By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
What do you do when you're on the verge of something you've been craving all of your life? What do you do when the dream is so close, you can feel its inevitability — and maybe its uncertainty too — lurking on the horizon like some rumbling summer storm?
Steven Jackson considers this daunting circumstance for just a moment and flashes that familiar disarming smile. "I've been groomed for this," he said. "This is what I've wanted since I started playing football when I was 7 years old."
Considering the crash-and-burn mess that so many of his peers have made of their star turns lately, you might expect that Jackson might approach this newest phase of his life with some sort of healthy trepidation. Celebrity is a scary business these days, as unpredictable as the weather. You're never quite sure whether the gathering storm will bring a soothing shower of fame and fortune or an angry torrent of disaster and shame.
Yet Steven Jackson is running toward the gathering storm of fame like it's a slash of daylight. After impatiently biding his time behind Marshall Faulk for two seasons, the former first-round draft pick out of Oregon State had a breakout 2006 season that thrust him into the NFL's ultra-talented upper crust. And now that Faulk has retired, there are no more uneasy conflicts about playing time, or debates about who is the heart and soul of this football team, or who is one of the NFL's most dangerous offensive weapons.
"He's right there. He's right on the verge of blowing up (and becoming a major NFL star) and he knows it," said teammate and Pro Bowl receiver Torry Holt. "He is ready to just explode and I can't wait to see it."
There are talks to give the powerfully built Pro Bowl running back his own weekly segment on ESPNEWS. You can't walk by a newsstand anywhere in America without seeing his face on the cover of at least three fantasy football magazines. He was featured recently in Sports Illustrated. ESPN has him on speed dial. There are those soon-to-be-released nationally televised Nike commercials, a locker stall full of custom-made Nike cleats, and 40-foot-high "I Believe" billboards all over St. Louis, which are supposed to be touting the Rams' upcoming season. But they could just as easily be tantalizing movie trailers for the upcoming Steven Jackson blockbuster, too.
"I was groomed for this; I always believed I would be a star, and I didn't see anything wrong with that," Jackson said. "I know that probably didn't play too well with the humble Midwestern mentality. But I was just speaking out and saying what I believed I was capable of doing. I never understood what was wrong with saying what was on my mind as long as I believed it and it was true. What's wrong with being a positive influence in the community?"
That's how he was raised in Las Vegas by his parents Steve and Brenda Jackson. Confident, but not cocky. Self assured, but not arrogant. Proud and positive. "I realize that when I first got here — and probably to this day, too — a lot of times people misconstrued my confidence for cockiness and that I was just some guy with a loud mouth," Jackson admitted one afternoon over lunch at the Rams practice facility. "To be honest with you, I wouldn't be surprised if maybe even the (old) coaching staff took it that way, too. I guess I had to learn how to get my message across better."
IN FAULK'S FOOTSTEPS
Jackson wanted to prove that he could be better than Marshall Faulk, the man whom he was drafted to replace. But it was hard to prove he was as good as he was sitting behind Faulk, the future Hall of Fame running back, NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl hero of every Rams fan. Faulk was the living legend. Even if he was at the tail end of his career and clinging to his job when it would have been more gracious to help usher in the new kid on the block, most of the Rams loyalists didn't see the Faulk-Jackson relationship in the same light Jackson saw it.
"I was the kind of guy, I wanted to give Marshall all the respect in the world for raising the bar for being a running back," said Jackson, who is 6 feet 2, 231 pounds. "Heck, he's one of the reasons why I wanted to be an all-around running back. But whenever I said that I could do the same things Marshall could do, no one around here wanted to hear that. People saw me and they just thought, 'Oh he's just a bruiser.'"
Jackson paused for emphasis.
"Oh no, no, no," he said. "I am a bruiser, but I can do more than that. And this is where I butted heads with a lot of people. They felt like I shouldn't disrespect a guy who paved the way. But I never saw it as disrespect. He set the bar high and I want to push it up even higher."
So Jackson told anyone who was willing to listen that if he was only given a chance, he could make them all see that he could do the same thing Faulk did, and — gasp and swoon — maybe even a few things Faulk couldn't do.
Coming out of the mouth of an unproven rookie, those words were practically blasphemy. As a result, Jackson spent the first two seasons in St. Louis being largely misunderstood and underutilized. "I think he always knew how good he was, but for all of us who had been around here for a while, we were like, 'But we have Marshall Faulk,'" quarterback Marc Bulger said. "Whenever he kept talking about getting the ball more, we were all saying, 'yeah, whatever.'"
Jackson had an image problem that he was powerless to overcome. He was talking about how good he was, but with no way to back it up, he came across like someone who was far more interested in being famous instead of being great. "And there's a huge difference between the two," said Holt, who was one of the few veterans (along with Isaac Bruce) to become a Jackson confidante. "Maybe when he first got here he came across like he just wanted to have people know who Steven Jackson was. He sounded like a guy who probably thought it was more important to be famous. But something clicked last year. That was a wake-up call for him. All of a sudden, he saw 'Wait a minute, I can be great.'"
The change was dramatic in 2006. First-year head coach Scott Linehan and offensive coordinator Greg Olsen started a feeding frenzy to Jackson. His 436 touches was the second-most in Rams history and the 11th highest in NFL history. He changed his running approach from being a guy always trying to hit a home run on every cameo appearance to a rare combination of power and elusiveness that made him one of the league's most feared offensive weapons.
