Quinton Jefferson was born in Pittsburgh. He was raised there. He played high-school football in the Pittsburgh area, and his parents and family still live there.
Anyone who has been to the Steel City—heck, even for a layover at the airport that has a statue of Franco Harris during his “Immaculate Reception,” knows Pittsburgh loves its football.
Specifically, Pittsburgh LOVES its Steelers. Anyone—everyone—from there LOVES the Steelers.
“Everybody who grows up in Pittsburgh, their ultimate dream is to play for the Steelers,” Jefferson said.
This week, Jefferson’s ultimate dream is (just about) coming true. He is playing not for but against his Steelers on Sunday, when the Seahawks (1-0) play Pittsburgh (0-1) at Heinz Field.
Jefferson isn’t exactly being coy about being a Steelers fan this week.
Asked inside Seahawks headquarters Wednesday if he was a big Steelers fan growing up, he didn’t hesitate.
“No doubt. No doubt,” he said, wearing a Seahawks shirt and bucket hat before practice.
Jefferson, now 26 with a wife and young kids, said he thinks he even still owns a Terrible Towel.
“I probably got one at home, in my room,” he said. “Still.”
Asked what he remembers about Super Bowl 40 between his then-Steelers and his now-Seahawks, at the end of the 2005 season, Jefferson laughed.
“Oh, I remember a loss,” Jefferson said. “I actually remember that game. It was a dope game.
“At the time, I was happy the Steelers won.
“But,” he said, seemingly out of obligation, “I hope we get the win this weekend.”
Jefferson has been in Seattle long enough to know the subject of the officiating in that Seahawks-Steelers Super Bowl is still a sensitive one around his new home.
“Nah, I have nothing. No comment on that,” he said, laughing again.
Jefferson was a fan of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when he was a grade-schooler. Sunday, he is going to be trying to chase him and bring him down in one of the keys to this Seahawks-Steelers game in his hometown.
“It’s going to be cool,” Jefferson said. “I’ve been watching Big Ben since I was a kid. It’s going to be fun to actually play in a game against him.
“Oh, man, it’s going to be dope. It’s going to be dope. I haven’t played in that stadium since I was in high school. It’s going to be cool to get back down there, and just see my family. For example, my sister, I haven’t seen here in over a year. I actually haven’t been home in, like, over a year.
“So it’s going to be great to be back to see family, and get back to Heinz Field.”
Jefferson’s favorite Steelers player growing up was a certain All-Pro, Super Bowl-winning safety.
“Oh, my favorite Steeler was Troy Polamalu, man. He was just a baller,” Jefferson said. “Watching the way he plays, timing up his blitzes, he was just crazy.”
Jefferson talked on about his love for Pittsburgh, about the cherished times he’s played in Heinz Field. The first was for his Little League football team, the Swissvale Flashes.
“It was dope. I was in Little League and we got to play at halftime,” he said. “They played, we played at halftime, then we got to watch the game. So it was pretty cool.”
In 2011 and again in ‘12, Jefferson played for Woodland Hills High School in the famed Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League. The WPIAL holds its annual football championships at the Steelers’ home stadium.
“My junior year we won (WPIALs). We went down there and played Gateway. I think we won 10-7,” Jefferson said. “It was freezing cold.
“In my last year of high school we went down ‘dare’ (Pittsburghers pronounce ‘there” as ‘dare’). We lost by a touchdown to North Allegheny.
“I balled that game. Had two sacks. I balled out.”
“So, hopefully, I do that again.
“No doubt, I’ve always got love for Pittsburgh, just being from there.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has known about Jefferson since the Seahawks’ defensive end was playing for Woodland Hills. Tomlin likes Jefferson so much, he answered a question about Seattle’s new pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney in part by bringing up Jefferson.
“I’ve been really impressed with Quinton Jefferson on the interior. Pittsburgh kid. Woodland Hills guy,” the Steelers’ coach said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “Really been impressed with how his game has developed. I just have a lot of respect not only for the players that play within that group, but schematically an approach to defensive play.”
Tomlin used to go to Jefferson’s games at Woodland Hills High.
“I’m a fan of Pittsburgh high school football. I think anybody that lives in Western Pa. is,” Tomlin said. “I’ve been going to high school football games the entire time I’ve been here. Got a lot of appreciation for the guys who have come through this area and ascending within the professional ranks.”
Jefferson knew Tomlin was at his games. It’s no big deal for high school players in the Pittsburgh area to see the Steelers’ coach in the stands—along 15,000 or so other people packed into stadiums on Friday nights when the towns across Western Pennsylvania basically shut down for 2 1/2 hours.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah,” Jefferson said. “The culture of football in Western Pennsylvania, man, it’s big. It’s almost like Texas, you know. And my high school was known for its football, Woodland Hills. It has a tradition, a history of good football. So you might see anybody at the games.
“It was cool. They were packed. Stands were packed. There were some good games.”
