One of the biggest stars of last season’s NFL rookie class was Justin Jefferson, the dancing ray of sunshine in Minnesota Vikings purple who busted out moves whenever he scored. Jefferson even broke Hall of Famer Randy Moss’ elusive rookie receiving record, set with the Vikings back in 1998, nabbing 88 balls for 1400 yards and 7 touchdowns.
Not everything has been smooth, though. Jefferson didn’t expect to end up in Minnesota at the number 22 pick of the 2020 draft, instead thinking he would be chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles one pick earlier. When he got to Minneapolis that summer, the world was focused on the state after officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd and months of protest ensued. Jefferson had also never voted before, and this particular presidential election seemed, well, consequential.
Sitting down with GQ, Jefferson discussed fan perceptions of Black athletes in Minnesota over the years, how he hopes to buck the trend, his rocky draft night, his process when voting for the first time, and why you should never eat McDonalds.
GQ: I hear you’re a big fan of Snowfall. Who do you think is gonna die this season?
Justin Jefferson: From what I’ve been watching, I feel like Leon is gonna die. He’s gotta be the one. He’s been in a lot of stuff, he killed ol’ girl’s daughter, he’s gotta be the next one to go.
Really? It does feel like that. He’s held it down for a few seasons, but he’s talking too much.
He’s caught up in too much. The cops were on him. Skully was after him. He’s the next one.
How does someone play LSU, become a national champion and then immediately go to the NFL and break Randy Moss’ record?
I kept that same fight I’ve had my entire life. I’ve been doubted my whole career. There’s been people who never thought I was that top tier guy. So I wanted to prove other people wrong, really. I went out there and did my thing and got Kirk [Cousins] to throw me the ball.
What exactly did they doubt? This is a classic retort from athletes, that they’ve always had to overcome some phantom declaration that they aren’t that good, but what exactly was doubted about you?
There were questions about me being a fast guy, me being only a slot receiver, me not being able to play that big role in an offense. There were definitely questions about me going into the draft and combine and everything. I wanted to prove to everybody that I am a versatile receiver and that I am one of these top-tier guys.
When I spoke to scouts last year, plenty of people raved about you being an elite player. You ended up as the fifth receiver off the board. Did that sting you? At the time, you called it a “shocker.”
I mean, I kind of figured it would be like that because of all of the hype those other guys had. Those guys [Henry Ruggs III, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Jalen Reagor were picked ahead of Jefferson] being the top-tier guys going into college, I knew there’d be some politics that happened in front of me. I tried not to worry about it too much, but it got to me a little bit. I didn’t feel like I was the fifth best receiver in the draft. I just used that as determination, I used that as fuel to keep improving my game.
When you mention the politics of the matter, and the hype of the other players that went ahead of you, what do you mean by that?
Me being a two-star recruit, me not having that hype out of high school, not being a top-300 guy, a five star receiver. All of those other guys were four or five stars. They had more leverage than me as far as people knowing who they are and higher up guys knowing who they are. I came in under the radar going out there doing my own little thing.
But it’s clear you’re a budding star. There was so much buzz around your name heading into draft night. One possibility was the Eagles. At one point, I heard that you started looking at housing in the area. You ended up falling one spot later. There was that viral video from the Vikings draft room about how excited they were to have you. What was it like to go through all of that?
Leading up to the draft, you know, they had all of those mock drafts and people sharing their opinions on who is going to go where. A lot of people had me going to Philly. And, I thought I was going to Philly. Honestly. The funny part is, Philly was on the board and then Minnesota called me. At first, I thought it was Philly. But, I answered the phone and it was Minnesota. It’s crazy how all of that happened and everything. But, I’m definitely, definitely, definitely excited that I’m on the Vikings rather than Philly.
Will it feel any better if you ever play Philly because you’ve become this star and they missed out?
I’ll always treat every game the same, no matter who I’m playing. But Philly will definitely be edgier. You know, especially because they passed on me.
When you came into Minneapolis, there was a lot going on immediately. Stefon Diggs was leaving and it felt like the press and fans of the team put you guys against each other. Why was it so testy coming into town after he left, even though y’all are on good terms?
It’s tough. It is definitely tough coming in as a rookie after a guy gets traded that was pretty much the number one receiver. People expected me to be the same as him or outperform him. There were a lot of questions about me being able to live up to Stefon Diggs and all of this. It definitely made it seem like we were enemies. But, we got cool over the season. I just saw him working out at House of Athlete and we were talking there, too. We’ve grabbed a connection over the course of time.
Coming to Minneapolis feels like a tough adjustment. Plenty of Black athletes have discussed the difficulty of living there last summer with the numerous protests around the city after the murder of George Floyd. You’ve mentioned that you had some conflicts with voting until you talked to your mother and got right. What was your big hangup?
I just wanted to learn more about the whole thing. That was my first time voting and everything. I’ve never really tried to learn anything about politics. To actually sit down with the people I love and get all the information I can on who I should vote for and why, I took it as a learning experience.
With the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there was so much protest happening around the country. What was it like being a young, Black athlete playing in Minneapolis during that?
It was crazy, man. It was crazy. Before I even reported to Minnesota, all of that stuff happened. My family was a little worried about going there with all of the protests and everything going on. But, when I got here with all of my teammates, I tried to do anything to help. It was definitely a tough time, especially right before the season. We came together as a team to talk about what we should be doing. As a team, we spoke about everything. We were just trying to get everybody’s insights on the situation. And I felt like it brought our team closer together, we really tried to take it on as grown men, just try to figure out a solution to the problem and ways for the team to help this cause.
What did you learn? Because as someone who’s covered protest movements across this country for some time, it is still eye-opening to see so many people, in so many places, at least momentarily get it.
That was not something that I thought would ever happen. We all didn’t think that sort of thing would happen, for the whole world to take a stand and be moved by the [killing] of George Floyd and the rest of the police brutality last year. It has been heartwarming to see the world making a change. This is only the start of it. We have to keep fighting and keep building off what’s happened. We can’t just let these things go past and be forgotten.
Now you look at Minneapolis and that trial is going on a year later [GQ spoke with Jefferson in the weeks before Derek Chauvin was found guilty]. What’s it like to be part of that community?
It’s really just starting to get back to where it needs to be. We’re still lacking. We just keep putting that word out there and fighting for equality and what we believe in. I don’t want this situation to fade off like every other situation. You know? We have to keep building on everything. And me? I have to keep learning. I was never involved in this, I’ve never had a moment of police brutality happen to me, or anything with the police. That was something for me to really sit back and educate myself on, so I can understand the guys that are talking about the police and things that are involved in that. It’s really just learning. It feels good to finally be involved in all of this.
What did you learn in the last year?
I learned a lot, majorly from my teammates. I say that because we have a lot of guys on the team who do different things, and have been in different situations, and come from different backgrounds. So, to hear the different stories, different experiences that my teammates have gone through and are going through, it helps me with my life to be aware. The situations they’ve been in? I don’t want to go through. It is being mindful of things to do when you are pulled over or if you are in the wrong place and wrong time. There’s a lot of things I’ve learned this season. I’m continuing to look for more things I need to know, more information I need to grasp.
That’s refreshing to hear. Randy Moss said you were the future of the Vikings, but the same fans cheering you ran him out of town. Have you considered your status as a face of Minnesota sports in all this, especially given what happened to your predecessors?
Of course I know what happened and their situations. But, I feel like I’m my own person. My journey is different. I’m going to be the one who’s going to control how my journey is. I’m here to play football. When I’m in that facility I’m all about football. There’s no diva. There’s no cockiness. Nothing. I’m just being myself. I like to have fun and play football. Being there with my teammates, my brothers, that’s all I need. As long as I’m getting my little share of the ball, then I don’t see no problems.
