He’ll be wearing green and white for the Labour Day Classic, but Willie Jefferson will be playing for his hometown and the state of Texas.
“If I make a big play, it’ll be for my hometown, it’ll be for Hurricane Harvey,” said the Saskatchewan Roughriders defensive end, who was born and raised in Beaumont, Texas, which sits approximately 135 kilometres east of Houston.
His Roughriders (4-4) host the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (7-2) on Sunday for the 54th instalment of the prairie teams’ annual tilt, the first to be played at Regina’s new Mosaic Stadium.
Despite the day’s hype, the Texan will be playing with a heavy heart and thoughts of his home, thanks to the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey, which was designated a tropical storm after making landfall over the Houston and Beaumont areas this past week.
Between Aug. 25 and Wednesday, Harvey dumped 47.7 inches of rain in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, according to the Washington Post. The ensuing floods have forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate their homes, and 42 people have died as result of the storm, according to the paper.
“It hurts me to my heart,” Jefferson said of the devastation brought by the rising waters.
Knowing that he can’t be there to comfort his family, his girlfriend and his friends, “It puts me at a real standstill,” he said.
Jefferson said on Friday that his friends, family and girlfriend were safe although their water had been completely shut off and electricity was still on in some parts of Beaumont, a city of 118,000 people.
He played two years of college football at Stephen F. Austin State University, about a 2.5-hour drive north of Beaumont. He also played six regular season games for the NFL’s Houston Texans in 2013.
“Me as a person that lives in Houston and me as a person from Beaumont, I always want to find a way to help and give back, even though I’m way out here in Regina,” said Jefferson.
He’s urging people who attend Sunday’s game to donate the necessary items to help people in Texas.
“Bring some shirts, some pants, some socks, some baby wipes and stuff like that,” he said, noting the Roughriders will have donation bins set out at entrance gates to Mosaic Stadium on Sunday.
People looking to donate money can use the links he posted on Twitter and Instagram, he said.
The second-year Roughrider will step onto the field Sunday leading his team in sacks (4) and sitting second in total tackles (24). Saskatchewan is coming off a 54-31 win in Edmonton last week when Jefferson’s unit scored two pick-sixes and earn two sacks against veteran quarterback Mike Reilly.
Jefferson had his own score after blocking a punt and returning it for a touchdown in the first quarter.
“Defence, special teams and offence. They all scored,” said Roughriders quarterback Kevin Glenn. “And when you can put together (games) like that where teams — offence, defence and special teams — can score multiple times, it’s going to look like this a lot.”
The Blue Bombers and Roughriders are both on the upswing: Winnipeg is riding a five-game win streak that includes a Week 9 win against then-top-ranked Edmonton. The Roughriders won their last two games, both against divisional rivals.
Recent history on the September long weekend favours the Blue Bombers, who beat Saskatchewan last year 28-25 on a last-second, 43-yard field goal from kicker Justin Medlock.
But prior to that, the Roughriders have won every Labour Day game since 2005.
There’s a high probability Medlock’s kicking will factor into Sunday’s game: Of his team’s seven wins this year, three were won by Medlock booting the winning field goal either in overtime or in a game’s dying seconds, including his team’s first win of 2017, which happened to be against the Roughriders in overtime at new Mosaic Stadium.