Now that his NFL dream is all but over, Willie Jefferson has decided to stay in his comfort zone.
The star defensive end passed on more lucrative offers to remain with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, signing a two-year deal with the reigning Grey Cup champs on the eve of free agency earlier this week.
Jefferson, 29, said both the Toronto Argonauts and Hamilton Tiger-Cats offered him more money.
“I just wanted to come back to where it all began,” Jefferson, the CFL’s top defensive player last year, said at a press conference Thursday.
“You know, (after) 29 years, the (Grey Cup) drought is over, trying to just keep that going. It felt like we put a lot of effort into last year, the building process and things like that and, like I told my guy (agent) yesterday, it made no sense to leave once I saw that everybody was coming back and we could do exactly what we did last year.”
Jefferson spurned tempting offers from both the Argos and Ticats after visiting those CFL teams with his wife, Holly, and 22-month-old daughter, Kelley, last weekend.
“I just wanted to make the right decision for me and my family and it felt right just to come back,” said the 6-foot-7, 250-pound Beaumont, Texas native, who originally signed with the Bombers as a free agent last February after two all-star seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“The deciding factor was just the team and the organization and how much love the Winnipeg organization showed me when I first made the decision to do my own thing last year, and it really wasn’t about the money situation. I felt like I was going to be paid what I deserved and Winnipeg kind of made it hard for me to not want to come back.”
Jefferson also suggested the difference in the cost of living between Manitoba and Ontario affected his decision.
But the most important factor was seeing what the Bombers were doing this off-season. His friend, wide receiver Darvin Adams, inked a three-year contract in the wake of such other significant signings such as offensive linemen Jermarcus Hardrick and Stanley Bryant, and quarterback Zach Collaros. The team also locked up head coach Mike O’Shea.
“The (signing) that got my attention the most was Darvin simply because I was still trying to work out my deal, whether to come back for the one year or two, and seeing him come back for three pretty much made my decision pretty much easy,” he said.
Jefferson also doesn’t want to go through negotiations every year.
“Just to know what I’m getting for the next two years gives me a little comfort, takes a lot off my back and coming into the off-season just getting to work and not having to worry about the little things,” said Jefferson, who had 12 quarterback sacks, an interception, six forced fumbles and 12 pass knockdowns, a record for a defensive end, last season.
Those numbers got Jefferson a tryout with the Miami Dolphins, but they did not offer him a contract.
“I put my best foot forward. I put out a good workout and if NFL teams don’t want to put me on a team, that’s their fault in the end,” said Jefferson.
“NFL teams aren’t looking for 30-year-old defensive ends. That’s pretty much the same reason why they didn’t want to pick me up this year. I just turned 29 at the end of January and, moving forward, I’m pretty sure I’m not getting any younger, so that’s pretty much what the NFL is looking for — they’re looking for younger guys to come into the league and help the organization, seeing guys that they can mould into NFL players. I’m not that guy.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson believes that the Bombers have the personnel to repeat as Grey Cup champs.
“We’re ready to go all the way,” he said.
The Bombers did lose quarterback Matt Nichols to Toronto after they signed Collaros. The latter quarterback guided the team to its Grey Cup victory after Nichols was injured.
“With the way Zach stepped in, finished out the season and playing his role, it was kind of hard not to bring him back,” Jefferson said.
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on Feb. 13, 2020.