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Safety Anthony Jefferson Jr. gets past pain, and it's UCLA's gain

The junior has been a force on the Bruins' defense this year after foot and back injuries in earlier seasons. His father has shared the journey.

October 31, 2013|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA defensive back Anthony Jefferson Jr. (23) gets set for a play against Nevada in a 58-20, season-opening victory.
UCLA defensive back Anthony Jefferson Jr. (23) gets set for a play against… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Anthony Jefferson Jr., UCLA safety, has persevered his whole life.

Anthony Jefferson Sr. has been there each step of the way.

The payoff has come. A junior, the younger Jefferson is a key part of the UCLA defense. He is second on the team in tackles with 53 and in interceptions with two.

His father, with no lack of pride, said, "We're seeing the promise everyone thought he had."

It's the reward for a long, often painful journey for both.

Jefferson's mother died in a car accident when he was 2 years old. He and his father became inseparable. He was set to attend Oregon, then learned his grandfather had prostate and lung cancer. He opted to stay close to home and chose UCLA.

The decision led to more trials.

Jefferson spent his first three seasons at UCLA in pain and uncertainty, first because of a broken foot and then because of a back injury. His father could only watch and offer encouragement.

"I'm his dad, but I'm also his friend, his confidant," he said. "It was difficult for him because he couldn't do what he was used to doing. It was hard for me because all I could do was tell him to be patient."

The wait is over.

Jefferson was a force last week against an Oregon team that may have the nation's best offense. He had 13 tackles.

In a 41-21 victory over Nebraska, the week that teammate Nick Pasquale died after being hit by a car, Jefferson pounced on a fumble in the fourth quarter. He then sprinted to the sideline to hand the ball to Coach Jim Mora so it could be given to the Pasquale family.

"He's fiery," receiver Shaquelle Evans said. "It gets us all going."

Jefferson made a diving interception against Utah, then popped up and crossed his arms. "That swag looked awesome," linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said.

Mora sees it as passion from a player denied too long.

"When he says something, players tune in and respond," Mora said. "They understand what he has gone through."

Some things they don't know.

Jefferson has no memories of his mother, Alyce Carter, who died when the elder Jefferson was at Sonoma State, a defensive back who had signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

"I left the funeral and went right to training camp," Jefferson said. "It didn't work out. Too much was going on."

Jefferson played in the Canadian Football League with Saskatchewan but soon returned to raise his son. His parents, Clyde and Annie Jefferson, helped as did his wife, Raquel, whom he married 13 years ago. The couple have two other children.

But for several years, it was Jefferson and his son. Football was inevitable.

"He saw a sign in the park for football sign-ups one day when he was 8," Jefferson said. "He was just this little bitty guy out there."

Jefferson grew into a quality defensive back at Los Angeles Cathedral High. In a 2009 game, he was a match for Gardena Serra receivers Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, both future USC stars. Cathedral lost in overtime.

Oregon wanted him and Jefferson committed. Then Clyde Jefferson was diagnosed with cancer.

"Anthony and his grandfather are very close," said Anthony Jefferson Sr., whose father is now a cancer survivor. "He told me, 'I've got to stay with Granddad so he can see me play.' "

It was a coup for the Bruins.

Jefferson was receiving significant playing time as a freshman in 2010. The opening kickoff against California in the sixth game altered his season.

"I came down and hit a guy and my foot got stuck in the ground," Jefferson said. "The bone just snapped."

Jefferson had surgery and was out for six months. On his first day back, he felt a twinge in his back while lifting weights. It grew worse as the days passed.

"I started feeling it down my leg," Jefferson said. "I found out I had a herniated disk. I needed more surgery."

The injuries lingered in his head after he returned in 2012.

"There were a few times, felt like 'I can go, I can go,'" Jefferson said. "In the back of my mind I knew this wasn't how I used to play. There was never a point where I disregarded my abilities, but it took a toll on my mental outlook."

His father suffered as well.

"I think he lacked confidence," the elder Jefferson said. "He was healed, but he wasn't 100% healed."

That came last spring.

Jefferson again matched steps with receivers. The swagger returned in summer, when he was moved from cornerback to safety. It was a hard-edged process at times. He and Evans scrapped during a practice in August.

"He gets a little hot under the collar sometimes," defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin said. "You like that in a defensive back. But it's a fine line. You have to control it. I've seen maturity and confidence this season."

Opposing teams have seen it too.

Jefferson already had coverage skills. What he has shown is the ability to be a hammer against the run. He was second on the team with nine tackles against Nebraska. He was second with 14 against Stanford.

"I see a different player than I saw when I first got here," Mora said.

That's because Jefferson is again the player he once was.

"I'm blessed," he said. "I came in with all the guys who are now seniors. To get to share the field with them one last season is huge for me. Things are working out."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

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