At the end of the season in December, down two scores to the Bears, you were caught in the end zone on a live mic asking Kirk Cousins to get the ball out of his hands quicker. Frustration in football isn’t new, but why do you think it became a story?
I think people ran with it because Stefon Diggs just left for, apparently, being a diva. So, I guess them having the assumption that I’m just like that or I cry or I ask for the ball too much, whatever whatever. People fail to realize folks say this all the time. But, now with Covid and no fans, there’s hot mics. You hear everything in the stadium. I really don’t care about that type of stuff. I’m gonna say whatever I need to say on the field. If I’m frustrated, I’m going to get my point across. I’m going to show you my competitiveness and my eagerness to win is shown on the field.
I don’t want to be that quiet guy that doesn’t say anything, that just sits back and just [goes along]. I want to win games. I want to go to the championship. I want to win. In order to do that, you have to be that leader, that vocal person in the locker room. That’s the guy that I’ve started to be.
Okay, but did Kirk need to get you the ball quicker?
[Laughs] Just a little bit. There were a few throws that game…but I talked to him after and we got that whole situation settled down. He wanted me to come up to him and talk to him instead of yelling for the TV to hear.
What are your expectations for year two? Training for a rookie season is much different from a sophomore season, now that there’s plenty of film on how you get in and out of your routes, how you start your releases, everything. What have you had to switch or add to be ready for this year?
To be honest, I’ve tried to add anything possible. I’ve been watching a lot of guys’ film. I literally sit at the computer all day watching different film, highlights, just different ways to improve my game. I’m always trying to look for different ways to step my game up. Like you said, there’s more film out there on me. There’s more guys looking at me. I’ve got a target on my back now. I’ve got to do better than I did last year. Going into year two I know how the game is now. You know? I’ve experienced it, I’ve got a bit more information, I’m a little bit more comfortable now that I’ve had a year under my belt.
You’ve said you wanted to add wiggle to your route, wiggle to your swag. How do you cross over a corner in the NFL today?
Just like one-on-one basketball: like you do at the top of the key with one man and you tell everybody to spread out because you’re trying to get to the goal. Using all those crossover moves, it’s just like being a receiver. Trying to win that one on one battle and get past the guy in front of you. Actually, I’ve been playing basketball just trying to work on my crossover to translate it from the court to the field.
Chad Ochocinco said he was going to lock you up one-on-one, though. He said he was going to give you a powerpoint tutorial on route running. What happened when y’all finally met up?
We finally met up, he was talking. We had done one of the House of Athlete episodes. We was talking trash then, that Friday beforehand. We finally got on the field and I killed him. He knew exactly what was going to happen. But, he just didn’t wanna tell the world on social media.
Did y’all at least get some McDonalds?
No, man! I told him! You gotta stop eating that McDonald’s, man. It ain’t good for ya body.
Who’s got the worst dance moves on the Vikings?
[Laughs] It’s a lot of guys who are terrible at dancing! If I had to pick, damn, this is really hard.
It’s that many?
It’s that many, man. That many. I’ll have to say Adam [Theilen]. Kirk [Cousins], definitely, is another. I’m working on Dalvin [Cook]. He needs to get the Griddy down a little bit better, but he’s gonna get it. I feel like those are the only ones that are that bad.
Speaking of, are we gonna get something better than the Griddy for next year? We’ve had a year of it. Do you have something else for us?
My goal is to get the Griddy on Madden. Once that happens I’ll start coming up with some more dances. But at the beginning of this season, now that we’re discussing a full capacity stadium, I definitely have to bust out the Griddy for the fans. I’m excited for fans. They bring so much energy, so much excitement to the game. Finally being around people and having that excitement, that adrenaline from the crowd, I’m excited for the whole season. Knowing what to expect in the league, I feel like this year is gonna be way more smooth.