SAN DIEGO — As he jogs near his residence in suburban Dallas, only a mile from the Cowboys' complex, he has ample time to ponder the chain of events that brought him home early this fall.
"It's different being here this time of year," John Jefferson said. "Friends ask what you're doing. It doesn't feel so good.
"I try not to show it, because that's not going to change anything. But there's no doubt I've got the incentive to be an All-Pro again. I want it so bad. I want to put a good light on the end of my career. I sure do want to straighten this thing out before I retire."
This thing has got a lot of people confused.
Two years ago, Jefferson was a Pro Bowl-caliber pass catcher. Now, at 29, he is without a job--and without a simple explanation for how it came to this. There is no suspicion of drug involvement, according to several pro football insiders, but, beyond that, there is no consensus on whether it's his desire, his skills or both that have faded so swiftly.
Jefferson has a list of eight teams he will consider for future employment, among them the Dallas Cowboys, the San Diego Chargers, the San Francisco 49ers, and maybe the Arizona Outlaws, one of the teams still clinging to life in the United States Football League. Interest in him seems lukewarm at best but could intensify in the spring as teams reassess their needs and budgets.
As Jefferson has found, trying to shape destiny can be tricky. A contract rich in incentives would have to be drawn up, and a new offense assimilated. Dollars are important, but maybe not the overriding consideration anymore.
There is a certain irony in the path that has led him back to Dallas, where he was a high school star in the early 1970s.
During his senior year at Arizona State, Jefferson learned that the Green Bay Packers were considering drafting him. Unmoved by the ghost of Lombardi, and dismayed by the prospect of running post patterns in the snow, he appealed to his coach, Frank Kush, to call the Packers' Bart Starr and persuade him to draft someone else.
Kush agreed, provided that Jefferson would speak to Starr. The strategy worked, sort of.
Jefferson wound up being selected by the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played three years, twice leading the NFL in touchdown receptions and becoming one of the most popular athletes in the city's history. He became the first NFL receiver to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in each of his first three seasons.
Hoping to cash in with a renegotiated contract, his agent, Howard Slusher, got into a holdout struggle with Eugene Klein, then the owner of the Chargers. The dispute ended with Jefferson's being traded to the Packers, and this time there was no Kush to intervene.
Jefferson spent four bittersweet years in Green Bay before playing out his option and eventually winding up in Cleveland this season for a span of eight forgettable games in which he caught only three passes. The Browns cut him last month, and Jefferson, a man with a carefree exterior masking a deep reservoir of pride, repaired to his home in Dallas to nurse his ego and reshape his future.
The 19th-Century notion of entropy--the idea that the universe is gradually running out of energy--seems to fit Jefferson as snugly as a pair of the protective goggles that once were his trademark.
He enjoyed three banner seasons with the Chargers from 1978 through 1981, with reception totals of 56, 61 and 82. He led the NFL in touchdown catches twice.
His first two years in Green Bay, where James Lofton was ensconced as the deep threat, Jefferson's totals dipped to 39 and 27. Even so, his willingness to run routes across the middle and his bubbly spirit made him an instant team leader. He recovered with 57 catches in 1983, but in his option year, 1984, Jefferson caught only 26 passes catches before his exodus.
His anemic production with the Browns this season wouldn't constitute even a bad game in years past.
Still, it's hard to find anyone willing to completely dismiss his future.
"I see John frequently, and he looks lean and trim, probably the best condition I've ever seen him," said Gil Brandt, chief scout for the Dallas Cowboys. "My feeling is that he wants to put this year out of his mind and get a fresh start.
"He has so much pride. He's really been hurt by being cut by the Browns. He looks bright-eyed and determined to prove all his critics wrong. I'm really impressed and I'd be interested in him (for next season)."
Charlie Joiner, a former teammate in San Diego and still one of his closest friends, said that Jefferson was shocked by his sudden dismissal in Cleveland.
"He's hurting right now," Joiner said. "He'll keep it inside, because he's such a happy-go-lucky guy. The thing for JJ is to be mentally ready right now. I believe somebody will get him. He's just too young to retire. He can still play in this league."
A comeback won't be easy, though, according to San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts.