Jefferson now force for UCLA after early-career struggles
OCT 31, 2013 3:14p ET
The track star excelled as both a cornerback and a wide receiver, matching his opposition step-for-step. He was an aggressive runner, tough and physical. Jefferson quickly became one of the most coveted defensive prospects in the area.
Martin, then the defensive backs coach at Washington, wanted Jefferson in Seattle.
"He had all of the traits you look for in a defensive back," Martin said. "He was very fast, being a track guy coming out of high school. He had length. And he wasn't afraid to compete. He had a lot of the traits that attract all recruiters."
Now at UCLA, Martin finally gets to coach Jefferson, although as a safety and not as a cornerback. And everything Martin saw in Jefferson before is coming through now in his redshirt-junior season.
Jefferson has been a defensive force for the Bruins this season. He's second on the team in tackles and had highs of 14 and then 13 against Stanford and Oregon. Against Utah, his two interceptions proved key in UCLA's win and his intense playing style didn't go unnoticed.
He returned to his locker in Salt Lake City, to find a text message from a relative of former teammate Joseph Fauria that read, "A.J. you the man!"
Now, it feels as though this is how it always should have been. Jefferson likes to downplay much of the last few years of his career. But dig a little bit deeper you'll learn that two surgeries in his first two years of college had him fearing that he would never be able to play again.
"It was probably the hardest thing of my life," Jefferson said. "When something that you love so much is taken away from you."
During the sixth game of the 2010 season, Jefferson broke his foot on kickoff coverage and was forced to sit out the remainder after surgery.
He returned to school the next season ready to compete but quickly found out that the foot injury had put enough strain on his back to herniated a disk, and he would need yet another operation.
"I would doubt myself. Am I ever going to come back the same? I'm not progressing as well as I should," Jefferson recalled. "There was a lot of doubt in my mind. But through that doubt was, in the back of my mind I just thought, ‘I'm going to keeping working. I'm going to get better one day.'"
But then came an even bigger blow when head coach Rick Neuheisel was fired. In came Jim Mora and his staff full of former NFL coaches that didn't know Jefferson as a blue chip recruit and didn't know his potential.
Jefferson never thought about transferring. His grandfather was ailing and he wanted to stay nearby but now there was a new fear of the coaching staff casting him off.
"One of the biggest things when you get a new coach is first impressions. And I definitely didn't have the best first impression after my back surgery," Jefferson said. "I couldn't run, I couldn't do anything. And that was the first thing they had seen of me."
"He was in a dark place," Martin said. "He had a lot of things going on as far as getting healthy, injuries, personal life stuff, school stuff – there was a lot on his plate that he was trying to get in order."
When Martin joined the staff, Jefferson found respite in having a coach that knew him before the injury on his side.
"I think it could have been detrimental if nobody here knew him," Martin said. "Being a heavy NFL-based staff that we had and a lot of guys not knowing him coming in, his place was so dark he could have never seen the light again."
Martin promised not to give up on Jefferson if he promised not to give up on himself.
In this year's spring practice period, Jefferson made sure to catch eyes of more than just Mora and Martin.
"When it came to spring time, it was really nothing he said to me but just how I seen him play," said corner back Ishmael Adams. "His notch of playing -- it just really made me want to compete with him."
Football means more to Jefferson than many other things in his life. The game brought him closer to his father, Anthony Sr., who also used to play collegiately. He used to fear that he would lose things close to him if he were to permanently lose the game. But through the trials, Jefferson's to appreciate the place in life football has.
"All of the things that have happened in the past, they've just helped me grow and develop as a person," Jefferson said. "I have to say, I've worked on my patience. That's probably the one thing that has developed the most."
The passion, and most importantly, the speed have returned.
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