THE YOUNG boy in the wheelchair at Rams camp smiles for a photo, his face so small next to that of Steven Jackson, who is crouching beside him, a thicket of dreadlocks hanging from his head. "Who's that you're with?" asks the boy's father, rapidly snapping photos.
The boy hesitates, his expression blank. Jackson whispers in his ear.
"Steven," says the boy.
The dad nods, pleased. "That, son," he says, "is our new running back!"
After six years of Marshall Faulk running off tackle and catching five passes a game, St. Louis will open the season with a new featured back. Jackson, a first-round pick out of Oregon State in 2004, had a promising rookie season, rushing for 673 yards, averaging 5.0 yards per carry (15th best in the league) and fumbling only once. Then in July, coach Mike Martz, with Faulk's blessing, named Jackson the starter--a promotion he learned of when he saw it on the ESPN ticker on TV at his home in Las Vegas. However, Martz and Faulk, 32, who was starting to wear down, were grooming Jackson for the starter's job throughout the 2004 season.
During practices last fall Faulk would take Jackson aside for pointers on how to read the defensive schemes and the importance of waiting for blockers, while Martz would call back-to-back-to-back plays for him during preseason games. Says Martz, "I was a little hard on him, and I explained to him, 'I'm just trying to get you ready. You're going to carry the load here.'"
With 4.45 speed in the 40 and a punishing running style Jackson has all the tools to be a 1,500-yard back. At 6'2", 231 pounds he looks more like a free safety or a linebacker than a running back, and unlike the 5'10" Faulk, Jackson often seeks contact rather than eluding it. " Ricky Williams, Bo Jackson, Earl Campbell, Walter Payton, the big bruising, punishing backs, those are the guys I model myself after," he says.
Jackson came to camp leaner and more mature this summer. "He understands what this league is about now," says Martz. "He knows the type of preparation required to play at this level, physically. Last year his knee was at 70 percent and he was a little overweight." Jackson will have a better chance of avoiding the knee injuries that nagged him last season (he had minor arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last January) now that the concrete-hard turf at Edward Jones Dome has been replaced with a softer, rubber-based FieldTurf.