As football took them in different directions, get-togethers between Patrick Peterson and Jordan Jefferson — roommates in college, teammates at Louisiana State, Jefferson the best man in Peterson's wedding — only happened a few times a year. Now, they happen almost weekly at Peterson's home in the west suburbs.
The close friends "reminisce a lot," Peterson said, as they talk about their families and the football fates that brought them back half a country away from where they first met, now that Peterson is a cornerback with the Vikings and Jefferson is living with his younger brother in the townhouse he bought near the team's facility.
Justin Jefferson, the kid Peterson remembers as an 11-year-old tagging along with his brothers at LSU, is often there, too, but with business to conduct during the social occasions. Peterson spent $20,000 on a hyperbaric chamber to help his body recover from games faster in his 30s; Justin, at all of 22 years, wants to make sure he gets some time in the chamber when he's at Peterson's house.
"To see how he has evolved, how he's handled success, it's remarkable," Peterson said. "He handles himself like he's been here five or six years. It's a credit to his parents, to his work ethic, how he wants to be seen once he's done with the game."
After 2020 saw him break NFL rookie records and help take the Griddy dance from Louisiana to a social media phenomenon, Jefferson has spent his second year carefully trying to navigate parallel paths to perennial Pro Bowl player and bona fide star without being thrown off either one.
His older brother Jordan functions as a live-in mentor, business manager, coach, caregiver for Justin's dog (a German Shepherd named Apollo) and personal chef.
Peterson, now in his 11th season, is a close confidant for Jefferson on everything from his play on the field to charities he should consider. Vikings receivers coach Keenan McCardell, who spent 17 seasons in the league, mixes advice about understanding defenses at a deeper level with reminders to be "good in your [own] skin" and ignore social media opinion.
Jefferson was used to seeing his parents, John and Elaine, at every one of his games before COVID-19 emptied NFL stadiums last year. They have been back at a handful of games this year, sometimes with gumbo in tow.
In a city that's 1,200 miles from home, and can feel a world away from New Orleans, the receiver stays grounded by surrounding himself with people who knew him before the Griddy was featured on "Fortnite" or he was breaking records once held by Randy Moss.
"I think it always helps," Jordan Jefferson said. "When you get into situations where money and fame is involved, it builds this aura around you that a lot of people want to be around, whether it's for good intentions or bad intentions. In this case, he feels very comfortable having that type of presence around, because he can trust, he can express, he can be vulnerable."
He is enjoying elements of his celebrity — like the courtside seats his brother and he had to a Lakers game during the Vikings bye week — but Jefferson speaks about his own progress in a way that suggests he's not terribly impressed by any of it.
He has a list of receivers he thinks are at the top of the league: Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill, Julio Jones. "We all know who the top five, six, seven guys are in that category," he said.
Jefferson has not put his own name on that list yet.
"It's definitely a lot, but I feel like I haven't reached my full potential," he said. "I feel like I haven't done anything worth talking about. I feel like I've got way more to accomplish than what I have so far."
Bringing Louisiana north
After coaching at Colorado State as a graduate assistant in 2019 and at a junior college this spring, Jordan Jefferson was trying to figure out if he'd pursue a coaching job for the fall when his parents came to him with a request. Justin's other brother Rickey, who had lived in Minnesota last season, had moved out to be with his fiancée as she prepared to deliver the couple's first child, and John and Elaine wanted someone who could spend time with Justin in the Twin Cities.
"He's only 22 years old, and he's a superstar. We need someone around him," John Jefferson said. "It was important, because you never know. People outside, things can go down. You can get yourself in a bad situation. We wanted somebody around him to make sure everything is OK. ... I'm not retiring, and my wife is still working, so we're not going to do that right now. It was just perfect timing that Jordan went out there."
