Inside Justin Jefferson’s record-breaking, physics-defying rise with the Minnesota Vikings
HE RUNS DOWNFIELD as if traveling on grooves. He reaches full speed within two strides, his feet like stones skipping across a flat lake, his hips swerving in and out of cuts without betraying his intent. Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson is a storm that feels far away until it’s suddenly overhead. Defenders must feel like they’re trying to cover a cloud.
There’s a word for the way Jefferson moves on a football field, and it’s a word that isn’t normally associated with a sport that revels in its brutality. But watch this man long enough — the edge-of-a-cliff stops, the strides unchanging even as the ball nears, the head remaining on the same flat plane through his route — and only one word spreads its arms wide enough to capture the nature of the experience: elegant.
Watching him run is like thumbing through a flipbook. The 9-2 Vikings are running away with the NFC North, and Jefferson is on his way to breaking or at least challenging several NFL milestones. He’s already the all-time leader in receiving yards for the first three seasons, and with 1,232 yards through 11 games, he’s got an outside shot at becoming the league’s first 2,000-yard receiver. He was the first to amass 3,000 yards in his first two seasons, and he and Michael Thomas share the record for most receptions (196) in the first two seasons of an NFL career. But the statistics are just a litany of the mundane. They ignore the visceral moments, the way the eye is drawn to the electric, defibrillator-paddle jolt of his talents.
“Justin, man: He just different,” says his older brother Rickey, one of three Jefferson brothers who played at LSU. “He low-key defies the laws of physics.”
Any attempt to get Justin to explain what he does or how he does it elicits laughter, or more precisely, giggles. He talks about drive and hard work and how he’s always been doubted and dismissed as the little brother in the family. He’s 23, and in many ways, an old soul, in other ways, still a kid. He sometimes misses his Thursday appointment with the local media because he has to leave the practice facility to go home and let his dogs out of his condo. The excuse is so disarming nobody bothers to complain. When he laughs, and it is often, he has an endearing habit of leaning forward and ducking his head, as if trying to get closer to the joke.
“He has such a genuineness to him,” says first-year Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell. “When you engage with him it’s always reciprocated. He’s got that great smile and that charismatic personality that all his teammates really love and respect. But, like every great player, when they step between the lines there’s something inside them that comes out.”
It’s impossible to identify the best receivers in the NFL by physical characteristics. They’re all fast and strong and agile. The best operate on a different frequency, one only they can hear. Jefferson, who flatly states he believes he is the best receiver in the league, says what separates him is his ability to make a play from anywhere — slot, wide, either side of the field — even when double- or triple-teamed.
To further define that ability, I asked legendary receiver coach Jerry Sullivan, 78, who became Jefferson’s mentor and personal coach after working as a consultant and offensive analyst during Jefferson’s first two seasons at LSU. Sullivan spent more than 25 years in the NFL coaching some of the best ever, including Isaac Bruce and Larry Fitzgerald. He should know.
“Well, I’ve got a word for you,” Sullivan says.
A few seconds pass; I fear we’ve been disconnected.
“Sudden,” he says, loudly. “The word for Justin is sudden.”
It’s a nebulous concept, but you’ve seen the catch, right? We’ve all seen the catch. It’s been replayed and retweeted and re-examined so many times it’s burned into the retinas. It’s November 13 against the Bills, fourth and 18, the Vikings down by four with two minutes left, and Kirk Cousins does the only responsible thing: He throws the ball in the general vicinity of Jefferson.
“The crazy thing is, we’ve talked about this, bro,” Rickey Jefferson says. “We’ve talked about him having that defining-moment catch. Before every season we talk about it. He’d say, ‘I got to get that one-handed catch.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, you got to get that catch that defines you. There’s no way you shouldn’t.'”
Cousins’ pass was overthrown, a desperate heave headed directly for Buffalo defensive back Cam Lewis. But Jefferson was close enough to try, so he leaped backward, his body nearly horizontal. He swam backward in midair, his right hand on the meat of the ball, and pulled it out of Lewis’s hands. When the play untangled, Jefferson rolled off the ground with the ball, the only human alive who didn’t seem astonished.
“It’s like poetry,” Rickey says. “Fourth and 18 – the significance of that being his number. Against a Super Bowl team, game on the line. At that moment, he establishes himself as the best receiver in the NFL. I can say that, and I’d like him to be as humble as possible, but you’ve got to know who you are.”
