Air Force quarterback enrolled to serve nation after 9/11

  • Published
  • By David Edwards
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
When Osama bin Laden sent his minions and more than 2,900 others to their deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, he unwittingly picked a fight with an Atlanta seventh-grader named Tim Jefferson.

The young man who had harbored a nearly lifelong dream of becoming a pilot just didn't know that yet. In Atlanta, as was the case everywhere else in the country that fateful day, rumors flew and uncertainty reigned.

"It was hard to realize the impact of what happened," Jefferson, now the Air Force Academy's starting quarterback, said. "We were on a field trip; there was a lot of confusion. We were actually joking about it."

Jefferson's school was close to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which has been the busiest airport in the world for more than a decade. The wild speculation being thrown around by his classmates didn't seem at all farfetched in light of what had happened up north.

Despite the physical distance separating him from the attacks, the events unfolding in Manhattan hit close to home. Most of his mother Walda's relatives live in New York.

"My sister was right across the street from the World Trade Center, and my niece was just down the street," Walda Jefferson said. "They were stuck in the subway. They were late for work, and that's why they're still alive."

No family members were killed in the towers, although the Jefferson did lose a close friend, a former soldier who held a part-time job at the World Trade Center. For the most part, the Jeffersons escaped the national tragedy personally unscathed.

But there was still the small matter of the boy in Georgia who envisioned a future at the controls of an aircraft. When Tim was 5 years old, he took his first plane ride, a trip to Disney World. A few months later, he got his first remote-control airplane.

"He had every flight-simulator game," Walda Jefferson said. "And of course we had to buy him the PlayStation game when that came out."

To this day she has no idea where her son's interest in flying came from, but it never waned. As an elementary school teacher, Walda Jefferson has seen a lot of children pass through her life, and she said she's never seen a kid sustain such a single-minded focus for so long.

But even though the Air Force would have seemed like a natural fit, it didn't register on Tim's radar screen until the Academy showed an interest in him during his time at Woodward Academy, where he was a four-year letterman in basketball and a three-year letterman in football and track.

"I had always wanted to be a pilot, but I had never considered being a military pilot until the Academy approached me my junior year," he said. "Everybody knows that flying is safe for the most part. If I was going to join the military, why would I let the possibility of having a plane hijacked scare me? When you dream about something, you've got to go for it."

That unwillingness to be deterred from his goals has served Jefferson well throughout his four years at the Academy. His studies have included aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and he hopes to attend pilot training after graduation.

Even his main hobby, basketball, invites him skyward. In fact, basketball was his preferred sport in high school. But Walda Jefferson said her son didn't think he was tall enough (he's listed at an even 6 feet) to play hoops at the next level. Nevertheless, he just can't seem to get enough of flight.

The theme doesn't continue into the realm of cinema, however. It would be only natural to surmise that Jefferson's favorite movies would be about fighter pilots. No such luck, though. Would you believe it's "Kung Fu Panda"?

And on the gridiron, Jefferson is more apt to guide the Falcons' ground game rather than assail opponents through the air. His pregame ritual of listening to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony seems fitting considering that as the conductor of the Air Force offense Jefferson has been masterful in his own right.

Now it's time for the grand finale campaign. A win Saturday over South Dakota State began the season nicely, and Jefferson would like nothing better than to keep the Commander In Chief's Trophy in Air Force hands.

"This is my senior year. I want to make the most of it," he said.

Jefferson resists the temptation to make predictions, saying he doesn't play the games on paper. This year's schedule has placed a formidable obstacle one day ahead of the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Powerhouse TCU will take on the Falcons this weekend, so Jefferson will understandably be a bit preoccupied.

Just as he prefers to let events play out on the field, Jefferson is going to play the Sept. 11 anniversary by ear. He doesn't know yet how he will mark the date that will draw Americans' attention once again to a place where he has family.

What Jefferson does know, and says unabashedly, is that "9/11 had a major influence" on him. If everything works out as he hopes, the influence will be evident in the realization of his childhood dream and the accompanying fringe benefits of being an officer.

His career choice also includes one other important benefit: It's mom-approved.