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Maryland’s defensive law and order
Maryland linebacker Erin Henderson was already in a playful mood after jokingly rattling off a series of cliches in a monotone voice for his own amusement. A question about teammate Wesley Jefferson's law enforcement aspirations brightened his mood even more.
"Watch this," Henderson said mischievously before bellowing, "Hey, Officer Jefferson! Officer Jefferson!"
A few yards away in the Maryland football team house lobby, Jefferson turned slowly and nodded with his own wide grin, a reaction expected from an acknowledgment of a long-running gag.
But the junior linebacker isn't kidding when he speaks of his plan to become a state trooper when his football career ends.
"That's been a passion of mine since I was 5 years old, before I even knew about football," Jefferson said. "I've always wanted to do that. I like to help people, and I think I can help a lot of people. That's something on the inside of me that I enjoy, and it's something I look forward to doing."
In the interim, he will keeping playing for the Terrapins (8-4), who meet Purdue in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl. It will cap a breakout season for Jefferson, who has 107 tackles and a team-high 10 tackles for loss in his first year as a starter.
He will complete his degree in criminology and criminal justice next month, an important step in fulfilling a dream sown watching an episode of "Cops" more than 15 years ago. Jefferson's mother soon bought him a police toy set, complete with a badge, hat, handcuffs and an orange cap gun she promptly and sensibly confiscated from the 5-year-old.
Jefferson's interest grew when he attended Brandywine's Gwynn Park High School, where many of his coaches were police officers. There he also developed into an impressive football player and was one of the most sought-after linebackers in his recruiting class.
Jefferson landed at Maryland in the fall of 2003 but redshirted his first season. He backed up D'Qwell Jackson the next two years and in that time bonded with Sgt. Butch Rhoderick, the Maryland state trooper in charge of coordinating coach Ralph Friedgen's gameday security detail.
"He's a standup kid, very intelligent obviously, and he's obviously got the physical gifts to be a state trooper," Rhoderick said. "I can't say anything bad about him. ... I've never known him to be in any kind of trouble. I told him I'd help him up to the point he goes to Coach Friedgen and says, 'I want Butch's job.' Then the help stops."
Rhoderick helped arrange some opportunities for Jefferson, who has since gone on 15 ridealongs in Charles and Prince George's counties.
In his first ridealong, Jefferson quickly earned a greater respect for the professionalism of the officers. He was intrigued by everything from the way they drove to the vast array of services an officer must provide.
"The first time I did it, I thought, 'This might be boring,' ' Jefferson said. "All you hear about cops is boring stuff, and stuff happens only once in a while. They make it exciting, every minute, every time they're at work. You have the scanner going off, you have the radar going and just having to do order maintenance. It's not necessarily working with criminals."
Jefferson has shared his enthusiasm with teammates, some of whom are a bit more reluctant to invest their free time sitting in a police cruiser. Henderson has politely declined a few invitations, though he is certain Jefferson eventually will thrive in his chosen career.
"When I first got here, that was one of the first things he ever told me," Henderson said. "He smells like a cop already. His whole attitude when he walks around ... he's a cop in training."
Jefferson's on-field work only can help. As a middle linebacker, he barks out calls to the rest of the defense to set up plays and is the unit's figurative traffic cop.
He began the season stepping into Maryland's formidable linebacker legacy. E.J. Henderson was an ACC player of the year in 2001 and won the Butkus Award as the nation's top collegiate linebacker 2002. Jackson was a three-year starter and the ACC's defensive player of the year last season.
Jefferson, who eschews flashiness for consistency, proceeded to etch out a solid season. He compiled four 10-tackle games, including 14 tackles in a Nov. 11 victory over Miami.
"He has very good instincts, and he's a very determined kid," Friedgen said. "He's not the strongest or the fastest guy, but he's played very, very productively this year and had a good year for us. I don't know where we would have been without him."
Jefferson, though, is sure where he will be after football because of his remarkable focus. It's a trait he shares with Rhoderick, who decided at a young age to become a state trooper and was impressed at Jefferson's single-mindedness to do the same.
"He's a good kid. I'd rather see him go to the NFL, but if it doesn't happen I think he'd be a good asset for the state police," Rhoderick said. "Hopefully, it's a goal he can attain. A lot of people dread hearing the alarm clock every morning. We're kind of the opposite. For us, it's another day of doing what we wanted to do."
In particular, it would mean assisting people and fulfilling a vital role in the community. Both are important to Jefferson, who will continue to pursue football while knowing his real calling will remain long after his playing days are over.
"Some guys don't like cops, but everybody needs cops," Jefferson said. "It's necessary, and without them, it'd be a lot crazier."
Note -- Junior guard Donnie Woods, who started 21 games over the last three seasons, said he will pursue a career in the military rather than return for his fifth season. Junior guard Garrick Clig also said he will not return for his final year of eligibility. Both fourth-year players plan to complete work on criminology and criminal justice degrees next summer.
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