The catch was suddenness in summary form. A human feat that seemed impossible seconds earlier no longer was, and we were left to clear room for what was previously unimaginable. There’s something profound about seeing art emerge from chaos. It’s the reason we watch, for those moments of clarity, of beauty, of a human body doing something it’s not supposed to be able to do.
ONE OF THE first assignments O’Connell gave himself after becoming head coach of the Vikings was to introduce himself to Jefferson. In preparation for his interview, he watched hours of Jefferson tape and grew more and more eager to coach him. Following O’Connell’s introductory press conference, he and Jefferson met via video call, and Jefferson eventually got around to asking the question that burns in his soul:
“So: How does Cooper Kupp get so open?”
O’Connell, who coached Kupp for two seasons as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, could barely contain his excitement. Coaches love this kind of question, the way it conveys so many attributes: drive, competitiveness, football savvy. And — let’s not forget this: the way it acknowledges the coach’s role in making great players even greater.
“Do you want the real answer?” O’Connell asked. When Jefferson said he did, O’Connell said, “He’s able to line up and play any spot on the field. He knows exactly what to do in any concept we call — not only what to do, but how to apply pressure to the defense.”
“I want to do that, too,” Jefferson said.
“It’s going to take a lot of work, and a lot of time,” O’Connell said. “It’s going to take a commitment to learning things much differently than most X receivers do.”
O’Connell finishes telling this story and anticipates the next question before it’s asked.
“How has it worked out?” he asks. “He’s embraced it all. He’s such a unique player, and he realizes the possibilities are endless. I coach Justin maybe harder than anyone on the team, because of how engaging he is and the expectations he has for himself. But he’s different, and you have to coach him differently because of that. You have to be careful not to overcoach him — that could lead to him being more rigid or boxed in. You want him to have the freedom to do the unique things he can do.”
Jefferson peppers our conversation with glowing references to O’Connell. It’s KO this and KO that. O’Connell looks down sheepishly and says, “I’m the same. I absolutely love him. He’s one of my favorites of anyone I’ve been around.” Jefferson played his first two seasons for noted martinet Mike Zimmer, a man Jefferson admires but says, “Zim was an older coach so he didn’t believe in connecting with his players and having a relationship. KO’s different. He’s younger, and he was a player, and he understands how a season should go.”
O’Connell’s approach immediately diverged from Zimmer’s. During training camp, O’Connell invited Jefferson to his office for a conversation, which is how he learned that Justin Jefferson — top five receiver in the NFL, two-time Pro Bowler, most popular Viking by far — had not only never been to the head coach’s office but didn’t have any idea where it was.
Presented with this, O’Connell fidgets a little and coughs out a mirthless laugh. “The first time I invited him, I might have had to give him directions,” he says. Jefferson says, “Yeah, I didn’t know where the office was. It’s crazy.”
The Vikings’ facility is, to be somewhat fair to Zimmer, a sprawling tangle of glass and steel with no discernible flow. Even the simplest route entails treks down tall glass hallways and up vast staircases and through at least two security doors. There appears to be no direct route to anything, and navigating it without an experienced guide feels like it could result in the need for an extraction unit. Perhaps, in Zimmer’s estimation, Jefferson was considered too valuable to risk the journey.
But Zimmer was a huge proponent of defense and an equally huge opponent of frivolity, in all its insidious forms: locker-room music, locker-room games, pretty much anything that took place outside the parameters of football and the preparation for football. Fun was something you did on your own time. O’Connell is 37, decidedly New School, and he sees no benefit in adding tension to the unavoidable drudgery of a 17-game season. There’s music at practice and in the locker room, and he describes his philosophy like this: “We try to emphasize the positive aspects of getting to come to work every day, and I want everyone to know I’m in it with them.”
Jefferson is, to be honest, a bit boring in a way that coaches and teammates love. “He likes ball, and he likes being around his family,” Sullivan says. “I tell people if you call Justin at 11 o’clock at night and say, ‘We’re going to play some touch football,’ he’d say, ‘I’ll be right there.'” Rickey, a bit more colorfully, says, “That’s our life — ballin’. That’s always been our life. We talk ball. We live ball. That’s us.” During the Vikings’ bye week in late October, Justin, his oldest brother, Jordan, and I sat in the swanky Soho House West Hollywood, with swells making deals all around us, the heat emanating through the windows, everything out there – Hollywood and Beverly Hills in the foreground, the skyline of Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the entire world in the background. It seemed to serve as some sort of metaphor for what lay ahead for Justin.
