2022 Sportsperson of the Year
Justin Jefferson cracks the code of NFL superstardom
Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune
The Vikings receiver has launched himself into record books with a combination of grit, grace and the Griddy.
By Ben Goessling Star Tribune
December 31, 2022

In the first two decades they spent watching their three sons play football, John and Elaine Jefferson rarely had to consider whether they would tolerate cold weather: Their boys' games were hardly ever outside the South.

Their older sons, Jordan and Rickey, earned scholarships to Louisiana State. Jordan started a national championship game at quarterback, and Rickey was a good-enough cornerback to get preseason stints with the Raiders and Saints. But neither played an NFL game.

By the time their youngest son, Justin, became a Vikings first-round pick in 2020, the Jeffersons knew how many talented football players never reach the sport's pinnacle. They guarded their optimism about his future, kept some perspective about what it all meant. They would fly across the country — and even internationally — for his games, they decided, but they would keep their jobs: his as an industrial supply salesman, hers as an administrator for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff's Office.

"I want to get my 30 years," John Jefferson said. "That's something I've earned, and I've worked for."

And if the forecast called for cold and snow, as it did in Buffalo on Nov. 13? The Jeffersons might skip a few of those.

So they stayed home in St. Rose, La., that day. There was no watch party of friends and family — "We don't want anybody talkin'," John said — as they took in the matchup with the Bills that crescendoed into the game of the year as the Vikings made a frantic comeback. With two minutes to go, the Jeffersons leapt from their couch and sprinted toward the TV to confirm that the phantasmal act they'd just witnessed was real.

Yes, Justin had contorted himself in the air, reached back with his right hand as he fell and pulled Kirk Cousins' fourth-and-18 pass away from Bills cornerback Donte Lewis.

A measured view of what their son could become would no longer do.

"When I talked to him, I told him, 'Your life has changed forever,' " said John Jefferson, recalling the part of Michael Jordan's book when the NBA legend's father told him after the last-second shot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, "Your life has changed forever. You're gonna be a superstar."

"I just didn't think he would be as big as he is now, because I know how hard it is to do. It's just a gift."

The Buffalo catch, unfathomable in the moment and ubiquitous after it, is as good a touchstone as any for the season Justin Jefferson, the Star Tribune's 2022 Sportsperson of the Year, cracked the code to modern NFL superstardom.

In his third season with the Vikings, the 23-year-old wide receiver has solved weekly double teams, bounced back from violent collisions and broken franchise single-season records for catches and yards on his way to challenging league records in both categories and lifting the Vikings to their first division title in five years. Fans serenade him with "M-V-P" chants at U.S. Bank Stadium; he could be the first non-quarterback to be a serious contender for NFL Most Valuable Player honors since Adrian Peterson's win in 2012. He could finish higher in the MVP vote than any receiver since Jerry Rice finished second in 1987 and 1995.

In the process, he's captured the imagination of multiple generations, both online and offline. Two years after Jefferson brought the Griddy to the NFL, his celebratory dance is featured in TikTok challenges, included in "Fortnite" and "Madden NFL" video games, and adopted (or spoofed) across sports at all levels. Young receivers scour Instagram for clips of both his routes and his fashion; some Minnesota high school coaches make an example out of Jefferson's dogged commitment to run blocking.

"From the time he comes onto the field, and the stands are getting full, there's a certain presence about him," said Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, a mentor to Jefferson since the 2020 NFL combine. "A lot of that is mental, which leads to his physical ability taking over. There are certain players that stardom, it sits well on them. That's what I see with Justin."

Carter holds most of the Vikings' receiving records. He says Jefferson, who in 2022 also set the franchise mark for receiving yards in a regular-season game, has the skills and drive to break them all, in a system that features him and an era in which the rules incentivize passing even more than they did for Carter and Randy Moss.

Some of Jefferson's predecessors atop Minnesota's sports scene wore their crown with a scowl, but he does it with an earnestness that's bankable and relatable. The Vikings receive more autograph requests for Jefferson than for any other player; he signs everything the team puts in front of him. He warmed up in glasses from Disney's Spy Kids movies in November, and met with "Cadillac Jackie" Thompson (a Vikings fan whose cantankerous gameday videos earned her 750,000 TikTok subscribers) with a hug and a T-shirt bearing her likeness before a December game.

He was a zero-star recruit, given one of LSU's final scholarships only after a growth spurt and a late push to improve his grades. As easily as he's slid into MVP conversations, he could have slipped out of the picture.

The word he used to describe this moment — gift — is the same one his father chose.

"My parents preached to be humble and just take what you've been given," Jefferson said. "And God definitely has given me a great opportunity to have this gift of mine and also have my platform to spread my joy and love of the game on and off the field. All of the things coming my way are definitely God's blessing."

Photos by Carlos Gonzalez and Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune
Justin Jefferson's season got off to an auspicious start with nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers in Week 1 (top). In his first year with coach Kevin O'Connell (bottom right) calling the offensive plays, Jefferson has broken franchise single-season records for catches and yards.

'He shows up'

Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson has known Jefferson since he was a 9-year-old following his brother around the LSU locker room. Jefferson, right now, is "unguardable," Peterson said, because of an approach that evokes another future Hall of Famer.

"He reminds me a lot of Larry [Fitzgerald], man," Peterson said. "Not trying to cause too much trouble, but when the ball is thrown his way, he shows up."

The numbers bear out Peterson's assessment: According to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson leads the NFL in contested catches, with 22. The Vikings, again and again, have turned to him — on third down, fourth down, in the red zone, late in games — during a 12-3 season with 11 one-score wins.

