It is a shame that Roy Jefferson isn’t well-remembered today, but he was one of the top receivers at the start of the Super Bowl era. The topic for this article was spurred on by an interview I did with former Washington Redskin great Mike Bass , I asked Bass who was the best receiver he ever faced and he said without hesitation Roy Jefferson. I knew Jefferson had been a great player, but I had forgotten how great he was and when a player of Mike Bass stature says something like that it makes you sit up and take notice.
Born in Texarkana, Arkansas, Jefferson grew up in southern California and graduated from Compton High School in 1961. He played college football at the University of Utah , where he was named the Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year in his senior season in 1964 under head coach Ray Nagel.
Jefferson played on both sides of the ball and also was the placekicker; and led the Utes to 32–6 victory in the Liberty Bowl over favored West Virginia to finish with an 9–2 record. The game was notable because it was played indoors on natural grass at the convention center in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and featured shortened end zones.
Jefferson was a second round pick of both the Steelers and Chargers in 1965, back when the leagues held separate drafts. Jefferson chose to sign with Pittsburgh, and in his second season, he led the NFL with a 24.1 yards per reception average. In 1968, Jefferson led the NFL in receiving yards and scored 11 touchdowns, one behind Paul Warfield for the lead. Jefferson matched his production the next year and was a unanimous first-team All-Pro selection. But for Jefferson, personal glory was the only success he would see in Pittsburgh, as the Steelers went just 7-33-2 from ’67 to ’69.
Jefferson’s 1969 performance was interesting for another reason. He gained 44% of his team’s receiving yards, and since then, only a few other players have reached that mark.
As Steelers fans know, 1969 was a key year in the franchise’s history. It was Chuck Noll’s first season, and his first draft selection was Joe Greene. After finishing with the league’s worst record in 1969, Pittsburgh won the rights to draft Terry Bradshaw. On the field, Jefferson was the best player in Noll’s first season. But that doesn’t mean Noll and Jefferson got along.
The start of the 1970 season was in jeopardy because of a players’ strike. After it was resolved quickly and largely in the owner’s’ favor, Jefferson publicly expressed his dissatisfaction. Jefferson began flouting Noll’s authority in training camp back in the days when such actions weren’t tolerated, players were expected to do what they were told by coaches and owners. Noll responded by shopping the team’s star player. He got a bite with the Baltimore Colts, who agreed to trade their 1971 fourth round pick and wide receiver Willie Richardson for Jefferson.
With the Colts for only one season, Jefferson helped them reach and win Super Bowl V, were he caught 3 passes for 52 yards in the Colts last second 16-13 win over the Dallas Cowboys. He finished the 1970 regular season with 44 receptions for 749 yards and seven touchdowns. Jefferson was traded to the Washington Redskins in 1971 for a first round draft pick in 1973. He spent six seasons with the Redskins under head coach George Allen, helping them reach Super Bowl VII in 1972, and retired after the 1976 season.
If you compare jefferson’s career to Lynn Swann who is in the hall of fame a case can be made Jefferson was better, let’s compare the numbers.
Roy Jefferson Lynn Swann
Receptions 451 336
Rec Yards 7,539 5,462
Touchdowns 52 51
It is my contention that Roy Jefferson if you look at the numbers and watch film was a better receiver than Lynn Swann, of course with the hall of fame voters merit is seldom one of their criteria. Swann was great in Super Bowl 10, I will give you that, but his numbers are nowhere near other players that played the same position. Roy Jefferson was a man who knew NFL players were getting the short end of the stick in the late 60’s and he stood up and spoke out on behalf of the players, in the end it has obviously hurt him. On the other hand from players I have spoken too Jefferson was a stand up guy who didn’t really care what others thought of him. Roy Jefferson was one of the top wide receivers in the NFL for ten years, no one can argue that, and he deserves to be remembered that way!