He wore sweats, pristine Jordans and a diamond necklace with a large airplane pendant. (His nickname: Jets.) He smiled a lot and ate two entrees hunching hard toward the table and laughing at the idea of a Soho House opening in his hometown of St. Rose, Louisiana. When I ask him the agenda for his L.A. trip — lining up business, maybe, or meeting with representatives from his growing list of national endorsement deals — he says, “Nah, none of that. Just here to get some sun.”
There is Justin, the guy who lives with his brother and heads home at lunch to let his dogs out, and there is Jets, the grill-wearing, dance-creating entertainer whose sway on the culture is evident every time a 12-year-old hits the Griddy after making a free throw or acing a test. There are two entities, public and private, and it strikes me as being the difference between a face on a screen and a human being in the world.
JUSTIN JEFFERSON STAYED in bed and cried on the morning of signing day of his senior year at Destrehan High School. “One of the toughest days of my life,” he says. He can be found in the photographs of two other signing days, Jordan’s and Rickey’s, standing in the background, beaming. For his own, he stayed home.
Justin was not a coveted recruit; ESPN at one point had him as a zero-star prospect, and one site ranked him as the 308th-best receiver in his graduating class. But like much of the recruiting world, the stars and rankings are misleading. They’re based largely on scholarship offers, and Justin’s academic issues stemming from a lost freshman year made him ineligible to sign until he qualified academically, or as he puts it, “I had to get my books straight.”
He had offers from Nicholls State, University of Louisiana and Tulane, and one promise from Ed Orgeron at LSU. “Coach O got a feel for who he is,” Jordan Jefferson says. “You have two brothers who played in the program, we know you can play and we’re just waiting on you.” Orgeron held a scholarship, and Justin spent the summer boosting his grades — “I even had to take French,” he says — under his mother’s watchful eye. “Stressful,” Elaine says of that time. “Very stressful.”
Justin sees it, from his current viewpoint, as karmic. “Who knows if I would have gone to LSU if I had my grades right?” he asks. “I didn’t get into the ‘Oh, my brothers went to LSU so I’m going to LSU.’ I wanted to go to a school that was best for me. If I had that GPA and got all of those big offers, who knows if I would have gone to LSU? That’s why I feel God planned it to make me who I am today.”
He arrived on the practice field in Baton Rouge three days into fall practice, about eight weeks after the other scholarship freshman, with no idea of where to be but a ferocious desire to get there as fast as possible. “Running around trying to do the right thing,” Sullivan says, “but having no idea where to go.” He wore No. 32 and weighed about 175 pounds. Many of his teammates and some of the LSU coaches assumed he was a walk-on. Something about Jefferson caught Sullivan’s eye, though, and he turned to another coach and said, “You see that kid right there? He’s got something. He could be really good.”
The coach, surprised, asked Sullivan how he knew.
“He’s got what you look for,” Sullivan said. “He cuts with the same fluidity he runs with. His feet don’t get choppy at the end of the route. It always looks the same.”
Sensing the coach remained unconvinced, Sullivan said, “And when you’ve been at it for 25 years, you just know.”
Following that first practice, Sullivan put an arm around Jefferson and said, “You don’t know who I am, but if you work at this, you’ve got a chance to be really good.”
John and Elaine had dropped Justin off on campus that morning, and after that first practice John called Justin to see how it went. He sensed the excitement in his son’s voice the moment he picked up.
“Dad, this old, gray-haired guy pulled me aside and told me I’ve got ‘it’,” Justin said. “He said if I work hard and keep my head straight, I’ll be out in three years.”
Jefferson didn’t catch a pass as a freshman, but he caught 165 of them over the next two seasons and won a national championship in 2019. Sullivan’s prophecy came true.
“We never would have dreamed he would blow up into what he did,” says Greg Boyne, who coached all three Jeffersons as the offensive coordinator at Destrehan High School. “When he went to LSU, we were just hoping he’d get on the field. And then after a while we realized, ‘Damn, little Justin’s pretty good.'”
