times talking about him. Those are the guys we want in our room. Those are the guys we want to be around, that love to play the game, and are continually trying to get better. I’m excited for him to get more opportunities to show what he can do, and show what he showed us all through training camp and so far this season in practice.”
As for Jefferson, he’s continued to lean on his brothers, like he’s done through every step of his career to this point.
“I lean on them with everything,” he said. “They have been telling me to just wait my turn and it’s going to come to me. It doesn’t come just straight from the jump. I’ve got to work for what I want.”
In other words, Jefferson’s story is far from finished.