By Jim Hague
Observer Staff Writer
Almost exactly a year ago, the Queen of Peace football team faced St. Anthony in the opening round of the NJSIAA Non-Public Group 1 state playoffs. In that game, Golden Griffins’ running back/linebacker Tajier Jefferson suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, an injury that required surgery.
“I tore my ACL and then everything went downhill,” Jefferson said. “They beat us, 35-12. I had the surgery in January. I had to do all the hard work in rehab to get back. The rehab went well, but I just had to get back to my teammates. I wanted to come back better than ever.”
When the time came for the preseason workouts to begin in August, the Golden Griffins had a new head coach in Robert Kearns, who was very impressed with Jefferson’s talents right away.
“He’s just a complete football player on both sides of the ball,” Kearns said. “He’s just a tremendous football player.”
All season long, Jefferson has been the fullback and main blocker for All-State candidate Kevin Momnohin, the state’s leading rusher with just a few yards shy of 2,000 yards rushing and an astounding 36 touchdowns.
Jefferson doesn’t mind playing second fiddle to Momnohin.
“It’s all a good thing,” Jefferson said. “It’s a team thing. As long as we keep winning, I don’t care. The water boy could get a shot of running the ball. Kevin and I go at it a lot. We’re good friends. It’s a good thing to have players like that on the team.”
“I’ve said that what Kevin is to our offense, Tajier is to our defense,” Kearns said. “Kevin is the marquee guy, but Tajier isn’t far behind.”
Last Saturday, with the Golden Griffins facing St. Anthony once again in the state playoffs – the same team that defeated the Griffins a year ago in the game where Jefferson got hurt – Jefferson was geared up to make his mark.
“I had been looking forward to this game since last year,” Jefferson said. “It was a big motivation for me. I didn’t want to let the team down.”
Jefferson certainly didn’t let anyone down. He rushed for 127 yards on nine carries on offense and then registered 12 big tackles on defense, leading the Golden Griffins to a big 21-6 win over St. Anthony at Riverside County Park to advance in the state playoffs.
The Golden Griffins (6-4) now travel to face powerful St. Joseph of Hammonton Saturday in the sectional semifinals with game time at 1 p.m.
While Momnohin was his typical dominant self, scoring three more touchdowns and rushing for 170 yards, Kearns felt that Jefferson was the difference.
“Tajier won the game for us,” Kearns said. “He was a one-man gang. Without a doubt, he played a big role on offense, because they put all 11 men in the box to key on Kevin. Tajier did an outstanding job of running with the ball. He was like Jerome Bettis on one carry, taking about seven defenders for about 20 yards. He can move. He gets on you quick. He’s a great straight ahead runner.”
Jefferson knew that his role offensively was going to increase on Saturday.
“Coach Kearns told me that they were going to be keying on Kevin a lot, so I was going to get the ball,” Jefferson said. “I was definitely ready. The offensive line did a great job making sure everything was alright. Before the game, I knew that they weren’t going to key on me, so I had a chance to go up the middle and make some plays. It was definitely a blessing.”
Kearns said that Jefferson would be a premier back on practically any other team around.
“No question, he could be a featured back,” Kearns said. “Kevin and Tajier complement each other so well. It’s like having thunder and lightning in our backfield.”
Kearns feels that Jefferson’s biggest impact is on the defensive side as the team’s middle linebacker.
“He makes all the defensive calls,” Kearns said. “He has great knowledge of the game. It’s like having another coach on the field. He makes us a dangerous football team defensively.”
Jefferson likes playing defense better.
“Defense is my specialty,” Jefferson said. “I like to hit. It’s definitely Kevin on offense and me on defense. Defense wins championships. That’s what they say.”
Kearns believes that Jefferson can be a factor on the collegiate level.
“I think he could be a good outside linebacker,” Kearns said. “He has good speed and he’s not afraid to hit. He’s solid like a rock.”
Jefferson said that he’s been receiving interest from colleges like Appalachian State, Delaware, Stony Brook and Bryant.
“I just have to keep my grades up,” Jefferson said. “I’m glad I’m getting looked at.”
Right now, St. Joseph of Hammonton will get a close up view of Jefferson this weekend.
“He’s ready to mow you down,” Kearns said. “He’s not afraid of anything. He has great closing ability when making tackles. That’s tough to teach. He’s also a good blocker. He just loves the game and has a nose for the football. He has a presence of what he has to do and that’s outstanding.”
Much like he was Saturday afternoon.
“It was definitely sweet revenge,” Jefferson said.