Jimmie Johnson was talking to his newest pupil, but he might as well have been staring at the man in the mirror.
The Jets tight end coach saw promise in the person in front of him. There was something inherently good there. Someone worth helping.
Johnson’s message to Austin Seferian-Jenkins 13 months ago was pure: Changing your body and mind will save your life.
There was more to it, though. The coach knew the time was right to finally take ownership of his life, too. It had been two decades since Johnson finished a 10-year career as the longest of long shots, the 316th overall pick (12th round) of the 1989 NFL draft. But he no longer resembled the 252-pound tight end who became a champion in Washington.
Johnson was 370 pounds.
“I just told him that in order for him to be the player that I envisioned him being — and the player that a lot of people thought he could possibly be — he would have to lose weight,” Johnson said of his first conversation with Seferian-Jenkins. “He had to lose 20-25 pounds to give himself a chance to be successful. Having said that, I had been overweight for a number of years myself. I said I got to do the same thing. And I’m going to do it this year. So, we did this thing together.”
They inspired each other, player and coach linked by a shared understanding that change was non-negotiable. Seferian-Jenkins, plagued by a drinking problem that had derailed his life, re-dedicated himself. He texted Johnson pictures of his metamorphosis this offseason. New diet, new outlook, new body, new Austin.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins has undergone an incredible transformation, but he couldn’t have done it without some help.
Johnson sent texts to provide updates on his own weight loss.
Hey, I’ve lost 15.
I’ve lost 20.
“When we showed back up for OTAs, he was skinner and I was skinnier,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “It was like two new people meeting each other. It was really cool because you don’t have people in your life that many times who want to do something with you like that. That really meant a lot to me. He lost weight, I lost weight. It inspired my mom to lose weight. It’s why I love being here.”
Seferian-Jenkins has dropped about 30 pounds since re-dedicating himself. Johnson has lost 65 pounds since January 1 and is close to completing the first phase of his two-step plan to re-make himself. Johnson’s balanced workouts include cardio and weight training. The 51-year-old has also made smart changes in his diet to transform his body.
“I knew my deal was portion control more than anything,” Johnson said. “All you need is this much to eat as opposed to two plates… My short-term goal was to get under 300. My long-term goal is to get to my playing weight. So that will be roughly 120 pounds when it’s all said and done.”
Jimmie Johnson has helped fuel Seferian-Jenkins’ success since last season.
Seferian-Jenkins credits Todd Bowles, John Morton and others in the organization for helping him change his path, but nobody works closer with him than Johnson, who has been a father figure.
“More than anything, he doesn’t want me to f— myself over, because he knows how much I love this,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “I know how much he loves this too. He doesn’t want me to cheat myself of how good I can be and cheat the team of how good we could be if I can continue to get better. He just wants the best for me.”
So, they work. They always work. They work every day to realize the promise of a player filled with a ceiling as high as the clouds.
Johnson isn’t overly nostalgic about the good ol’ days, but he’s also not shy of reminding the 25-year-old Seferian-Jenkins that he has a championship ring.
“I don’t let him forget that I’m a Super Bowl champion,” Johnson said with a laugh. “He’s striving to be one. And I know how to get him there.”
There was a time when Seferian-Jenkins didn’t take to solid, no-B.S. coaching. That time is over. He now craves those moments to perfect areas of his game that need sharpening. He’ll text Johnson from home on Tuesdays to ask if the two of them can hit the practice field early on Wednesday.
The Jets’ tight end is on pace for a career season.
“He has the right focus and the right mental attitude on how he wants to approach his game,” Johnson said. “He is aware of his deficiencies. So, we made a concerted effort to work on those things. Occasionally he’ll say, ‘Hey, I didn’t do that particularly well last week. Can we go out and work on it? Can we go out and work on my hand placement? Can we go out and work on my footwork?’”
Johnson is always willing to help after a forgettable two-year run with Chan Gailey that marginalized his position. Jets tight ends were targeted a measly 26 times for 18 catches and no touchdowns last season.
His work with Seferian-Jenkins has paid off. The tight end has 26 receptions on 34 targets in five games, including touchdowns in three consecutive weeks. Seferian-Jenkins is on pace for career numbers (63 receptions and eight touchdowns) in his fourth season, but don’t expect to see Johnson going coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs on the sidelines.
“I don’t think I need to run up to him and be jumping for joy that he made a play or scored a touchdown,” Johnson said. “I can probably make a bigger fuss about it. And probably there are moments when I should…. But he knows that I’m happy for him. I’m very excited for him. But he also knows that I expect those things to happen.”
The expectations won’t stop. Johnson knows his star pupil has won over so many people, but this is only the beginning.
“If someone that did not know Austin were to hear about his journey, they would become a fan,” Johnson said. “He is an easy guy to root for. It’s a great story.”
It’s a story that wouldn’t be complete without the man helping him each day.