“Man, it’s crazy. It’s jam-packed. Anywhere a person can sit or stand, he’s there. It’s a lot of energy. It’s almost like a pro or college game. It’s exciting. I felt like it prepared me for college, and football. Just playing under the lights, sometimes in a hostile environment. It was cool.”
Jefferson is trying to arrange for his alma mater’s football team from Woodland Hills to come to the Seahawks’ walk-through practice in Pittsburgh Saturday. Then he will get a couple of hours to be with his parents and siblings, to have his young children be with their grandparents and uncles who still live in Western Pennsylvania.
“But,” he said, “they know it’s a business trip. My focus is on football, and will be on football.
“I’m going to be locked in, though, on ball.”
Tomlin gave Jefferson the thrill of his football life just before the 2016 NFL draft. He had Jefferson to Steelers headquarters for a pre-draft visit. But Seattle, not Pittsburgh, drafted him weeks later.
“We brought him in in the pre-draft visit when he came out of the University of Maryland,” Tomlin said. “I’m very familiar with the long-term growth and development having watched him in high school, etc.
“That wasn’t just last week (when Jefferson wrecked the Bengals in Seattle’s opener).”
Jefferson still appreciates Tomlin for the visit.
“It’s dope that he did that,” the Seahawk said. “I’ll probably holler at him at the game.”
Why did Jefferson play for Maryland when he is so undeniably Pittsburgh?
Jefferson wanted to stay home and go to the University of Pittsburgh. But late in his recruiting Pitt fired Dave Wannstedt and his Panthers coaching staff. Pitt hired Mike Haywood to replace Wannstedt. Sixteen days after Pitt introduced Haywood the school fired him. He’d been arrested and charged with felony domestic battery in the presence of a minor in South Bend, Ind.
Pitt eventually hired Todd Graham. He left the Panthers after only one season as their coach.
“I was like, ‘Man, there’s too much craziness going on.’ That’s how I ended up going to Maryland. ...I ultimately did want to go to Pitt, originally.
“I feel like everything worked itself out the way it was supposed to, for me, the way it was supposed to work.”
Not that it’s been a smooth way.
The Seahawks drafted Jefferson in the fifth round in 2016 out of Maryland, after trading a fourth-round pick to New England to get him. Seattle’s coaches liked his speed and athleticism for his size (6 feet 4, 291 pounds). He was then a 23-year-old married father of three. He and his wife, Nadia, had a 5-year old (Zoey) at the time plus 21-month-old twins, Charleigh and Quinn.
Jefferson was considered one of Pennsylvania’s top defensive-end recruits out of Woodland Hills. Then he broke his jaw in a fight. That derailed his college-scholarship plans. He had to gray-shirt at Maryland, delaying his entry by one football season. He spent that year humbled.
How humbled? He worked at a Best Buy back home in Pittsburgh while recovering from that broken jaw.
When he finally got to Maryland he played in nine games as a true freshman and started all 13 games for the Terrapins in 2013. But four games into 2014 he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
“I sat out almost a full year of football,” he said.
More injuries limited him to one game his rookie season. He couldn’t stay healthy into the next preseason, and by the first days of September 2017 the Seahawks waived him among their final cuts. The Los Angeles Rams claimed him onto their active roster, but he only lasted there for nine days before the Rams waived him, too. No other team claimed him that time, then he signed with Los Angeles’ practice squad.
In the middle of last season, needing pass-rush help, the Seahawks decided to bring back Jefferson, signing him to their active roster off L.A.’s practice squad. A few weeks later he got his first career sack.
In the two years spanning all that, Jefferson and his wife had a fourth child. So he and his family truly appreciate his rise into the Seahawks’ defensive-line rotation, and his $2,025,000 salary for this season, too.
He almost lost some or all of that in December 2017.
He charged the stands to confront a man he said had made a grotesque comment about his mother and threw beer on him from near the tunnel leading from the field near the end of a Seahawks loss at Jacksonville. Jefferson had been ejected for fighting in the final seconds of the game. Teammate Jarran Reed said he heard a racial slur directed at Jefferson by a fan.
The incident caused a national uproar for a couple of days. The NFL chose not to suspend Jefferson.
Last week, he took full advantage of an opportunity. Clowney was making his Seahawks debut in his first game in nine months. Ziggy Ansah, Seattle’s other star pass-rushing addition since last season, remained out. He’s yet to play for the Seahawks since he signed in May following season-ending shoulder surgery in December, the end of his time in Detroit.
Jefferson played the best game of his four years in the NFL last weekend. He had six tackles, two behind the line of scrimmage, two sacks and a knocked-down pass on a crucial third down with under 4 minutes left in the Seahawks’ 21-20 win over Cincinnati.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said Wednesday, looking back on his bumpy way from Pittsburgh to Seattle to L.A., the controversy in Jacksonville and now back to Pittsburgh again this weekend. “Maybe I needed to get my ACL torn. Maybe I needed to get cut. I appreciate where I am now. I’ve been on the other side. I never want to go back there, so that’s why I try to work hard every day, do my job and make plays, and stay.”