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Broach the topic of politics--usually a conversational no-fly zone among athletes reluctant to alienate fans--and he's just as forthright. "I'm a Democrat," says Jackson, who finished Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope shortly before the start of training camp. "Other generations had protests and the civil rights movement. Now look around. It's not just that a young black man and a woman are running for president. Things like interracial dating have become a way of life for us. We need to take notice that we're really evolving."
This blazing candor isn't always well-received. Jackson is aware of the perception among fans, for instance, that he lacked the proper reverence for Faulk. "People thought it was the Keyshawn Johnson 'give me the damn ball' clich�, that I was demanding the same respect as a Hall of Famer," he says. "That wasn't it. I just wanted to contribute." More generally, he's puzzled by the larger implications of speaking his mind. "I know some people perceive me as cocky because I don't always say the 'right' thing. But to me, telling people how you really feel, being yourself, talking to people in public the same way you'd treat them behind closed doors, that's being respectful and humble."
The source of Jackson's straightforward manner, his healthy self-confidence and his work ethic is no great mystery. Jackson's father, Steve, served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was last stationed on guard duty near the South China Sea. He returned to Warren, Ark., in September 1970 and worked in a sawmill. In December, Steve and his wife, Brenda, headed west to Las Vegas, armed with $60 and big dreams.
Steve tried his hand at gambling but soon realized, as he puts it, "I was on the wrong side of the table." He found work as a porter at Caesars Palace, and when he retired 34�years later, he had risen through the ranks to become a high-level pit boss, even learning some Mandarin and Cantonese so he could communicate with Pai Gow players. Brenda initially found work in housekeeping at the Hilton but spent more than 22 years there as a blackjack dealer. The Jacksons raised their kids--Rhonda, 37, Yolanda, 35, and Steven--in a quiet neighborhood, with the usual middle-class trappings. Steven had a strict upbringing, and for most of it he was more aesthete than athlete, likelier to draw cartoons than play sports. (When he wasn't studying, that is. A National Honor Society member, he graduated from high school with a 3.8�GPA.) At 16, however, he was blessed with a sudden growth spurt, and his designs on playing Ivy League football gave way to bigger ambitions. He rejected overtures from the likes of Dartmouth, choosing instead to play at Oregon State. In retrospect, he says, being a late football bloomer imbued him with the best of both worlds: big-time talent and grounded sensibilities. "My parents allowed us to make our own decisions," he says, "but there was always discipline, a real system of values."
Included in the system was an inherent distrust of easy money. Thanks to his combination of good looks, thoughtful demeanor and ascending stock, Jackson will appear in national ad campaigns for Pepsi, Nike and Fox Sports this season; but suffice it to say his agents are unlikely to field their next endorsement offer from, say, the Bellagio. "Being from Las�Vegas, people always say, 'You must live in a casino,' " says Jackson. "I don't gamble. You might not know the first thing about a game, and the casinos are happy to let you put your money down. My parents have horror stories of people losing everything."
He does, however, appreciate the Vegas that exists beyond the Strip. He recently bought a home in the Southern Highlands development, 15 minutes from his folks' place. Following his Pro Bowl appearance last February, he spent most of the off-season in town, running up hills, getting his body fat under 5% and training in the oppressive desert heat. "The harder I work in the spring and summer, the easier training camp is," he says. "I figure I'd rather beat myself up than let the coaches do it."
Sure enough, at Rams two-a-days last week in Earth City, Mo., Jackson held up almost frighteningly well. After the first session in the stifling Missouri summer heat, he walked off the field toward a clutch of fans and accommodated Sharpie Nation. Then, his body still pebbled with sweat, he headed to the team's pool for a water exercise session (The Greatest Show in Surf?), where he worked on building endurance and developing muscles that get overlooked in traditional weightlifting. After a break, he returned for the second session on the practice field a few hours later.
Why the relentless conditioning? Jackson knows he faces the challenge that confronts all athletes who are coming off an unexpectedly strong year: proving it was no fluke. "No one," he says, "wants to be a one-season wonder, the guy who plummets after getting national attention." There's no guarantee, of course, that he'll replicate last season's success, much less attain his avowed goal of "putting up 2,500 yards on the way to the Super Bowl." But as one might expect from the son of casino workers, Jackson will do what he can to tip the odds in his favor.