In high school, Heinz Field was the ultimate goal for Quinton Jefferson and his Woodland Hills High School teammates.
Jefferson got to play there twice, his team advancing to the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League championship, and like any young football player from the area, he dreamed of one day returning there to play in an NFL game.
On Sunday, Jefferson will get to live that dream when the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers, the team he cheered for as a kid growing up in Pittsburgh.
“It’s a dream come true,” Jefferson said. “That’s honestly like a dream to go back there and play against the Steelers, that’s something I always wanted to do. It’s going to be super cool. We were in there every year playing there in high school in the championship. It’s going to be dope to go back there. I’m going to have a bunch of family there. I can’t wait.”
While Jefferson expects to have a bunch of family and friends there, he isn’t going to be on the hook for a huge block of tickets, limiting his purchases to immediate family so as to not be, as he joked, playing this game for free.
“I don’t know how many of my family members bought tickets, I think a couple of them did, but I only bought tickets for my mom, my dad, my wife and my brother,” he said.
Jefferson’s wife and their four kids will make the trip to Pittsburgh for the game, giving them a chance to see extended family. But while it’ll be all about family time for his kids, ages 8, 5, 5 and 20 months, Jefferson knows his priority is on helping his current team beat the one he rooted for as a kid.
“I already told my family it’s a business trip,” he said. “I’m going to make a little bit of time on Saturday to see them. But they know it’s a business trip. My focus is on football and will be on football.”
While Jefferson didn’t end up playing for his hometown team, the Steelers were aware of him coming out of Maryland and to some extent even in high school thanks to Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s fondness for local high school football. Tomlin said on a conference call with Seattle-area media that the Steelers brought Jefferson in for a pre-draft visit, but noted he was also aware of him in high school.
“I’ve been really impressed with Quinton Jefferson on the interior,” Tomlin said. “Pittsburgh kid, Woodland Hills guy. Really been impressed with how his game has developed. I just have a lot of respect not only for the players that play within that group, but schematically an approach to defensive play.
“I’m a fan of Pittsburgh high school football. I think anybody that lives in Western PA is. I’ve been going to high school football games the entire time I’ve been here. Got a lot of appreciation for the guys who have come through this area and ascending within the professional ranks.”
This return to Pittsburgh is all the more significant for Jefferson because it happens to be coming on the heels of the best game of his four-year NFL career. Jefferson was a starter for most of last season, so significant playing time was nothing new to him, but in Sunday’s win against the Bengals he recorded a career-high two sacks, he batted down two passes at the line of scrimmage, recorded six tackles, and had multiple other pressures on Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton.
“He played great ball, but it’s not a surprise,” Seahawks defensive line coach Clint Hurtt said. “He had a really good season last year, so coming in with the offseason and just being another year with him, I felt like he could take his game to another level. His confidence level was high going into that game, so he’ll just continue to build off of that. But I’m really, really happy for him.”
Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. added, “Knowing how hard he works and knowing all he’s been through and how much he loves the game, to see it all come together in the first game, you’re really happy for a guy like that. Then you have to try to find a way to capture that, put in in a bottle, then show up every week. You want to be consistent with that. He’s veteran enough to know what he did well, veteran enough to know how he practiced and how he prepared for that game so that can become the norm.”
And for Jefferson, last week’s big game and a return to Pittsburgh in his fourth season were far from a given a couple of years ago. After missing a year in college with a torn ACL, Jefferson found himself on injured reserve early in his rookie year in Seattle with another knee injury. The following year he was cut heading into the season, eventually landing in Los Angeles with the Rams, first on the active roster and eventually on their practice squad. The Seahawks brought Jefferson back in midway through the 2017 season, then he took on a bigger role in 2018 helping set the table for last weekend’s breakout performance.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “Maybe I needed to get my ACL torn, maybe I needed to get cut, but I appreciate where I am now. I know what it’s like to be on the other side, and I never want to go back there. That’s why I work hard every day to do my job and make plays.”
Childhood dreams rarely work out exactly as planned. Instead of suiting up for the Steelers, Jefferson will be playing against them and trying to disrupt quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was drafted by Pittsburgh when Jefferson was 11.
“Everybody who grows up in Pittsburgh, their ultimate dream is to play for the Steelers,” he said. “… Everything worked itself out for me how it was supposed to work out.”
Now Jefferson plans on building off of last week’s big performance while playing in front of family and friends.
“My big thing is just doing it again,” he said. “You do it once, can you do it again? The whole D-line, we’re trying to cause some havoc again, try to get in Ben’s face and try to stop the run.”
Photos from Wednesday's Seahawks practice at Virginia Mason Athletic Center in preparation for Sunday's week 2 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.