Even Pro Bowl defenders started avoiding him in the open field. (Remember the Week 16 game against Washington when Pro Bowl Safety Sean Taylor appeared to go out of his way to avoid tackling Jackson?) He started grinding out runs in heavy traffic and freezing folks with jump cuts and spin moves in the open field that made him look like a super-sized Marshall Faulk.
Today he doesn't look so blasphemous after all. Instead he looks like a football prophet with those flowing dreadlocks and that angry running style.
He ended up as the NFL leader in yards from scrimmage with an eye-popping 2,334 yards, finished fifth in the league in rushing with a career-high 1,528 yards, scored 13 touchdowns and grabbed a team-record (for running backs) 90 receptions and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
"I don't know what happened, but you could see something change in him mid-last year," Bulger said. "It was like a switch went off and he became the hardest working guy out there. He's one of those angry ballplayers. He has to be mad at everyone and when he gets angry, that's when I make sure I get the ball to him."
What happened is easy to figure out. Faulk was no longer around. He had career-ending knee surgeries that sent him off to the NFL Network to begin his broadcasting career and the myth of the teacher-pupil relationship between Faulk and Jackson was finally publicly dispelled. "That relationship was too close for comfort," Jackson said. "First of all, I was very surprised that I even came here. The last thing I expected was to be drafted by the Rams. Plus we had the same representation (St. Louis-based agent Rocky Arcenaux). So now not only am I trying to take his job, but here's a guy that is to a lot of people here, he's a Super Bowl hero, and our agent is the same guy, too. That wasn't easy."
On the same day Jackson was interviewed for this article, he also spoke to Sports Illustrated for an article that ran in their Aug. 13 issue. In that interview, he delved deeper into his uncomfortable relationship with Faulk. "In my opinion, he could have helped me out and he didn't," Jackson told SI.
About an hour later, he sat in the same chair in the lunchroom and continued on the same path. "I acknowledge what he did for me and what (former coach Mike) Martz did for me," Jackson said. "But ... well, it could have been an easier way to hand over the torch."
After the recent San Diego preseason game, when he was asked about the Faulk relationship again, Jackson said, "I don't want to get into that again. I said what needed to be said in Sports Illustrated and I'll leave it at that."
So who did you lean on to get through the hard times and frustrations of those first two seasons?
"Well it wasn't Marshall," he said, flashing a devilish grin.
Jackson's NFL mentoring came from the other side of the locker room, where Torry Holt hangs his helmet. "I tried to give him information," Holt said. "But it wasn't like every day I would pull him over to the side and say, 'OK, here's Lesson No. 1. Now here's Lesson No. 2.' I just wanted to give him some guidance about life as a professional. We had a lot in common, so I wanted to give him advice on being a first-round pick, the high expectations, the money, the fame, the traps. A lot of people don't realize that it's not all that easy being put into that situation when you're a young man."
The job of being a high-profile professional athlete, as we can all surely see now, is full of surprising headaches and heartaches both on and off the field. "You're a 20-year-old young man and suddenly you're handed a lot of money with no guidelines," Jackson said. "I had no idea it was going to be that tough, but it was."
This was the part of fame he never expected. This was the nightmare edge he never imagined. Riding the bench on the field and coping with a fast and at times out-of-control world off the field. "I was raised the right way, but then I came (to St. Louis) and to be honest I was exposed to a lot of (wild) things here," Jackson said. "I had to learn how to resist some things, that was harder than I ever could have imagined."
There were rumors of bar fights and wild nights floating around during his first two seasons. But Jackson seemed to settle down a lot last year. Perhaps it's a coincidence that he found a balance after troubled ex-teammate Anthony Hargrove was sent packing last year. Jackson says it was because of the birth of his first child last year.
"I have responsibilities now. It's no longer about being the life of the party, it's about being a role model for my son," he said.
Jackson is trying to take advantage of the spotlight that is glaring on him by talking to kids about doing the right thing. Whether it's a small church group or a large auditorium of high school kids, he always asks them one simple question: "'How can you walk a straight line?' Can you walk it with your eyes closed? No, because if you try that, we walk all over the place. To walk a straight line, you have to concentrate. Well that's what you have to do to live your life. Now you have to understand when you do that, you may lose a few people along the way. But if you do, they didn't belong with you anyway. That was one of the hardest things to learn over the last few years for me, too."
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Jackson is inside the crowded Rams locker room after the recent game with the Chargers and he looks like a man ready for his close-up. Most of his teammates are still in various forms of their sweaty game-worn uniforms, or wearing casual summer garb that includes T-shirts, sneakers, shorts or jeans. Jackson is dressed for a "GQ" magazine cover shot. He casually slips on the custom-tailored gabardine suit pants, buttons up the tapered custom-made dress shirt, slides up the perfectly knotted silk tie, turns down the collar and adjusts the broad-shouldered silk-blend sport coat.
He slips on a pair of sunglasses, slings a bag over his shoulder and struts out into the cool summer night. And one of the first people waiting for him outside the locker room door is Denzel Washington, the Oscar award-winning actor and father of Jackson's teammate J.D. Washington, who is vainly attempting to go incognito.
They hug, they laugh, they chat, the reluctant movie star and the anxious football star, one craving the bright lights, the other seeking the cool shade of anonymity, and neither man probably getting enough of what they desperately want.