Former football star Jefferson still running strongWritten by Chris Schmidbauer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
At just 5 feet 4 inches, Linda Jefferson looks like someone who would have trouble being tall enough to screw in a light bulb; it might be hard for some to imagine her as a football star in the 1970s.
“It doesn’t bother me too much,” Jefferson said, in reference to her relative obscurity. “No one can take away what I did on the football field, and as long as I know what I did out there, that’s all that matters.”
Jefferson’s achievements still resonate. At one time she was one of the most dominant football players in the country. Called the “female O.J. Simpson,” Jefferson had a record-setting career that spanned seven seasons as a member of the Toledo Troopers.
She is back in Toledo, but instead of setting rushing records, she is working with children in the Jefferson Center’s Toledo Head Start program.
In 1972, Jefferson graduated from Libbey High School. Prior to the NCAA’s passage of Title IX, which calls for equal athletic scholarships offered by universities to both men and women, there were very few opportunities for athletically gifted women to participate in competition.
“When I graduated from high school, where I ran track and played softball and basketball, I wanted to stay physically active,” she said. “A teammate of mine [at Libbey] told me about this football exhibition at Woodville Mall.”
Jefferson said she was lukewarm to the idea, but after some thought, she decided to try out for the team.
“I thought, ‘I can play this game,’ and I went out for the team,” she said.
But Jefferson’s hall of fame career almost didn’t happen after her mother found out about her daughter’s gridiron dreams.
“My mom told me there was no way I was going to play football, so I had to sneak around to practice without her finding out,” she said.
Jefferson practiced with the Troopers during their preseason workouts and broke the news to her mother as the first game approached.
“I just brought home a football uniform one day,” she said.
Wearing that Kelly green-and-gold uniform, Jefferson set the National Women’s Football League (NWFL) ablaze in her first season in 1972. She ran for 1,388 yards and 32 touchdowns in her first season as a Toledo Trooper.
From 1972-1975, Jefferson ran for 4,092 yards on 285 carries, an astonishing 14.4 yards per carry. The stunning numbers prompted womenSport magazine to name her its first “Woman Athlete of the Year” in 1975.
“I never thought I would be that good because I had never played before. But I always shrugged it off because when you play a team sport, you aren’t good. The team is good.”
Jefferson is humble about her achievements, but there is no denying that she dominated the game.
In 1976, she was the NWFL’s player of the year — she rushed for almost 1,500 yards — and was the league’s first most valuable player in its championship game. Jefferson said the team’s accomplishments attracted a lot of attention locally.
“We had more fans than the [Toledo] Goaldiggers had,” she said. “I just remember the stands being packed.”
The 1976 season prompted the producers at ABC television to select Jefferson as a contestant in the “ABC Women’s Superstars Competition.”
“There were 10 events that were available and I had to pick seven to participate in,” she said.
The competition allowed Jefferson to rub elbows with noted celebrities. Once such experience was meeting her childhood hero, tennis great Althea Gibson.
“Althea pulled up next to our car in a restaurant parking lot, and she introduced herself. I was speechless,” Jefferson said. “My mother had to say, ‘This is my daughter Linda Jefferson, the football player.’ She was so humble, and it still is one of the great moments of my life.”
Jefferson’s success on the gridiron thrust her into a national spotlight. She did numerous interviews on “Good Morning America,” the “Phil Donahue Show” and was a celebrity on the show “To Tell the Truth.”
Much of her popularity came from her dominance on the football field, but Jefferson used it to also become a spokeswoman for female athletes.
She did several interviews with multiple media outlets, letting girls know it was all right to be athletically gifted and feminine.
“Back then, people thought you had to be like ‘Mean’ Joe Greene to play football, and that wasn’t true,” she said. “They thought all of us players were big brutes, and we weren’t.”
Jefferson was quoted as saying, “I’m no tomboy, but a female athlete,” in a 1976 JET magazine article.
Despite the fame, playing for the Troopers was not a road to riches. During the 1975 and 1976 seasons, the team’s payrolls totaled $2,000 each year.
Jefferson retired from football in 1979, after rushing for almost 9,000 yards and more than 140 touchdowns during her seven-year career. She and the Troopers left behind an overall record of 59-4 (including undefeated seasons in 1972, ’73, ’74, ’75 and ’77) before the team was put up for sale in 1980.
Jefferson was inducted into the American Football Association’s Semi-Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2002, one of the first women and the first African-American woman to be inducted into any football hall of fame.
Today, Jefferson is a teacher’s aide at the Jefferson Center, working in the Toledo Head Start program.
“I was working with special needs children in Detroit, and I had to move back because my mom was sick,” she said. “This position was open, and I decided to go for it.”
Jefferson is working on her early childhood education degree, and the opportunity to go back and get an education is something she is thankful for.
“I am so blessed and thankful to Toledo Head Start for allowing me to go back to school,” she said. “I just think that is wonderful.”
Jefferson still gets recognized from time to time.
“Some of the kids tell me that their mom or dad might remember me, and that is fun to know,” she said. “I love working here and teaching these kids.”
She continues to impart wisdom to kids who might want to follow in her football steps.
“I always tell them to give for their dreams. I tell them to give it 110 percent and give it everything they got,” Jefferson said. “If you do that, then you can achieve your dreams.”