Jordan cooks almost every night, mostly healthy organic entrees, though Mondays after a big game are reserved for steaks and Cajun favorites like crawfish etouffee sometimes show up on the menu. Evenings can bring time for a movie, video games or film study, where Jordan, who played quarterback at LSU and coached Justin in high school, might have a fresh perspective on Justin's route tree.
"It helped a lot, just coming home and him knowing how I feel," Justin said. "He knows a lot more things [about the NFL] than a normal brother would know. I can watch film with him; he tells me different things that I need to work on. It's a lot easier, a lot more comforting."
It's also allowed the Jefferson family to realize a dream together, as Justin goes further in the NFL than either Jordan or Rickey could. Jordan's work with Justin has opened up networking opportunities for his own career, and when John and Elaine weren't able to be at U.S. Bank Stadium last Sunday night for the Cowboys game, a text from Jordan brought quick relief that Justin was OK after a hard fall on the turf in the second half.
"We went through Jordan coming up as a quarterback, and [Rickey] got hurt [after playing with the Saints]," John Jefferson said. "Looking at Justin's situation, sometimes we have to pinch ourselves. As parents, we're very humble. We still work, and my wife and me were blessed before Justin made it to the NFL. We were just happy for him to get the opportunity his brothers didn't get."
'Own the grass'
This offseason, Justin Jefferson jotted down five areas he wanted to improve in his game: balance, explosiveness, speed, his hands and his ability to get in and out of his breaks. He handed a piece of paper with the list to his personal trainer, Mo Wells, and spent the offseason working on those areas at House of Athlete, the Florida gym started by former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall.
He feels faster off the line this year, he said, and his balance is better, too, after doing one-foot drills on a medicine ball or wobble board. McCardell scouted Jefferson as the Jaguars receiving coach and wanted Jacksonville to take him 20th overall in 2020; Jefferson's ability to beat press coverage and his aggressiveness to the ball were still pleasant surprises when they started working together.
Peterson had circled the Vikings on his free-agent list in part because of Jefferson's play as a rookie. The eight-time Pro Bowl selection was the one corner Jefferson always wanted to face; he is also a family friend who gave Jefferson real-time feedback on the practice field until Peterson strained his right hamstring on Oct. 17.
They share a love of cars and food. "I'll pull his leg and ask him when Miss Elaine is bringing that cheesecake. His mom makes one of the best homemade cheesecakes I've ever had," Peterson said.
Outside of those subjects, their conversation rarely drifts from football. Jefferson asks how to maintain his body into his 30s, or why Peterson didn't fall for a route the receiver frequently uses to set up defensive backs.
"He," Peterson said, "is a real young old pro."
Jefferson ranks a modest 16th in the NFL in catches (43) and receiving yards (583) this season, while playing in a Vikings offense that has struggled to open up the passing game. Sunday's matchup in Baltimore pits Minnesota against the team that has given up more passing yards than any in the NFL, but three games against top-10 pass defense (the Chargers, Packers and 49ers) follow after that.
McCardell reminds him that even the great receivers have frustrating nights like Sunday, when Jefferson had only two catches for 21 yards and misjudged a deep ball that could have put the Vikings up 14-0 on the Cowboys. He believes the game will slow down even more for Jefferson in a year, as the receiver gets even better at diagnosing coverages and deepening his repertoire of releases. His directive to Jefferson now can be summed up with a catchphrase: Own the grass.
"He's only in his second year, and people think he's already one of the top elite guys," McCardell said. "I tell him all the time, every time we're on the grass, you own the grass and you strive for greatness. You own that field, because it's your domain. When you're out there, you have to have the mind-set that: 'There's nobody out here who can cover me. I don't care who it is. This is my playhouse. You can't invade my playhouse.' "
Soon, the Vikings believe, Jefferson can put himself atop the list in his head. His effort to get there is just beginning.
"I don't think it's hard to block out [the noise] when you have the right guidance," Peterson said. "He wants his name to be etched in stone at some point. He understood what it takes to get to the next level, and also what it takes to sustain a certain level of greatness."