SUMMER HAS RUN away to hide, seeming to drag fall away with it, and the temperature hovers around freezing as the sun begins to drop on an early November day in Minneapolis. Cameras rolling, Justin and Jordan play catch in a parking lot after the Cover Story photo shoot, tossing the ball slowly, from about 30 feet apart. The moment admittedly lacks certain organic elements, but there’s an ease between the two that makes the simple act of throwing and catching a football feel almost sacramental.
This is their bond, their language, something Justin has been doing as long as he’s had memories. He and Jordan and Rickey in the vacant lot next door to their home in St. Rose, their father John either participating or sitting in a lawn chair watching with their mother Elaine, the boys throwing the ball and arguing and laughing. (“Every time we’d play and he’d lose — man, you talk about crying,” Rickey says. “Not that he’s a crybaby; he just really likes to win.”) They remember Justin at 2 years old trying over and over to throw a tennis ball over the house; Justin at 2, shooting on a 10-foot hoop and going through layup lines at Jordan’s AAU games; Justin at 4 beginning to head over to the lot, just him and his football, running routes, throwing passes to himself, his own play-by-play the soundtrack to his childhood. Eventually Jordan was the starting quarterback at LSU, Rickey was a high school star on his way to becoming a starting safety at LSU, and Justin was an elementary-school Pee Wee phenom on his way to something bigger than all of them.
“I remember my hands used to be stinging in pain, just from trying to catch the ball,” Justin says. “I used to stand like 15, 20 yards away, and that junk used to hurt so much.”
“But you used to catch it,” Jordan says. “Hand-eye coordination. Nice grip on the ball. And like we always said, ‘If you can catch this ball…”
Justin joins in, deepening his voice to mimic his older brother and finish the mantra. “…you can catch any ball in the country.”
They both laugh, Justin more eagerly than Jordan.
“How old were you?” Justin asks.
“Eighteen, 19, 20,” Jordan says. Left unsaid: and the starting quarterback at LSU.
“I was 8, 9, 10,” Justin says, laughing like it’s the first time it’s occurred to him.
“There was a big difference,” Jordan says, “but like Mom always said, ‘You gotta look after each other.'”
I ask Jordan if he and Rickey ever went easy on Justin, and the look he gives me immediately makes me want to take it back.
“Never,” he says. “He wasn’t going to get better if we went easy on him.”
They understand the preciousness of the gift, and the need to foster it. Jordan lives with Justin in Minneapolis; Rickey runs much of the business side; John and Elaine travel to nearly every game. The brothers haven’t been where Justin is, but they’ve been close enough to see it and dream it, which makes them intent on protecting it.
“We all played a significant role in the development of the others,” Rickey says. “Jordan was good, and then there were whispers, ‘You know, Rickey’s going to be good, too,’ and then with Justin people said, ‘He might be the best of them all.’ As a family, we’re more of an empire than an entourage, and ain’t nobody jealous about nobody. I’m sorry to have to say it like that, but I get passionate. The bond we have? You can’t break that. Other people shining doesn’t dim our light.”
Both Jordan and Rickey know how withering the spotlight can be. Beginning in his final year at LSU, where he started 32 games at quarterback, Jordan was jailed three times in 14 months on misdemeanor charges of simple battery and marijuana possession. During his senior year at Destrehan, days before signing with LSU, Rickey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of resisting arrest after an encounter with police at a Mardi Gras parade in Metairie.
“I’m sure you’ve Googled us,” Rickey says. “You see what we went through, but what you go through is not who you are. We had some tough times as a family. We had to get through the public perception and stand tight as a family. We withstood the test, and Justin learned from those tense times, too.”
RICKEY JEFFERSON WAS in Trader Joe’s near his home in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, pushing a cart through the store with his 18-month-old son Isaiah in the baby seat. He turned into the frozen-food aisle and stopped. Up ahead was a mom and her two young sons. The older one, probably age 8 or 9, was hitting the Griddy. Or, hitting something close enough to the Griddy that Rickey recognized it as Griddy-adjacent.
“I mean, he’s trying, I’ll give him that,” Rickey says. “I’d say his Griddy looked like a mixture of Kirk Cousins and some big O-lineman.”
