SAN DIEGO — He is 29 now, and just as frisky as ever, thanks to his recent move from Green Bay to Cleveland, which seemed to strike him as the equivalent of emigrating from the Australian outback to midtown Manhattan.
"I had to get back to the big city," John Jefferson said. "Maybe I'm just a big-city player." The Cleveland chamber of commerce should present the keys to the city any day now.
"JJ," as he was known once upon a time in the biggest city south of Los Angeles and north of Tijuana, returns Sunday to the scene of his finest and happiest moments as a pro football player. His first game as a Brown will be played in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, from which he was exiled in 1981 after a difference of opinion between his agent, Howard Slusher, and the team's owner at the time, Eugene Klein.
Jefferson got what he was seeking in terms of dollars, but he also got more than he was bargaining for: the harsh Green Bay winters, the demotion from primary to secondary receiver, and the loss of the irreplaceable bonds between the adoring city and the charismatic player.
Despite the tribulations of the past four years, he comes back to San Diego with a balanced, mature attitude toward his past. "I just take the good feelings from the past and keep those," he said. "I think I'm pretty much the same person I always was. I still have my sense of humor."
What he doesn't have are regrets. Or so he claims.
"I've never regretted any move I've made," Jefferson said. "I can't. It was meant to be. The finances in Green Bay were far beyond anything I had in San Diego, so my life style increased.
"It's unfortunate that a city can get tied up in a squabble between management and a player. I loved playing there, but I had to get out of the situation I was in in San Diego."
The situation, briefly, was this. After three seasons as a Charger, from 1978-1980, Jefferson failed to report to training camp in 1981 because he wanted to renegotiate his contract, which was to pay him $75,000 in 1981. The Packers awarded him a four-year deal worth $275,000 to $300,000 per season. (He recently signed a one-year contract in Cleveland worth $400,000).
Jefferson believed his value had increased dramatically after seasons in which he caught 56, 61 and 82 passes, and twice led the league in touchdown receptions. Factoring in the public relations and morale value of his towel-waving enthusiasm, which set the stands rocking in pre-game warmups, Jefferson and Slusher determined to wring more compensation out of Klein, or face the consequences.
The consequences included playing second receiver to James Lofton, and the gradual loss of the enthusiasm that was so essential to the man's style. The consequences also included a recent reference in a national publication in which it was said Jefferson had declined further and faster than any great receiver in memory.
Jefferson was asked about that Wednesday, and about the ambition he announced on being drafted by the Chargers, that he wanted to be the best pass-catcher ever.
"That ambition faded in Green Bay," he admitted with a trace of a laugh, "but I think I still have a lot left. That will be easy for me to prove."
Don Coryell, Charger coach, doesn't seem to have any doubts about Jefferson's remaining talent. He recalled a visit to Green Bay last season, and watching Jefferson in practice.
"He was bouncing around the field, frisky as a kid and in high spirits," Coryell said, smiling at the recollection. "He was as enthusiastic as ever. He looked bright and cheerful, with springs in his legs, just like I remembered. He sure didn't look old or over the hill."
The Browns, who obtained the disenchanted receiver for a seventh-round draft choice and the rights to an offensive tackle with a USFL contract, don't think of him as being past his prime. Nor does Jefferson.
"I'm going to be a role player now, teaching the young guys, showing leadership and taking the double coverage off Ozzie Newsome," Jefferson said. "There's no free-lancing in the Browns offense, so I'm going to have to change some old habits."
Jefferson admitted he was unhappy last year, which was reflected in his reception total of 26, but he pointed out there were 57 catches in 1983, a respectable total.
"People always bring up last year and compare it (to the big years in San Diego)," Jefferson said, "but I didn't want to be in Green Bay any more."
He's liberated now. As a matter of fact, his first practice in the big city of Cleveland was Wednesday. Jefferson was coy when asked if he would play Sunday. "Don't know," he said, and laughed again. "Hope so."
Coryell wasn't deceived. "He'll play," Coryell said. The old chemistry is still there, because Coryell was smiling again, either at the thought of the reunion, or the remembrance of catches past.
'I've never regretted any move I've made. I can't. It was meant to be. The finances in Green Bay were far beyond anything I had in San Diego, so my life style increased. It's unfortunate that a city can get tied up in a squabble between management and a player. I loved playing there, but I had to get out of the situation I was in in San Diego.'