Major League

Phillip Brents

Thu September 25, 2014 7:02pm

Tony Jefferson

Over the past few years, Eastlake High School assistant football coach Mark Mendillo has maintained a list of former Titans playing at the collegiate level. He’s had to expand that list to include former Eastlake players now playing in the National Football League.
Former Titan standout Tony Jefferson, a 2010 EHS graduate, is now in his second season playing for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
It’s a big deal for all EHS alumni, and certainly a big deal personally for Jefferson.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jefferson, whose team was spotlighted on Monday Night Football to kick off the 2014-15 season Sept. 8 against the visiting Chargers. “It’s something you always dream about while growing up. Then you actually see yourself playing with guys you saw playing while growing up.
“It’s a lot different from high school.”
Jefferson scored one touchdown in Eastlake’s 21-14 victory against the Vista Panthers as the Titans recorded the school’s first section football championship in 2009. He ranked among the nation’s top high school recruits.
During his senior year at EHS, Jefferson rushed for 1,328 yards and scored 28 touchdowns on offense and collected 88 tackles, 12 for losses, four sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries on defense.
He went on to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
Jefferson signed to play for the Oklahoma Sooners in college and quickly established himself as one of the game’s top defensive players. The Sooners played in bowl games in each of Jefferson’s three seasons there, winning the Fiesta Bowl (2010 season) and Insight Bowl (2011 season), before the Titan alumnus elected to forgo his senior year at Oklahoma and enter the NFL Draft.
Jefferson (5-11, 212) was expected to draw interest as one of the top picks but surprisingly went undrafted. He subsequently signed with Arizona as an undrafted free agent in April 2013.
It took a season for Jefferson to rise to the No.1 position on the Cardinals’ depth chart at the strong safety position.
The former Oklahoma standout appeared in all 16 games last season for the Cardinals, including two starts, as a rookie.
He collected 16 tackles, including one for a loss, two quarterback hits and tied for third on the team with six special teams tackles.
His one tackle for a loss came against former Helix star Reggie Bush in a Sept. 15 game against the Detroit Lions. Jefferson stopped the former/disgraced Heisman Trophy winner for a four-yard loss in the first quarter.
Jefferson also recovered a fumble on special teams as a rookie.
Jefferson, who appeared in 40 games with 34 starts in his three years at Oklahoma, called his rookie NFL season a “learning process.”
“I came from a school where it was a bunch of speed option, option and zone reads, so it was different for me to play against offenses (in the NFL) with different schemes,” the 22-year-old said. “It was a learning process for me. Coming into the second year, I was able to grasp the playbook better and obtain a starting job.”
Jefferson called playing in the NFL “all about the playbook, really.”
“You learn the playbook fast, you can play faster,” he said. “It’s like night and day going from the rookie season to the second year. You’re more comfortable in all aspects — not just on the field but off the field as well.”
Jefferson was in town for Eastlake’s Aug. 29 season opening game. The game doubled as a homecoming for players from the team’s 2009 CIF championship season, with a special halftime ceremony to formally recognize the fifth anniversary of the history-making event at the school.
Jefferson said he still cherishes the memories from that season.
“It was a very emotional time after the game,” he recalled. “It was the first time for the school to win something like that.”
Jefferson said his top memory was playing in an NFL stadium for the first time. “It was fun,” he said. “I remember my teammates were ready to go -- it was the first time for Eastlake to get that far, to play for the CIF championship.”
The outcome of the game dispelled much of what was thought of that 2009 team, Jefferson noted.
“I got injured just before halftime and tried to come back in the second half, but it didn’t work out so well,” Jefferson recalled. “I lot of guys thought I was the whole team but that game brought up definite character issues about our team. The guys stepped up and rose up to win the game.”
 Jefferson said then head coach John McFadden was the driving force behind the team.
“He kept all of us in line,” Jefferson noted. “He was hard on me and other players. We owed a lot to coach McFadden. He demanded respect and we gave it to him.”
The Aug. 29 halftime ceremony featured an impromptu scrimmage with returning players from the team’s offensive unit lining up for one last play — a hand-off, predictably, to Jefferson, who promptly raised the ball to cheers from the crowd.
The five-year reunion also brought back memories for the team’s coaching staff.
“It was great seeing Tony again,” said current EHS coach Lee Price, then an assistant coach on the 2009 CIF championship squad. “That whole team worked very hard to achieve their goals and it was great to see the other players picking up for Tony when he got hurt.  That is what teamwork is all about and Tony was a great team player cheering on the team to victory after his injury in the championship game. 
“To see a kid from Eastlake make it to the NFL tells our players that if they work hard enough, they can also achieve their dreams.”
Red zone
Arizona finished 10-6 last season and did not qualify for the NFC playoffs. The Cardinals play in one of the toughest divisions in the NFL alongside the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, the Super Bowl runner-up two years ago.
Does Arizona have what it takes this year to crack the NFL playoffs?
“We came up a little short last year but we went up there and beat Seattle at home,” Jefferson said. “It was something that the team hadn’t done in two years, so we’re looking to do the same again this year.”
Jefferson had one interception called back due to a penalty in the season opener against the Chargers, an 18-17 Arizona win.
As for players following the dream to play in the NFL, Jefferson does have some advice.
“Make sure your grades are fine and let the football stuff take care of itself,” he said.
NFL photos by Paul Martinez
Cutout photo by Phillip Brents