Iowa State fans exuded unparalleled excitement when news broke that Troy Davis was chosen as a 2016 inductee for the College Football Hall of Fame.
Davis’ honor is the pinnacle of college football. To prove the difficulty of joining this prestigious club, the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist is just one of two Cyclone players in the Hall of Fame.
Iowa State defensive tackle Jamahl Johnson, who just finished his freshman season in 2016, understands the significance of the College Football Hall of Fame. His grandfather, Willie Jeffries, was a 2010 inductee into the CFB Hall of Fame as a coach.
Jeffries’ legacy is an important piece of his family genealogy.
“I really didn’t know much about my grandpa when I was younger, but as I got older I did,” Johnson said. “Talking to my mom (Jeffries’ daughter) and my dad (who played for him) I started to understand how important he was.”
Jeffries was truly a college football coaching pioneer. After a successful run as a head coach in the high school ranks and stints as an assistant at North Carolina A&T and Pittsburgh, Jeffries received his first head coaching gig at his alma mater, South Carolina State, in 1973.
From 1973-78, South Carolina State was the premier team in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Jeffries led the Bulldogs to a 50-13-5 record, five MEAC titles and a black college national title in 1976. Two of his star players at SCSU were future College Football Hall-of-Famers Harry Carson and Donnie Shell.
“I am extremely close with my grandpa,” Johnson said. “We used to talk every Sunday.”
In 1979, Jeffries opened a door that had been firmly shut since major colleges began sponsoring football teams in the late 1800s. Wichita State was looking for a new head coach and Jeffries’ name was high on the list of candidates. He took the job, becoming the first African-American to be a head coach at a predominantly white Division I (FBS) school.
It was a step that paved the way for future successful black coaches in college football. You can learn more about Jeffries’ important contributions to college football in this documentary.
“My mom has really tried to stress his accomplishments, especially since she moved a lot with my grandpa going from college to college when she was younger,” Johnson said. “They told me a lot about the struggles and what he went through to get to where he was. He made a lot of great strides in doing that.”
Johnson’s family coaching tree definitely begins with Jeffries, but it also branches out to his father, Jimmie, who is currently the tight ends coach for the New York Jets.
Jimmie Johnson, who played tight end in the NFL for 10 years (1989-98), also coached the tight ends for the Minnesota Vikings from 2007-14.
Growing up with a father in the coaching profession, Johnson fully understood the long nights his dad spent at the office.
“It is tough, but having my mom there to support me was really helpful,” Johnson said. “She’s been at every football game I’ve ever played in. My dad would make it to as many games he could, usually on a bye week. It was a little hard at first but we kind of got used to it. That is his occupation. We had to get used to it because he’s paying the bills and everything.”
Johnson is hoping the two coaching mentors in his family can make it to a game next year, because there will be a great chance he will be on the field making plays. He already proved his potential as one of six true freshmen to play in a game in 2016.
Johnson has a keen sense of the valuable football resource he has in his family.
“My dad calls me before every game before he goes to meetings,” Johnson said. “He’ll check up on me. We’ll talk for about 10 minutes to tell me to get off the ball, things like that. I’ve learned a lot about football from him.”