Saturday, July 13, 2024

What we learned about Justin Jefferson, Vikings from Netflix’s ‘Receiver’ series

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What Tim Rumpff knew about Justin Jefferson was what we’ve all known. That he is an elite talent. That he dances a pretty cool dance. That he wears chains, inserts grillz into his mouth and resonates with kids, having become one of the faces of the NFL.

Rumpff, a 16-year staffer at NFL Films, entered Jefferson’s house last fall with these facets in mind. He had been assigned to Jefferson for Netflix’s new series, “Receiver,” and now they were talking in Jefferson’s living room while meat sizzled over in the kitchen.

They connected quickly, the same way Rumpff had with former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins the year before. And Rumpff, who brought along preconceived notions about what an elite wideout like Jefferson would want to talk about, exited with an unexpected impression.

“What I really didn’t know,” Rumpff said recently, “and what I really enjoyed learning, was just how much of a good human being he is.”

The story Rumpff thought he’d be able to tell was the motivation serving as jet fuel for a receiver who would continue to set records in 2023. The story Rumpff ultimately told was how Jefferson, who simultaneously navigated the first major injury of his career and questions relating to his contract, stayed grounded and remained committed.

To his team, yes, but also to his personal standard.

“No one, no one, no one in this game could ever tell me to not play or to tank the season,” Jefferson told Rumpff one morning while driving his Mercedes toward the Vikings’ TCO Performance Center.

Episode 3 captures the conversation, amid false speculation by some national media members about Jefferson choosing not to play the rest of the season.

“I’m not that type of person, you know?” Jefferson said to Rumpff. “I wanna play. I love the game of football, and I want to be the best. In order for that to happen, I’ve got to be out there on that field.”

And why was that Jefferson’s mindset? The answer, Rumpff believed, lay in the values instilled by Jefferson’s parents, John and Elaine, and brothers, Jordan and Rickey. Family is a theme accompanying Jefferson’s segments throughout the series. They eat together. Agonize with each other. And celebrate as one.

Understanding the strength of these relationships is the key to understanding Jefferson. More than anything else, that’s what Rumpff and this series depicted.

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Additionally, here are seven sequences from the show that felt notable:

1. If you have read this space in the last couple of years, you know the bond Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell has with Jefferson. They spend time together before practice. O’Connell implemented play calls with words like “Griddy” and “Cajun” that tie directly to Jefferson’s Louisiana heritage.

Episodes 5 and 7 provide snapshots of their relationship.

Once, on the turfed indoor practice field at the TCO Performance Center, Jefferson, who was still rehabbing his strained hamstring, chopped his feet and laughed, squealing happily like a little kid misbehaving and running from his parents.

“This bad boy gotta get moving,” Jefferson hollers, slapping his hamstring.

O’Connell ambles over.

“Don’t hit it!”

Jefferson responds, uncorking his arms like he’s pulling the cable on a lawnmower.

“Gotta crank it up!”

O’Connell laughs.

“You know what you’re never allowed to do again?” the coach says to Jefferson. “The Griddy where you go (and grab your hamstring).”

Jefferson squeals again.

A couple of episodes later, O’Connell invites Jefferson into his office for an exit meeting. When they finish, O’Connell hugs Jefferson.

“I love you, bro,” O’Connell says.

“I love you, too, my man,” Jefferson says.

2. Few people probably understand what makes Jefferson a special talent more than Davante Adams.

Twice during the fifth episode, Adams showers Jefferson with praise.

“I don’t think people really talk about Justin’s game as a whole enough,” Adams says. “It’s no secret. I watch his tape all the time.”

Watching the show, the episode shifts to a Jefferson highlight, racing down the field against the New England Patriots, leaping into the air and snatching a go-ball over two defenders who fall like bowling pins.

“People don’t talk about his hands enough,” Adams says. “The types of catches, contested (without) drops. I mean, I truly don’t know if I’ve seen him just drop a football before. I’m a football nerd, so it’s easy for me to talk about that stuff.”

Some statistical color to boot: Jefferson has been targeted 576 career times and has just 15 drops.

3. The series does not offer any intriguing behind-the-scenes snapshots of Jefferson navigating his would-be record-setting, $140 million contract.

Once, though, in Episode 2, Jefferson, kneeling after a practice rep, says to O’Connell: “I wonder what I would buy if I had the new contract.”

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K.J. Osborn, the former Vikings receiver and one of Jefferson’s closest friends the last few years, smiles wryly.

4. Two non-Jefferson moments caught my eye during the show. The first happened in the middle of the second episode. Narration leads the viewer from the beginning of the Vikings’ Week 2 matchup against the Philadelphia Eagles to the end of the game. Fumbles derailed the Vikings’ chances, including a dislodged ball that slipped from Jefferson’s hands over the pylon.

Most of the images stay on Jefferson, who sorts through his disappointment about fumbling. The camera then hangs on a white-cement wall outside the Vikings’ locker room, and you can hear O’Connell’s voice — in arguably the most forceful tone we’ve heard publicly from him.

“We’ve lost by a combined nine points,” O’Connell tells the team. “And we’ve lost the turnover battle 7-1. When we talk ‘it’s all about the ball,’ it’s got to f—ing mean something to you! Everything inside. That’s just holding the organization in your hands and not caring enough. We’ve got the leadership in this room to fix it. And we’re gonna get this s— right and we’re going to start rolling like a freight train. You guys with me?”

A microphone picks up Jefferson’s voice: “Yes sir!”

It’s a minor sequence, but a telling one, O’Connell straddling the line effectively between constructively frustrated and belief.

5. The other interesting non-Jefferson anecdote is more player-specific. In Episode 5, Davante Adams, a native of East Palo Alto, Calif., hauls in an over-the-middle slant. Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon, another East Palo Alto native, flexes his muscles and walks toward Adams.

“You watch yourself today,” Adams says.

“I ain’t worried about that,” Blackmon responds.

“Watch yourself today,” Adams says.

“All right,” Blackmon says. “All right.”

This was a rookie spitting game against a future Hall of Famer, and it was an anecdote indicating why Vikings defensive coordinator Brian Flores sought the undersized cornerback. Blackmon is unafraid and unfazed, qualities that will be critical for his development this upcoming season.

6. The rewarding aspect of working on these series, Rumpff said, is not the acclaim or the Netflix shine, but the opportunity to see the human side of the untouchable superstar. That’s why, he believed, Cousins’ portrayal resonated last year, and why he thought Jefferson’s would resonate this time.

To that end, the most encompassing Jefferson comment of the eight episodes may have happened in Episode 2. Jefferson shared that his father, John, had played basketball. That his oldest brother, Jordan, had played quarterback. And that his older brother, Rickey, had played safety.

“Both of my brothers didn’t pan out to be big-time NFL stars,” Jefferson says, “so, you know, I wanted to have a better outcome on my career. So, you know, I’m playing for them.”

The camera zooms in on his face. His tone is serious. He’s quiet, almost pensive in a rare way for the typically jovial and present 25-year-old.

“In a way,” Jefferson says, “me being able to be in this position pretty much being the superstar, I feel like they can be superstars as well by living through me.”

He nods, almost like he knows that he worded it right, almost like that’s what this entire ride has been about.

(Photo: Charley Gallay / Getty Images)

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