The last organized football game Johnny Jefferson played was magical.
It came in the Russell Athletic Bowl in December 2015. Jefferson, then a Baylor sophomore, rushed for 299 yards and three touchdowns to propel the Bears to an upset of 10th-ranked North Carolina.
Statistically, Jefferson enjoyed the best day of any tailback in the 2015 season. Only one other back in bowl history had a more prolific outing.
Then Jefferson abruptly left the sport. No one knew then that he had played the bowl game while suffering the harsh symptoms of heroin withdrawal.
He’d become hooked on pain pills in 2014. Heroin was an easier-to-find alternative to oxycodone in Waco. He had started taking oxycodone to treat the pain of playing. His habit became so extreme that he sold all his belongings and his Baylor gear to pay for the pills.
A healthy Jefferson has resurfaced in Austin. He’s playing football again and is one of 17 running backs participating in the the Spring League. He’s expected to see his first game action Saturday afternoon when he puts on a black jersey and plays for the south team during a doubleheader at Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex.
The league is basically a two-week developmental football course. The players are divided into four teams, but they all study the same playbook. So far, 17 NFL teams have checked out the practices to see if any of the more than 150 players are worthy of a free-agent contract. The CFL also has scouts on hand.
In an interview with the American-Statesman this week, Jefferson said he’s been drug-free for nearly two years.
“I’m open to talking about it,” he said. “I want people to know I take responsibility for all that. That was just like a season in my life. It wasn’t something to define me. It’s something I went through. It definitely made me better. I know myself better today as a player and outside of football, the things I can and cannot do.
“The Bible says to count your blessings and your downfalls, so I’ve counted that downfall as a blessing because I know my limitations in myself today.”
Jefferson often thinks back to his last game, the best day of his brief collegiate career. He was suffering withdrawal symptoms because he had no idea where to buy heroin while he was in Orlando, Fla. Team athletic trainers thought he had the flu, so they pumped him with electrolytes and other fluids to get him through the game.
Once he returned to Waco, Jefferson briefly began using heroin again. But two key events helped him quit. He wrecked his car near McLane Stadium, and his drug dealer was sitting in the car next to him. Then several days later, he finally asked for help after contemplating suicide.
Jefferson spent 30 days in a rehabilitation center in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2016. He recently participated in a program with Austin Restoration Ministries to help maintain his sobriety.
Patrick Arryn, a sports agent, went to school with Jefferson at Baylor. He told Jefferson that if he ever wanted to continue his career he should let Arryn know. Arryn arranged for Jefferson to play in the Spring League and is talking to teams about the tailback.
“I’m just transparent with them,” Arryn said. But he tells scouts, “What happened in the past is in the past.”
Jefferson participated in Baylor’s pro timing day in late March. He was measured at 5 feet 10 inches, 220 pounds. That’s a gain of 20 pounds since he last played. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, which is considered elite speed for a bigger back. He posted a vertical jump of 36 inches.
Arryn said Jefferson has drawn a great amount of interest from CFL teams. But no decision will be made until after the NFL draft later this month.
Coaches say Jefferson has been impressive in Spring League practices.
Steve Fairchild, the former head coach of Colorado State and an NFL assistant, is helping Jefferson shake the rust from his game.
“First of all, he’s a kid who has a want-to about him,” Fairchild said. “He’s early to meetings. He does everything we ask of him. … He’s got a good build. “
Fairchild is cross training Jefferson at fullback to make him more valuable to pro teams.
But teams always will want to know how Jefferson is handling himself off the field and whether he’s worth the risk.
Jefferson promises he’ll never go back.
“You get into a dark place, when you come out of it, that feeling, you never want to feel it again,” he said. “It’s something you never want to do again.”
Where: Kelly Reeves Athletic Complex
When: East vs. West, 1:30 p.m.; South vs. North, 4:30
North: RB David Cobb (from Killeen Ellison, was a two-year starter at Minnesota and the Titans’ fifth-round pick in the 2015 draft), WR Marvin Bracy (ended up running track at Florida State), DL Kona Schwenke (undrafted after a four-year career at Notre Dame but spent time on five NFL teams in 2014-15)
South: QB Johnny Manziel (2012 Heisman Trophy winner from Texas A&M and the Browns’ first-round pick in 2014), Lache Seastrunk (from Temple, the former Baylor standout and sixth-round pick in the 2014 draft has spent the past four years bouncing between the NFL and CFL), RB Ben Tate (rushed for nearly 3,000 yards his final three years at Auburn and was the Texans’ second-round pick in 2010), WR Antwan Goodley (earned all-conference honors at Baylor in 2013), WR Mike Davis (former Longhorn played in the NFL and CFL in 2014-16), DB Dylan Haines (from Lago Vista, another former Longhorn)
East: QB Jerod Evans (two-year starter at Virginia Tech was both an Eagle and a Packer in 2017), QB David Olson (an Arena Leaguer who was a career college backup at Clemson and Stanford), OL Jay Guilllermo (two-year starting center for Clemson)
West: QB Zach Mettenberger (two-time captain at LSU and the Titans’ sixth-round pick of the 2014 draft), RB Storm Woods (played at Oregon State, and before that, Pflugerville)