The Greatest Catch Ever
For the longest time, I felt pretty sure that the greatest catch in pro football history was made by a San Diego Chargers wide receiver named John Jefferson. He is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and, as far as I know, there have never been any campaigns to get him there. But those of us old enough to remember do remember.
J.J.’s span of greatness was very short, only three or so years, and even over those three years he played only one full, 16-game season. That was 1980 — Jefferson played all 16 games and led the league in receiving yards and touchdowns. He was a first-team All-Pro and one of the most beloved players in professional football. Everything about him was the epitome of cool. The goggles he wore. The way he twirled towels to root on the defense. The constant smile.
“Has any professional athlete,” Don Norcross wrote for the Escondido Times-Advocate, “ever had a more genuine smile than Jefferson?”
His Chargers career ended after that 1980 season. He wanted to renegotiate the five-year contract he had signed coming out of Arizona State. The Chargers refused. He held out. The Chargers continued to refuse. He pointed out that Lynn Swann was making $300,000 per year while he was making $100,000, much of it deferred. The Chargers were unmoved — a contract is a contract, they insisted.
And then they traded John Jefferson to the Packers, where he was never the same. Then the Chargers traded for New Orleans’ brilliant wide receiver Wes Chandler, who in 1982 put up perhaps the greatest half-season of any receiver in NFL history: In eight games, he caught 49 passes for 1,032 yards and nine touchdowns. And John Jefferson was left behind.
But, as I said, those of us old enough to remember do remember.
The catch I’m talking about happened on Nov. 2, 1980, against the Cincinnati Bengals. It was listed in the boxscore like so:
SD — John Jefferson 9 pass from Dan Fouts (Rolf Benirschke kick)
I’m pointing to the highlight below (the catch occurs around the four-minute mark), but I’m not sure the video will fully explain what this catch meant in 1980. Sure, it’s still a great catch, it will always be a great catch, but back then it felt more like a miracle. Nobody could even believe it. Dan Fours fired the ball toward the end zone; he wouldn’t admit it but teammates were certain that he was trying to throw the ball away because Jefferson was pretty well blanketed by Bengals defensive back Ray Griffin.
Instead, J.J. turned toward the ball, leaped up maybe three feet in the air, reached up with his right hand, and the ball hit him between his thumb and index finger. Then, like Daniel-san plucking the fly out of midair with chopsticks, Jefferson latched on to the ball and somehow pulled it in for a one-handed touchdown catch.
It was so ridiculous that even the man covering him, Griffin, told reporters: “I can’t wait to see it on film. … I’ve never seen a catch like that.”
“Jeff’s catch,” Kellen Winslow would say, “makes you think he was sent down from high places. He’s not of his earth.”
Jefferson himself thought it was a good catch, but he still ranked the diving grab he made for Arizona State against Arizona — the one that came to be known as “The Catch” in the state — as the best he ever made. And that’s fine, except if you look closely at that replay, I don’t think Jefferson actually caught that ball, certainly not by today’s standards. He definitely caught the one against the Bengals.
Anyway, that was the standard for me. There were plenty of other incredible catches through the years, ones you might even argue were slightly better than J.J.’s grab, but in my mind, the original catch stands as the greatest until it is CLEARLY surpassed. You have to knock out the champ in order to win the title.
And, yes, the Odell Beckham Jr. catch against the Cowboys — that surpassed J.J. That, for me and pretty much everyone, became the greatest catch in NFL history.
Until Sunday. And another J.J.
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