Justin made the Griddy famous his final year at LSU, when his mother suggested he give the fans a little entertainment after a score. He adopted the dance invented by Allen Davis — a friend of LSU teammate Ja’Marr Chase — as his touchdown celebration, and now not only is the logo trademarked (Davis and Justin share in the rewards) but the dance is everywhere, in all its forms. “I knew from the beginning it was unique and something nobody else does,” Justin says, “but I didn’t expect to see every kid in the world to start hitting the Griddy.”
And so, here was Rickey, the brother of the man who turned a goofy dance into a worldwide phenomenon, walking up to this child with a welcoming smile saying, “Hey my man, this is how you do it.”
In full view of the pork shumai and the three-cheese pizzas, Rickey tapped his heels and swung his arms and threw up the B’s. He resisted the temptation to reveal his brother’s role in making this special moment possible.
“I don’t go around boasting,” Rickey says, laughing. “It’s not about me. I just wanted to help.”
THE LOT NEXT door to the Jeffersons’ house in St. Rose is roughly 170 feet front to back and 70 feet side to side, and for the longest time it was one of the only undeveloped parcels in a quiet and peaceful neighborhood within eyeshot of a levee warding off the Mississippi. The lot was the scene of years of fierce competition, an almost-necessary spillover for three boys whose age difference — Jordan is four years older than Rickey, Rickey five years older than Justin — managed to stoke the flame. The family was so competitive that Rickey says, “I didn’t beat my dad in basketball till I was 19, and we’re talking about a dude who had a hip replacement. He was ultra-competitive, and he might have called that foul late in the game that he wouldn’t have called earlier.”
John is a salesman for an industrial supply company, Elaine an administrator in the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office. They’ll keep working until they’ve earned their pensions, John tells me, “because we’ve earned it.” There’s a welcoming vibe coming from every precinct of this family, part of that empire-not-entourage thing Rickey references. Sullivan says, “A lot of families look at it like their ship has come in. John and Elaine have just rejoiced in the fact that he’s making it. Justin bought his mom a car and she cried. She didn’t ask for it.”
After all of the boys moved out of the house, John — a former college basketball player who still carries himself with the ease of an ex-athlete — asked the owner of the lot next door if he could purchase it, not as an investment or a building site but as a sort of shrine to his sons, and a tribute to the years of service that ground gave to his family. “There’s a lot of our history on that lot,” John says. “I asked him, did he want to sell it? We spent a lot of time on this lot.”
This is the spot where Jordan started spinning the ball in way few little kids can. It’s where Justin’s hands took a beating, where Rickey the middle man — head on a swivel — competed and fought and argued with brothers both younger and older. It’s where they’d find Justin whenever they couldn’t find him, and where John issued the family-famous words, “Bro, you need some work,” the first time he took Justin out here to run routes when the coaches at Destrehan High switched him from quarterback to receiver.
The owner of the lot took a few months to think about it before telling John he had decided to build on it. Now the neighbor’s house is almost finished; John and Elaine walk behind the house explaining what it looked like when they were raising their sons here; John points to where Jordan would stand with the football, directing his two younger brothers. And over here is where Justin would throw the football to himself while his brothers looked out the window and shook their heads.
So much of their lives played out on this dirt beneath their feet. It’s all unspooling in their minds. They remember the chaos of the three-game weekends: Justin’s Pee Wee games; Rickey’s high school games; Jordan’s LSU games. It’s been several years, but they still see it all, right there in the dirt of the nextdoor lot. “A lot of good memories,” Elaine says quietly. They go silent. Finally, John says, “I’m glad we had it for the time we did.” He shrugs and walks back to the house. He’ll be on a plane tomorrow. His son’s got a game.
Video producer: Sandarvis Duffie; Video editor: Tawney Luna. Art Direction by Cornel Beard. Wardrobe styling by Chanelle Whisper and Darnell Booker; grooming by Robb Kelly. Look 1: Jacket by Rhude, turtleneck by H&M, pants by Amiri and shoes by Louis Vuitton; Look 2: Jacket by Zara, jeans by Abercrombie & Fitch, shoes by Louis Vuitton; Look 3: Jacket by Saint Michael, sweats by Gallery and shoes by Dior. Accessories: chains and grill by Leo Khusro; bracelets by Lakeside Diamond; glasses by Oakley and Louis Vuitton. Furniture courtesy Blu Dot.