A rough year for Saskatchewan Roughriders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day has somehow become even rockier at Grey Cup week in Regina.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ defensive end Willie Jefferson captured the hearts and minds of Rider Nation during his three seasons in Saskatchewan and received the team’s nomination for Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2018.
What some Riders fans still want to know is why it had to end. For that, the back-to-back Grey Cup champion has a simple answer.
“They weren’t trying to give me what I deserved,” Jefferson said in relation to his departure from the ‘306.’
“When 2019 came around, it was free agency and I wanted to stay. I honestly did. I asked for a certain number, the team didn’t want to budge on that number and then Winnipeg shot the gun. They said, ‘We can give you that and we don’t have a problem giving you that.’ We gave Saskatchewan the opportunity to match and they didn’t match it, so that was the end of it.”
According to a report at the time from 3DownNation‘s Justin Dunk, the Riders offered Jefferson less than $175,000 in 2019. The all-star pass rusher chose to sign with Winnipeg for $210,000 on a one-year contract.
Jefferson had a close relationship with former Riders’ head coach Chris Jones dating back to their days together with the Edmonton Football Team, which culminated in a Grey Cup championship back in 2015. In fact, it was Jones who lured Jefferson to Regina in 2016 following a tryout with the NFL’s Washington Football Team.
In a critical turn of events, Jones left the Riders for the Cleveland Browns less than one month before the opening of free agency that winter. Jeremy O’Day took over as general manager three days later and it was he who negotiated with Jefferson.
“Coach Jones got his job with the Browns and then that’s when free agency started and I was speaking to J.O. (Jeremy O’Day) personally,” Jefferson said.
“So, we didn’t come to an agreement and we just split ways. Like I don’t necessarily want to say it was bad blood. I asked for something and they didn’t want to give it to me. Winnipeg wanted to give it to me. It just so happened we had to be rivals and I was gone.”
Would Jefferson have remained in green and white had Jones not departed for the NFL?
“Probably,” Jefferson said. “More than likely because at the time Coach Jones was my coach.”
“When he left, I chose to come with Coach O’Shea. I felt like that was the right decision for me because I knew Coach O’Shea was a players’ coach and I needed somebody that could push me. But at the same time, I needed somebody that could understand who I was and understand how I played and my family situation and things like that and Coach O’Shea was the best fit for that. I know for a fact that if Coach Jones had stayed in Saskatchewan that I probably would have stayed with him because that was my coach.”
Jefferson admits winning a Grey Cup on Sunday in the stadium he helped open in 2017 would be extra satisfying, especially in front of the Riders’ current regime.
“I’m happy,” Jefferson said. “It shows that the decision I made to join the Bombers was a good decision.”
“Going in knowing that this is the place where guys like me played when they built this stadium, just knowing that I got my brothers behind me that are hungry, ready to go out there and fight for every blade of grass and every second that’s on that clock.”
One storyline of this Grey Cup week in Saskatchewan is the number of ex-Roughriders that made key impacts on a Blue Bombers team aiming for its third straight championship.
Jefferson, quarterback Zach Collaros, and receiver Nic Demski all had elite years on a squad that is threatening to become the CFL’s first dynasty in 40 years. Meanwhile, the Roughriders are still trying to pick up the pieces from a disastrous 2022 campaign.
Although Demski left the Riders before the current regime took over, Jefferson exited on his own and Collaros was traded away in favour of then-starter Cody Fajardo.
Does this signal an organizational failure on the part of the Riders front office?
“I don’t know,” said Jefferson. “That’s something you’ve got to talk to one of the Riders’ front office people about. I enjoyed my time here. I’m pretty sure everybody else who played here and then came to Winnipeg enjoyed their time here, but it’s better in Winnipeg.”