During his three seasons as a receiver in coach Don Coryell's
aerial circus, John Jefferson had an impact on the San Diego
Chargers' passing attack that was as electric as the gold
lightning bolts that exploded off the sleeves of the team's
jerseys. Blessed with the body control of a belly dancer and
suction cups for hands, Jefferson twice led the NFL in touchdown
catches and became the first player in the league to gain 1,000
yards receiving in each of his first three seasons. His frequent
landings in opposing end zones prompted team publicists to dub
him the Jefferson Airplane. He preferred a simpler sobriquet: JJ.
Jefferson stamped his initials on NFL couture as well. After
being poked in the eye as a rookie, in 1978, he donned a pair of
wraparound goggles for protection. The funky eyewear coupled
with San Diego's space-age uniforms made him look like an extra
from the cantina scene in Star Wars. "We were something
different," says Jefferson of the Chargers in those days. "We
were a breath of fresh air."
The air in San Diego soon turned stale for JJ. After he held out
during training camp in 1981, the Chargers dealt him to the
Green Bay Packers for wideout Aundra Thompson and three draft
choices. Expected to team with fellow All-Pro receiver James
Lofton to form the most dynamic duo in Wisconsin since Laverne
and Shirley, the 6'1", 198-pound Jefferson instead wound up
playing second fiddle. In San Diego, Jefferson had caught 66.3
passes per year; in his last five seasons, with the Packers and
the Cleveland Browns, he averaged only 30.4.
Jefferson was working as a commercial real estate broker in his
native Dallas when football came calling again, in 1989. At the
urging of his former Green Bay coach Forrest Gregg, he started
as a volunteer assistant at SMU, and in 1990 he was hired to
coach the wide receivers at Kansas, a position he held for four
years before moving into athletic administration. Today,
Jefferson, 42, is director of student-athlete life at Kansas and
lives in Lawrence with his wife, DeWanda, and their children,
Tiffany, 18, and John Jr., 14.
With quarterback Dan Fouts, wideout Charlie Joiner and tight end
Kellen Winslow of Coryell's Chargers now in the Pro Football
Hall of Fame, JJ has no doubt what would have happened had he
remained in pass-happy San Diego. "If I had stayed," he says,
"then you would have been reading about Jerry Rice breaking all
of my records."
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON [Cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED featuring John Jefferson]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT INDERMAUR [John Jefferson]
"We were different," he says of the Chargers. "We were a breath
of fresh air."