- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
With bulging muscles forming a coat of body armor and a triumphant smile welded to his face, Steven Jackson looked every bit the conquering hero when he returned to his old school this off-season. A couple of months after concluding his breakout NFL campaign with the St.�Louis Rams, Jackson strode the halls of Las Vegas's Eldorado High. He hugged former teachers and coaches, shook hands with the custodians and ROTC recruiters, and posed gamely as the cellphone paparazzi clicked away, memorializing the Pro Bowl running back in their midst. � Jackson was there in part to give his version of the obligatory stay-in-school speech.
"You can be cool after class, but while you're here, take care of business," he told a group of 50 football players. But first he endured an unexpected physical assault. While passing through the school's weight room, he was spotted by players conducting an off-season workout session. "No way," yelped Mike Pearson, a senior linebacker. "Oh, my God, dude. It's Steven Jackson!" Pearson stopped mid-rep, approached Jackson and, giving new zest to the phrase "irrational exuberance," slapped him across the face.
This was no playful love tap. Jackson's head rocked back, and his trademark braids cleaved the air. Jackson's response was impressive. He kept smiling--surely behind clenched teeth--aware that the kid had simply gotten carried away. But the episode was also notable for this reason: It marked the first time in recent memory that Jackson had been stunned by physical contact.
A 6' 2", 231-pound alloy of strength, speed and indefatigability, Jackson can stake a credible claim to being the best back in the NFL not named LaDainian Tomlinson. In 2006, his third NFL season, Jackson simply gorged on yards, registering 1,528 on the ground and 806 on his 90�receptions. His total of 2,334 yards from scrimmage was the fifth-highest in league history. Unlike his nimble Rams predecessor Marshall Faulk--who didn't play a down for St.�Louis last season and formally retired in March-- Jackson did most of his damage by simply lowering his shoulder and charging forward. If you ever doubted that force really does equal mass times acceleration, Jackson is the personification. "When you have the football, you have the authority to do whatever you want on the field; you can run through a guy, you can run around a guy, you can stiff-arm a guy," he says in a soft voice at odds with his strapping physique. "But I notice that a lot of the time guys don't want to take me on straight ahead."
Perhaps most impressive is Jackson's durability. Some of his most prolific games--including a 252-yard land grab in a win against Washington last Dec.�24--came late in the season. In fact he scored 10 of his 16�touchdowns in the Rams' final four games. "It was a give-him-the-ball-and-get-out-of-the-way situation," says Rams coach Scott Linehan. "It got to the point where we needed to script plays for another back just so we didn't wear Steven out."
As Jackson saw it, his breakthrough season was less a surprise than a logical result of his getting the ball. "I was groomed for this," he says. "It was just a question of having coaches who believed in me and gave me the touches. With touches comes yardage, with yardage comes success."
And his standard for success is high. "There are some big names who've played running back in a Rams uniform, and I want to be right up there with them," he says. "I'm targeting Jerome Bettis, and after I knock that out I'm going after Eric Dickerson, and then Marshall."
Though the Rams, who went 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs, have surrendered the title of the Greatest Show on Turf, the 24-year-old Jackson is unquestionably an ascending star who may reclaim that nickname all by himself. "He was always dying to be in this situation, [and] now this team is his," says wideout Torry Holt, a veteran of the Rams' Super�Bowl teams. "It was exciting to play with a great back in Marshall and then right away with another in Steven. . . . But what I also like [about Jackson] is that he takes heed to direction, he works hard."
Jackson comports himself much the same way he runs, barreling straight ahead, leaving the fancy footwork and the artifice to others--a battering Ram, as it were, coming straight at you. When he was buried behind Faulk during his first season, more fallback than fullback, the first-rounder out of Oregon State didn't exactly conceal his frustration. Apart from calling his parents nearly every day--"I never thought I'd be living in a dream and hate it!" he'd tell them--Inaction Jackson moped around the Rams' complex.
He felt that Faulk was being inaccurately portrayed as his mentor, and says that the two players who he feels took him under his wing were Holt and his fellow veteran wideout Isaac Bruce. "In my opinion, he could have helped me out and he didn't," Jackson says of Faulk, before adding, "[But] that's all behind us now. We're cool." (Told last week of Jackson's comments, Faulk laughed and disagreed that there was friction between the two, saying, "Ask anyone who was in our meeting room, or the running backs coach [Wilbert Montgomery].")