The stories others tell about Jefferson follow the same themes. Adam Thielen remembers Jefferson, as a rookie, flying up to Minnesota to work out with him when the pandemic shuttered NFL facilities. Jefferson's attention to detail in practice, Cousins said, is the chief reason he excels at a role that's grown more complex as the Vikings line him up in new places and build new routes to counteract opponents' focus on him.

When Carter showed up to training camp this year, Jefferson quickly approached to say he was eager for feedback. He has heeded Carter's advice about improving his finger strength and flexibility; he believes it played a role in his catch against the Bills.

"If they're telling me a way to better myself, I need to go home and do it every single day to be in the same category as this type of person," Jefferson said. "Of course, he's where I want to be in my career. So there's always something to take, especially from a guy like that."

Those who work closest with Jefferson don't have trouble locating the root cause of his humility.

"His parents," Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell said. "Mama Jefferson, she don't take no stuff. And I love it. He's well-grounded. He respects his older brothers like they're his parents. It just shows you what kind of atmosphere he had growing up."

Backyard games, with two older brothers who played at LSU and a father who played Division II basketball, meant wins never came easy for the youngest Jefferson.

"We fought a lot growing up," Rickey Jefferson said. "You see him get hit [in games]; to be honest, I probably hit him harder."

The fissures turned to a deep bond as Justin grew, running routes against Rickey and studying film with Jordan. Each brother has lived with Justin at different points in Minnesota; Jordan is there now, functioning as his personal chef, film study confidant and de facto business manager.

Their relationships, as adults, seem almost incomprehensibly devoid of sibling rivalry.

"Everybody asks that," Rickey said. "But our parents, they raised us that way, man. When I see Justin out there, I see myself out there. He's his own person at the same time. But like, as family, he has our name. There's nothing I wouldn't do for him."

'People gravitate toward him'

The Griddy came to the NFL on Sept. 27, 2020, in an empty U.S. Bank Stadium. The pandemic meant the Vikings played most of their home games that season without fans in the stands. When Jefferson scored his first NFL touchdown, tapping his heels and swinging his arms for the final 5 yards of a 75-yard score against the Titans, his parents were stuck watching it on TV.

But Jefferson is a Gen Z superstar with charisma that could be atomized; the dance spread in short bursts through TikTok and Instagram, needing only a camera as a catalyst. Neither empty stadiums his rookie year nor dour Vikings seasons in 2020 and 2021 were enough to contain it.

"People gravitate toward him, clearly," said Kevin O'Connell, the Vikings' first-year head coach. "He's become pretty famous for just what he's done on the field. And he's got that great smile, his charismatic personality. People tend to want to see Justin Jefferson do great things."

His stardom brought the Griddy from New Orleans creator Allen Davis (a close friend of Jefferson's LSU teammate Ja'Marr Chase) to the world, sharing his hometown's oft-underappreciated cultural influence through a dance easy enough to learn and short enough to be shared on social media.

"It's simple, it's cool, it's swaggy, it's versatile," Rickey Jefferson said. "You can add your own little twang to it. And then you can see people that just totally botch it. That's funny also."

Justin Jefferson is surprised at its staying power more than anything.

"Going on four years, including college, that's something that doesn't happen often. Dances come and go," he said. "The amount of people that do it, the kids that are happy to Griddy with you, it's been a crazy journey."

Elementary schoolers hit the Griddy to celebrate touchdowns in recess football games. DeLaSalle football coach Terrell McMoore sees students practicing it in the hallway when they think no one is watching. Maple Grove football coach Matt Lombardi sees it "7,000 times" during a football unit in his gym class. Rosemount students offer athletic director Mike Manning money to do it at Irish football or soccer games.

Moss excited young Minnesotans by jumping over hapless cornerbacks in highlights that played endlessly on "SportsCenter." Jefferson comes by his numbers in a subtler fashion, but has the effervescence (and the media platforms) to connect in a way Moss did not.

Even in person, his energy level surprises people. When DeLaSalle hosted Jefferson's camp last summer, McMoore expected the receiver might stay on the sidelines. Instead, he said, it seemed like Jefferson had time for each of the 500 campers, offering route-running instruction to the older players and letting the younger ones catch touchdown passes against him.

Riddik Collier, Rosemount's leading receiver this season, made a weekend trip with his dad to Jefferson's California camp last winter. Jefferson took him aside to talk about varying the speed of his routes; when Collier was named MVP of the camp and Jefferson learned he was from Minnesota, he put Collier on his Instagram story.

"I felt like a little fanboy at the time," Collier said. "He just came up to me with open arms. It was really exciting for me."

'I won't stop'

So how can he keep it all in balance? How can Justin Jefferson, a superstar at age 23, keep from becoming a supernova by age 33?

"I feel like the answer is having a main goal," he said. "I'm just living it up every single chance I can and grabbing all the things that come to me. But I mean, my main goal is to be a Hall of Famer. I won't stop until I reach that goal."

He has O'Connell, the play-caller whom Jefferson said he's already closer to than any other coach in his career. He gives veterans like Cousins, Peterson and Thielen permission to check him if they see his priorities drifting. After almost every game, he knows his parents will be waiting for him in the stadium.

Those who've been where Jefferson is trying to go don't seem particularly worried about how it will turn out.

"He comes from good people," Carter said. "He knows he has my support, Randy's support. I'm excited to watch every game. That's my team, and that guy is doing things that are at an all-time level. We should take a snapshot, because it is special."