ST. ROSE, La. -- Justin Jefferson stood on the field in Atlanta two weeks ago, cradling an oversized trophy in both hands as he spoke about getting one step closer to a national championship. LSU's star receiver had just finished catching a career-high four touchdown passes during the Tigers' 63-28 dismantling of Oklahoma in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, and it was clear he was savoring every moment.
It was then that a reporter reminded him of what was coming next: a Jan. 13 trip to New Orleans. It wasn't so much a question as it was a statement. Jefferson understood. He shook his head and said it was crazy.
"I've got goosebumps," he said, looking down at his arms.
This was everything he'd dreamed of since he was a child making those hourlong trips from his family's home in St. Rose, through New Orleans and on to Baton Rouge where his oldest brother, Jordan, was an LSU quarterback from 2008 to 2011. Justin was a fixture around the program back then, palling around the facility with Ben Miles, the head coach's son.
Eight years ago, they watched in awe as the team they loved went through the regular season undefeated and won the SEC in Atlanta to earn a spot in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Justin was 12 at the time, all bug-eyed and full of hope when he sat beside his mom, dad and older brother Rickey inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome as Jordan led the team onto the field to face Alabama.
They were devastated when LSU lost 21-0. The offense was much different back then, much more conservative, and it was a mess from top to bottom that night. Jordan, who threw for 53 yards and an interception, became a convenient scapegoat and, for many, the face of the program's offensive ineptitude over the years that followed.
That is, until now.
Jordan, now a graduate assistant coach at Colorado State, sits across the dining room table from Rickey in their childhood home one morning, with Justin, home because of a couple days off between the Peach Bowl and practice starting back up, still asleep in the other room. Jordan absently tugs at a wristband his mother made for each of her three sons. It's black with "I am my brother's keeper" written in white, all-caps lettering. He has moved on from that 2012 title game, but can close his eyes and see Rickey and Justin afterward and how emotional they were. "They just wanted me to finish the job," he says.
Jordan laughs at the thought of the Jefferson family going back to the Superdome one final time.
"History repeats itself," he says.
But so much has changed since they were last there. Rickey played defensive back at LSU, eventually earning a spot with the New Orleans Saints before a knee injury derailed his career.
Now it's their little brother -- that gangly, goofy kid who barely made the team -- who has become the star in an offense that makes both of them jealous, as Justin heads into the College Football Playoff National Championship game vs. Clemson (Monday, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App).
Jordan adds, almost as an aside, "Redemption is always a great thing."
"That was a life lesson for a lot of us that were in that stadium," he says of the loss to Alabama in January 2012. "That's a lesson you can carry on to the point that Justin is able to learn from it that: 'When I get to that stadium, this is what I'm going to do and this is how I'm going to approach it, and I'm going to put on a show.'"
A DRIVE TO THE Jefferson home, off the interstate and through a couple miles of thick marshland, tells you all you need to know about how Justin became the most accomplished receiver in college football, tied for the most touchdowns in the FBS (18) and ranking third in catches (102) and receiving yards (1,434).
There's the levee, just down the road from their driveway, which shields St. Rose from the rising tide of the Mississippi River. The embankment is steep and seems to stretch on for hundreds of feet, and it's where Justin's little legs would churn while chasing after Jordan and Rickey as the three trained.
"It was a constant battle," Rickey says. "We definitely made each other tougher coming up. There was a lot of fighting; not hate, it's just what brothers do."
There's the large yard just beside their home, too, an empty lot which became something of a practice field for the younger brothers. Jordan would come home on break from LSU and drag Rickey and Justin outside to run drills. Stand here, Jordan told them, teaching them to run the route tree just as teammates Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry would. "No gloves," Rickey says. "And he threw it pretty hard."
Then there's the basketball court, which is barely hanging in there after all these years. Jordan was a stud AAU player before he gave it up for football. Rickey and Justin were pretty good, too. But their dad, John, was the best, a former college basketball player who ruled the roost and showed his sons no mercy. He gave them their height and their hops, as well as their loud mouths. "We all talk trash," Jordan says. "Our dad probably talks the most trash, so that's probably where Justin gets it."
