Darnell Jefferies isn’t the type of guy to dwell too long on negatives.
You can tell it in the way he talks, in the way he answers questions about his difficulties and challenges — particularly the toughest moment in his young football career.
It came during his sophomore year. Second game of his sophomore year, at that. Jefferies, who began at Alcovy, transferred to Peachtree Ridge with hopes of advancing his football career on the front end of his high school tenure.
A block down on the back of his knee put a quick and painful halt to all that.
“It was against Archer,” Jefferies said. “I ended up tearing my MCL and meniscus. It would take five to six months to come back from it.”
He said it very matter of factly. He didn’t suggest that it was a dirty play. Perhaps it didn’t even matter. All he knew was that, even at the low point of his career, he was already looking up.
“At that moment when it happened, I didn’t even know it,” Jefferies said. “I was just like, ‘My knee is hurting.’”
Then, almost as if he caught himself dwelling too long on the negative, Jefferies raised his voice a bit and quickly shared his mindset in that moment.
“But as soon as I found out how bad my knee was hurt, I just told my coaches that I’d come back and be stronger than ever,” he said.
A Double Comeback
Jefferies’ sophomore season was a complete wash. But during recovery and rehab time, he also experienced a personal revival. He wanted to come back home.
Home for him is Covington and Newton County. He played middle school ball here. He started showing early signs of his potential as a freshman, when even despite his size, he didn’t look his age.
In fact, it’s how he got his name.
“Big Baby,” he said. “That’s my nickname I got as a freshman. When I came into high school I was big, but I was still a little baby as a freshman. I still had that baby fat on me.”
Over the years, that baby fat has turned into a 6-foot-3, 280 pound defensive tackle phenom that got attention from virtually every college football blue blood program in the country. Ironically, the bulk of that attention didn’t come until he came back to Newton.
He entered his junior year with lots of interest, and officially burst onto the recruiting scene with a monster junior campaign, but didn’t get his first offers until the spring. First it was Georgia Tech. Then Georgia. Then they just kept on rolling in.
“It feels good,” Jefferies said at the time of his first offer. “It feels like all my hard work is paying off.”
He said it while sitting in the Newton High gym while waiting for the nationally ranked boys basketball team to take the court. He looked comfortable. He looked at home as he lightheartedly joked around with fellow classmates.
Now, Jefferies acknowledges that this is exactly where he wants to be to finish his high school career.
“I’m very humbled and blessed to be able to stay at one school for a second straight year now, and to be able to finish my career with the Newton Rams,” he said. “I just want to help this team out as much as I can and be a better player for me, but for them first.”
All About the Team
Since being at Newton, head football coach Terrance Banks has learned to get familiar with the whole concept of dealing with star athletes.
He’s seen his fair share in his four years at the school. Guys like quarterback Romario Johnson, DeAndre Huff, Kurt Taylor and J.J. Holloman.
“I didn’t understand what my other coaching colleagues were saying about dealing with those high caliber type players, until I came here and it happened to me,” Banks said. “It’s different. You’ve got media and newspapers and college coaches around, and it tends to pull the kid away from the team. And sometimes it kind of separate the player from the team.”
That’s not how it was with Darnell, though.
“The thing about Darnell is he has all those things coming at him, but he never let it stop him from being about his team,” Banks said. “For him, it’s all about that name across his chest, and even more, the brothers next to him who he plays with and for.”
Jefferies looks natural while sauntering around the sidelines with his teammates, laughing or talking seriously about the action on the field. Even during Newton’s spring game against Alcovy, when the defensive line coach from Clemson was on hand, looking to close the deal on a Jefferies commitment, Jefferies’ stripes didn’t change.
He was still the same guy, and if you spend any extended time with him, you know it’s not an act.
“I just think I’m a very humble and blessed guy, because God has blessed me with many things,” he said. “I’ve had some challenges, like hurting my knee. That was tough. But I just kept my head focused and prayed every day and night, like my parents told me, and to keep doing what I’m doing.”
More Than Just Football
Family’s been as big an influence on Jefferies as anything else. It shows when he’s talking about them.
“My mom and dad, Woangie and Derrick Cooper,” Jefferies said. “They’ve been active like they are since I was little. Since rec ball.”
And then there’s Kimberly Dirden, who Darnell affectionately calls, “Mom Two.”
“She’s helped me with getting my business off the ground,” he said.
Jefferies boasts a 3.52 grade point average, and will major in business marketing at Clemson. The business program there was just as much a reason for his choice of the Tigers as the caliber of football they play.
And he’s already begun to show his business acumen. Remember that nickname, ‘Big Baby?’ Well, Jefferies has parlayed his freshman year moniker into the label of his own clothing line.
“You know, it’s hard to find clothes in the store for a big guy like me,” he said. “So I came to coach Dirden and asked if she could help me create my own fashion and clothing line, and she said sure.”
Jefferies said his brand has produced t-shirts with his brand name on them and he’s looking to debut his brand’s football gloves when Newton opens the season at home against Drew on Thursday.
“It’s not just for big guys, though,” he quickly says. “If you recommend it, I can get anything we have in smaller sizes.”
For now, though, Jefferies would love nothing more than be sized for a state championship ring. He’s looking forward to getting to Clemson and “balling out and getting my education.” But while he’s at Newton, there’s unfinished business yet to attend to.
“I feel like this year our defense is better than it’s ever been,” he said. “We’re not playing around like we used to. We’re very focused on the mission of the team. And as for me, I just want to do the best I can do. And that’s doing my one-eleven. Doing my job and making sure we all do the same.”