JACOB HESTER MIGHT NOT BE OLD ENOUGH TO REMEMBER WHEN A QUARTER bought a spin on the jukebox. But that doesn't mean that, at 22, LSU's old-school running back doesn't carry an appreciation for the classics—or the humor that can ensue whenever those hits are confused with more recent knockoffs. Kicked back at a Baton Rouge dive bar on a densely foggy December night, 18 days before the Tigers' victory over No. 1 Ohio State in the BCS championship game, he and a visitor were trading plays on the jukebox when the selection of the 1981 Queen and David Bowie joint hit Under Pressure occasioned a friendly wager. � "Bet you there'll be a few people in here who'll think this is Vanilla Ice when they first hear it," said Hester in a reference to the gimmicky rapper whose 1990 smash hit, Ice Ice Baby, blatantly sampled the '81 song's seven-note bass line without permission. � As the Queen-Bowie song played, several patrons started bobbing their heads in seeming expectation of a Vanilla verse to come. One patron, who grooved heaviest on the jam, didn't disappoint. "Ice Ice Baby!" he chanted at full throat, a strange wooden cane in one hand and a mystery beverage in the other. "Ice Ice Baby!" An approving smile creased Hester's face. "Told you," he said. � Contemporary football players don't come much more retro than Hester, a married, hard-nosed runner who was the heart and soul of the 2007 LSU offense. Though he may not have played both ways like former Tigers All-America iron man Jimmy Taylor—the 1950s-era LSU linebacker and fullback with whom Hester's offensive achievements are exhaustively compared—it wasn't for lack of trying. In 2007, Hester's senior season, he made cameos on the Tigers' kickoff coverage, punt coverage, punt return, extra point and field goal teams, and started at fullback. As the top back in LSU's five-man rotation, he led the team in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns while helping the 12-2 Tigers to their 10th SEC championship and second national title in five seasons.
The consummate throwback player, the 6-foot, 224-pound Hester is a gifted inside runner and underrated receiver who'd sooner run over a would-be tackler than sidestep him or slap that defender's helmet in good sportsmanship than beat his own chest. Such selflessness can seem downright antique by today's standards. "I guess I was born a little too late," Hester says. "You just don't see a lot of guys with the same kind of interests that I have. I guess I am a little bit of an oddball in that sense. But it's been working in the way I play football. It's an honor being called an old-school player."
It's not surprising, then, that Hester's forte would be grinding out the toughest yards. During the regular season LSU converted an impressive 93 of 205 (45.4%) third-down plays, an NCAA-best 12 of 15 (80.0%) on fourth down and a ridiculous 19 of 26 (73.1%) whenever Hester touched the ball in either situation with four yards or fewer to go. What's more, Hester doesn't fumble. Going into the BCS championship game, Hester had carried 330 times without a turnover—a rate of success that would earn any coach's trust.
At no time was Tigers coach Les Miles more trusting of Hester than in the fourth quarter of LSU's 28-24 victory over No. 9 Florida on Oct. 6. With his team trailing by three and less than 10 minutes to play, Miles twice called on Hester to convert a pair of do-or-die fourth-and-ones, and twice the big back responded with gutsy two-yard runs up the middle.
Three plays after the second conversion, he plowed into the thick of the Gators' defense for two more yards and the winning touchdown, upending the defending national champions. "He's one of the reasons we've had the season that we've had," Miles says. "His will has made an impact on this team."
So too has his savvy. After his touchdown tumble set off a seismic celebration among the record 92,910 fans at Death Valley, Hester lay helmetless on his back, kneading his furrowed brow and clutching his right knee in apparent anguish. But he wasn't hurt. Sand had gotten lodged in his chinstrap snap, preventing him from buckling his helmet. And fixing the problem in time for him to assume his blocking duties on the ensuing extra point would have surely resulted in a penalty.
Rather than burn the Tigers' remaining timeout, Hester followed his first instinct and played possum. While he was being helped off the field during an injury stoppage, LSU sent in a sub, and the extra point went off without a hitch. "That just shows you his initiative, his creativity and his intensity," says Taylor, a Hester fan himself. "He really wants to compete."
Still, there have been other instances in which Hester has removed his helmet without meaning to pull a fast one—like when he's trying to towel off the part of him that is most an anachronism: his white face. The fact is, in today's game, it's rare to see a white running back playing the role of dominant rusher on a college football team, let alone a national champion. And Hester hears about it. In 2006, after shedding his headgear during a first-quarter timeout against Tennessee, Vols linebacker Jerod Mayo reacted as if he had seen a ghost. Said Mayo to Hester, "Shouldn't you be playing running back for Air Force?' "
Even on that game-winning drive against Florida, when Hester bowled over Gators safety Major Wright for a 19-yard carry—a run that recalled both '59 Heisman winner Billy Cannon's epic Halloween punt return and Taylor's wanton savagery—Hester couldn't enjoy his YouTube moment without suffering a parting shot. "As we were getting up," he says, "Wright's like, 'That's all right. You still look like Vanilla Ice.' I was like, 'Aw, Vanilla Ice? That's the lowest blow!' "
Pop-culture references don't overshoot the Shreveport-born Hester, who was named for Jacob McCandles, John Wayne's character in 1971's Big Jake, and raised on a steady diet of Elvis Presley and Dean Martin with his brothers Adam, 25, and Chance, 16. In addition to his dad, Joey, and mom, Nancy, who were both standout athletes in their youth, Hester has another athletically gifted relative in distant cousin Terry Bradshaw. Hester also claims the Chicago Bears' All-Pro returner Devin Hester as a distant cousin, for laughs. ( Devin Hester is black.)