Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson speaks at a news conference at Bellmont Hall on Monday August 29, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

‘Welcome back’: How Malik Jefferson’s mother helped him snap out of his funk

Teresa Jefferson's four days in Austin prior to Baylor game helped her youngest son refocus, reprioritize

Posted November 7th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • On his last two games, Malik Jefferson said, “I’m mad at myself more than anything.”
  • Teresa Jefferson: “You want people to follow you? Lead first! You’ve got to lead, Malik!”
  • Jefferson has 17 tackles, two sacks in the last two games after being benched.

As Malik Jefferson can attest, the tape doesn’t lie.

The Texas linebacker, a freshman All-American last season, had a terrific start to his sophomore campaign. He notched eight tackles and a sack in the upset win over Notre Dame. But Jefferson’s production went downhill in the weeks that followed.

Against Oklahoma State, he whiffed on a tailor-made tackle in the backfield. He was blah against Oklahoma, when the Sooners stockpiled 672 yards. Finally, he got benched late in a 24-21 loss at Kansas State.

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The player many consider to be the face of the Texas program was adrift.

“I was kind of embarrassed for a little bit,” Jefferson said, “because I wasn’t really turning it around.”

UT defensive tackle Poona Ford (95) and linebacker Malik Jefferson(46) celebrate stopping a fourth down conversion by Texas Tech in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas defensive tackle Poona Ford (95) and linebacker Malik Jefferson( 46) celebrate stopping a fourth-down conversion by Texas Tech in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Teresa Jefferson could hear the emotion fading in her youngest son’s voice. Good luck trying to fool this 49-year-old Christian dynamo. The time had come for action. She booked a four-night stay at the Hyatt Place in North Austin and headed south from Mesquite.

Days before Texas hosted Baylor, Teresa and Malik Jefferson met for dinner at one of those steakhouse chains off Interstate 35. “Oh, it was awful,” Teresa said. “We ate some appetizers. But I wasn’t there to eat.”

The day after the K-State loss, Jefferson learned he would not start against Baylor. Teresa arrived four days before the game. Jefferson spent two nights with his mother at the hotel, far from the UT dorms where he’s instantly recognizable. The two had some hard talks.

They sat across from each other and Teresa read him several news articles critical of his play. She recounted scripture, where Jesus first started quizzing his elders, learning and listening at age 12. For those who know their purpose, she said, nothing can get in their way.

“You want people to follow you? Lead first! You’ve got to lead, Malik!,” Teresa said. “You can’t be missing tackles and then talk to (Anthony) Wheeler about missing tackles.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the face of Coca-Cola, you still have a job to do,” she added. “And the job is to go out there and play great football to your expectations, not to others, but to yours.”

The hulking linebacker processed all the information, and instead of pouting, he understood.

“I’m mad at myself more than anything,” Jefferson said. “It’s a business decision that coach has to make. He has to put the best people out there, and I wasn’t producing.”

‘High on myself’

Teresa Jefferson once figured that two boys were enough. “Mr. Jefferson,” as she respectfully calls her husband Michael, always wanted a girl. Teresa was considering a hysterectomy, but there was a small problem during the run-up to the procedure. “I said, ‘What do you mean, I’m pregnant?,” Teresa said.

Malik Jefferson was a healthy baby boy — 8 pounds, 4 1/2 ounces. “I’m looking at him from my bed, and I’m like, my God! He’s huge,” she said.

Michael Jr., Tarik and Malik Jefferson grew up in the church, each having active roles in the Bullock Chapel in Dallas. The older two sang in the choir, and Malik served on the usher board. They took care of each other, and got no quarter at home.

“I was good when they missed the bus,” Teresa said. “They said, ‘How I’m going to get to school?’ You’re gonna walk. You got about 10 minutes to get school, so you better start running.”

UT linebacker Malik Jefferson dives for OU running back Samaje Perine in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas Saturday October 8, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson dives for OU running back Samaje Perine in the fourth quarter at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas Saturday October 8, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

When Jefferson signed with Texas, it was a breakthrough moment for Charlie Strong. It wasn’t long before Jefferson was considered the team’s de facto leader, despite only one year under his belt. So imagine his shock when Jefferson finished the K-State game on the sideline.

“Ever since that Notre Dame game, I was too high on myself,” Jefferson said. “I wasn’t trying to get better; I thought everything was going to be handed to me. I realized you have to work for things, and that started in practice.”

Maybe former defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was right. On Aug. 31, Bedford said, “It’s like, all of a sudden, I have this diamond ring. I take it to the jewelry store, they look at it, ‘Man, that’s glass.’ That’s what flash is sometimes.” Reporters were stunned.

When word of Bedford’s comments reached Mesquite, Teresa Jefferson said, “Oh, my God, I could have choked him with my bare hands.”

Two-game resurgence

Teresa told Malik that being the face of the program was “just paint.” Anyone could earn that designation.

“Being an All-American last year, you’ve earned it,” she said. “But have you earned anything this year? That’s what I want to know. I’m not talking about last year. I’m talking about this year.”

UT Head Coach Charlie Strong celebrates with linebacker Malik Jefferson after he stopped a fourth down conversion by Texas Tech in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Texas coach Charlie Strong celebrates with linebacker Malik Jefferson after he stopped a fourth-down conversion by Texas Tech in the fourth quarter at AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock Saturday November 5, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Jefferson sat down with linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, turned on the Kansas State tape and Strong said, “It was very obvious he wasn’t (playing well).”

Being benched might have been the best thing possible. With his mom watching in the stands, Jefferson had nine tackles and a sack against Baylor. In a near-criminal officiating decision, he was denied a late fumble return for a score.

Then last Saturday at Texas Tech, he had eight tackles and served as a spy on quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The standout linebacker was practically everywhere. “Now you’re looking like the guy you should be looking like,” Strong told Jefferson.

“I started practicing harder,” Jefferson said, “and it showed up on the field and I started producing.”

Teresa Jefferson didn’t let lupus keep her from going to the Tech game in Lubbock. The player she saw at Jones AT&T Stadium was the one she’s known all along. “I know it did his heart good for me to be there,” she said.

Asked what snapped him out of that funk, Jefferson said, “I spent some time talking to my mom and dad a lot. And God a lot. And refocused my life.”

And how did Strong react?

“’Welcome back,’” Jefferson said.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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