Tony Jefferson promised his mom he wouldn't cry after signing his name to a life-changing four-year, $36 million contract.
It was a "long road" for the Ravens' newest safety to get to this point, and it's one that he took a minute to reflect on Friday.
"I just want to say 'thank you' from the top to the bottom of this Ravens organization," Jefferson said.
"I am godly blessed and proud of myself, my family and everybody who has been in my corner through this process. It has been a long road. I told my mom I would not get emotional up here, but it was not easy."
Jefferson was a highly productive and decorated player throughout his college football career. He was a top-100 high school prospect out of San Diego, then an immediate freshman starter at Oklahoma. He was the Big 12's Defensive Freshman of the Year. At the end of his junior season, he was named a second-team AP All-American.
That led Jefferson to declare early for the NFL Draft as a true junior, and he came out with a second- to third-round grade. An NFL.com scouting report compared him to Pro Bowl safety T.J. Ward, saying his "leadership skills, physicality around the line of scrimmage and his coverage skills will entice teams to pick him early in the 2013 draft."
"I took a chance, bet on myself, and it didn't work out the way it was 'supposed to work,'" Jefferson says now.
Jefferson hurt his hamstring in the pre-draft process and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.75 seconds. It was the second-slowest time of any safety at the NFL Scouting Combine, and more than 0.2 seconds slower than Ravens first-round safety pick Matt Elam. That, when paired with Jefferson's 5-foot-11 size, scared teams off.
The second round went by. The third round passed. Then the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh. Jefferson and his agent were confused. After 23 other safeties were drafted, Jefferson told his agent to just pick a team for him to sign with.
"When you play football since you're 4 years old, your main objective for most kids is you want to go to the NFL when you're older," Jefferson said. "To get to the NFL, you want to get drafted. I didn't. That still hurts, and it haunts me to this day."
Jefferson signed with the Arizona Cardinals, who had just drafted Tyrann Mathieu in the third round and signed veteran safety Yeremiah Bell.
It meant Jefferson had to fight his way onto the 53-man roster, and limited his opportunities to prove himself. Jefferson said it was a "tough battle, an uphill battle."
"I think I separated myself as a rookie in that class," he said. "I was really getting into my book, trying to pick the brain of the veterans that were ahead of me. I think that helped me, ultimately, in the long run."
Jefferson played in all 16 games with the Cardinals as a rookie, and even earned two starts. He grew his role in his second year, starting eight regular-season contests and the Cardinals' wild-card playoff game. He started seven regular-season games and both Arizona playoff games in his third season.
Heading into last year, Jefferson finally got his big break as a full-time starter. He knew it was time to make his mark as a leader in a talent-rich Arizona defense featuring Pro Bowlers such as Mathieu, defensive end Calais Campbell, cornerback Patrick Peterson and outside linebacker Chandler Jones.
"I had to work my way into the starting lineup," Jefferson said. "Undrafted guys, you don't get as many opportunities as the drafted guys and guys ahead of you. You have to put aside the other side distractions and truly focus on the craft and your game. I think I separated myself from the pack in doing so, and it paid off."
Jefferson led the Cardinals defense with 96 tackles last season. His 11 tackles for loss were also a team-high. He was all over the field making plays, and a major reason why Arizona finished with the league's No. 2-ranked defensive unit.
That made it surprising when the Cardinals reportedly didn't show too much interest in re-signing Jefferson. Jefferson told MMQB that Arizona "low-balled" him with a three-year, $12 million offer in December that he and his agent didn't even reply to. After the season, they upped it to four years, $24 million. It still wasn't enough.
When Eric Berry re-signed with the Kansas City Chiefs before free agency opened, Jefferson was suddenly the top safety on the free-agent market. He now stands as the best safety to come out of the 2013 draft class.
Multiple teams were interested, and the Cleveland Browns and New York Jets reportedly extended big deals that eclipsed the Ravens' offer. Jefferson said he was flattered to see the interest, but soon just wanted to pick a team and move on to football.
In the end, Jefferson went with Baltimore because of its rich defensive history, winning culture and the opportunity to pair with Pro Bowl safety/friend Eric Weddle, who also has San Diego roots.
"I chose the right spot," Jefferson said. "I went with my heart, my gut."
On Friday, Jefferson thanked the Cardinals for helping him get to this point – at a press conference as the Ravens' newest grand prize. Next to him sat another former undrafted rookie (2008) who has made it big, newly signed running back Danny Woodhead.
Jefferson took a deep breath, sat up straight and looked at General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Head Coach John Harbaugh to either side.
"I do not know if words can express what you guys have done for me and my family," he said. "I am looking forward to a huge, huge season."