JON MAJOR STILL VIVIDLY REMEMBERS THE PLAY. TEXAS TECH TAILBACK ERIC STEPHENS had taken the handoff, sprinted right, then cut left. With the score tied at 24 late in the fourth quarter and the Red Raiders driving in Buffs territory, nothing was going to stop Major from making the tackle. Or so he thought. He avoided an O-lineman's cut block but was then taken out by an accidental leg whip from the same player. "I could hear something pop," Major says. "I knew something had happened." That something turned out to be a severe MCL sprain, which abruptly ended on Oct. 23, 2010, what was considered at that point to be an all-conference season. Major would not step back on the field until practice the following spring. (Oh, and the Buffs lost to Tech 27--24.)
It's a painful yet familiar story for Major, who in four years at Colorado has severely injured both knees and missed a season's worth of games due to various ailments. Combined with a bout of swine flu during 2009's fall camp, it's remarkable that he's still out on the gridiron, let alone become one of the Pac-12's top linebackers and the cornerstone of the Buffaloes' defense. Sure, some linebackers can run faster and jump higher. Others will finish with better stats. But few are more selfless or have a better knowledge of what the defense—and opposing offense—is doing on each play.
"He's one of the smartest players I've ever had," says Brian Cabral, who's in his 24th year coaching Colorado's linebackers. "I can stick him at any three of the 'backer positions at any moment."
That's not to say Major loves playing musical chairs. He prefers playing outside where he can run more freely (despite the injuries, he's still speedy), but he can be a difference maker no matter where he is. "It's all [for the benefit] of the team," he says.
Last year, playing both inside and out (he is listed on the outside for 2012), he had 65 tackles, three sacks and an interception. In Week 13, Major was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week after CU's 17--14 upset win over Utah. His 6' 2", 240-pound frame allows him to ball-hawk receivers like a safety while stopping the run like, well, a linebacker. Chalk it up to knowing where to be on every down. "He could run my position meetings," Cabral says. "That's how much he understands about the game."
Major grew up in Parker, a quiet suburb of Denver about 50 miles southeast of Folsom Field, and was a two-sport athlete at Ponderosa High, playing right-field on the Mustangs' baseball team. Having earned a 3.5 GPA and been considered the state's top football recruit by ESPN, he received more than 50 scholarship offers, including those from Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wisconsin. All were alluring, particularly Oklahoma, which he visited in late August 2007. But Major's a Colorado guy. He roots for the Broncos and the Rockies. His brother, Justin, was a CU freshman when Jon was a senior at Ponderosa. The choice to come to Boulder wasn't all that difficult.
Now, given the coaching change late in 2010 and the team's winning just 11 games over three years while many of those other programs are thriving and churning out NFL draft picks, doesn't he ever wonder, What if? "Yeah, but you can't play that game," he says. "We're headed in the right direction. If we have a successful year, we can look back, and it will mean a lot."
Major says he wants the 2012 season to be a foundation he helps to lay for generations of players to come. Sounds like yet another smart move.