Pulling up to their house, there are LSU flags and Peach Bowl stickers on neighbors' cars. One neighbor leaving for work shouts at Rickey, "Tell him congrats!" Rickey smiles and says, "I'll tell him when he gets up."
Jordan then points to another neighbor's house. That's where Devery Henderson lives, he says. Henderson grew up in Louisiana, went to LSU where he won the 2003 national championship and played receiver for the Saints from 2004 to 2012, winning Super Bowl XLIV.
Justin has been surrounded by football since birth. The rec league fields are a 5- to 10-minute drive one direction. Destrehan High School is a 5- to 10-minute drive the other way.
Travel was always an issue. There were Justin's middle school games on Thursdays, Rickey's high school games on Fridays and then Jordan's LSU games on Saturdays.
Justin was there when Jordan went into Alabama and won the so-called "Game of the Century" in 2011. He was there when Rickey snatched an interception from Florida. He went into the locker room after games and rubbed shoulders with future pros like Jamal Adams, Patrick Peterson and Leonard Fournette.
Jordan taught Justin to see the game through a quarterback's eyes. Rickey taught him how to run routes and shake defenders.
"You are your environment," Rickey says, "and that being his environment for that long, he had no choice but to blossom into what he is today."
Jordan can remember it like yesterday, him and Justin and mom and dad driving down to Rickey's last spring game at LSU. They were all on the field together afterward when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron approached.
"Man," Cameron told Justin, "you're going to be the best one."
BUT HE WAS a late bloomer. Justin was thin and one of the shortest people in his group of friends early on in high school. He didn't even start on the varsity football team as a freshman or sophomore.
He was frustrated and immature. No one was recruiting him. Jordan and Rickey tried to provide some reassurance, but not sensing much of a football future for himself, Justin let his grades slip.
Then came the summer before his junior season when that long-awaited growth spurt finally hit and Justin shot up from 5-foot-7 to 6-2 almost overnight. He ran awkwardly for a while, all knees and elbows. His joints would hurt after practice as his body caught up to his suddenly elongated bones.
Jordan, who had recently joined the Destrehan High coaching staff as a quarterbacks coach, started seeing Justin's potential come to fruition. He made varsity, and started to dominate the competition. After hours, Jordan would work with him on identifying coverages, and soon the whole game began to open up.
At an LSU football camp, then-interim head coach Ed Orgeron looked on as he saw the lanky Jefferson flash his immense talent. Orgeron can still remember him running a "sluggo" route -- a slant-and-go -- and how his jaw hit the floor.
"When he came to camp ... Ooh," Orgeron said, grunting excitedly.
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Soon, college coaches started to come by St. Rose to see the youngest of the Jefferson boys. The problem? Those grades, and in particular a failed freshman English class.
By the time Justin started taking school seriously, it was too late. He was tagged a non-qualifier and every would-be scholarship offer disappeared.
That's what LSU would have liked everyone to believe, that is.
Orgeron called Destrehan head coach Stephen Robicheaux and told him Justin had an offer if he could find a way to get eligible. The twist? The news was not supposed to be leaked. He wanted their interest in the unranked recruit to remain under the radar.
"We just kept it low," Orgeron said. "Really, I don't think we battled many people on him. We just didn't say much to nobody."
It felt like a long shot, but Justin retook the ACT and enrolled in summer school. The plan was to go to a junior college or a mid-major if that didn't work out.
Orgeron, who offered Jordan his first scholarship when he was at Ole Miss and offered Rickey a scholarship when he was at USC, stayed in communication with the family throughout the process, promising he'd keep a spot open for Justin. And later that summer, some two months after the rest of the signing class had reported to school, he got the call that Justin had passed his courses and was cleared to enroll.
"He was able to see that, man, the third one is going to be a charm," Jordan said. "And without Orgeron's commitment to the family, Justin wouldn't be where he is today."
BECAUSE JUSTIN WAS two months and two practices behind, the walk to his spot in the LSU locker room was longer than it should have been, all the way down the line to locker No. 118.
They gave him a linebacker's number and put him to work. He was 6-2, 175 pounds and a formerly unranked recruited, so nobody was paying much attention to him during that first practice.
Except for Jerry Sullivan.
Sullivan has coached receivers since the early 1970s, in college and the NFL, where he helped develop three-time Pro Bowler Anquan Boldin and future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald. Sullivan was an LSU consultant at the time and was supposed to be coaching the coaches -- not the players -- but Justin kept catching his eye.
"He was kind of a gangly guy when you first saw him," he recalled. "Thin. He had those little stovepipe arms."
But something told Sullivan to pay attention. After 40-plus years of coaching receivers, you start to notice when one is a little different from the others.
"And that's what I saw," he said.
He saw Justin's ability to change directions, how he adjusted to the football, how he caught it with his hands instead of his body. Sullivan walked up to him afterward and said, "You know, you've got some good tools."
But Justin didn't know who he was.
"So his dad told me he called after practice," Sullivan recalled, "and said, 'You know, dad, this old guy who I don't even know walked up to me and said if I work hard at it, I'll be a good player.' Lo and behold, the time has come."
Justin's freshman season turned out to be a wash, statistically speaking. He didn't catch a single pass and had one rush for a total of 4 yards. But he hung in there.
"He's got a little ornery streak in him," Sullivan said. "Sometimes I wanted to choke him. But he's a competitor."
That next season, after Justin added a few pounds and Sullivan was promoted to passing game coordinator, is when things really started to change.
Before Joe Brady was brought in to overhaul the offense, before Joe Burrow became the Heisman Trophy winner he is today, Justin broke out and earned the nickname "Jets" for his ability to fly past defenders. Playing the flanker position, he started 12 games and led the team in receptions (54), yards (875) and touchdowns (6).
He moved inside this season, where it's easier for DBs to bracket him, and his numbers somehow got even better. Together, he and sophomore Ja'Marr Chase have formed the most productive receiver combo football has seen in years.
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The two of them, Justin said, are having "too much fun" in LSU's new high-flying offense this season. After the Peach Bowl, when he tied an SEC record for receiving touchdowns in a single season, he said boldly that "We're not done" and how they'll be ready to "dominate" whoever they face next.
"He has a great feel of one, the offense, two, how to run the individual routes in the offense and then three, the defense that's being played," Burrow said. "So many times when we have a man-route called and he feels zone and just sits in the zone and I just plug it on him. He's a great player and I'm lucky to have him."
SULLIVAN, WHO joined the Arizona Cardinals as an offensive assistant this season, loves all his former players, but there's a reason Justin is one of the few he texts on a weekly basis to check in and see how he's doing.
"There's a lot of guys I coached that I liked but didn't necessarily respect," he said. "I respect him because I know how he's put together."
He won't tell Justin to his face -- doesn't want to fuel his ego -- but Sullivan calls the decision to leave him off the All-SEC coaches' team this season a travesty. "Are you kidding me?!" he asks, his voice crackling through the phone.
When Jordan and Rickey hear this conversation retold, they go off on a 10-minute tangent themselves. They point out how in head-to-head action Justin outplayed Alabama's Jerry Jeudy and Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb -- two receivers who happen to be projected to go ahead of Justin in the draft -- and how that ought to count for something.
How Justin wasn't a Biletnikoff Award finalist, neither brother knows and cannot possibly understand. He dropped just three passes all season.
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It wasn't that long ago that their little brother was a nobody living in their shadows, chasing them up hills and running around the yard, just trying to live up to his last name.
Jordan and Rickey have poured so much of themselves into Justin, they can't help but have some pride.
Justin is in the other room, so they try to keep their voices down. He's on break and isn't supposed to be doing interviews. So they whisper about his potential -- how he still has room to grow into his body, how his upside should have NFL general managers salivating.
They stop short of saying he'll enter the draft as an underclassmen, but the writing appears to be on the wall. Besides, who could come up with a better ending than a return to New Orleans and the Superdome, where so much of the family's history is rooted?
"Seeing it come around full circle, honestly, I could never have imagined it would be this big," Rickey says. "It's crazy. The timing of it is perfect."