Learning To Lead: The Evolution Of Steven Jackson
Learning to Lead: The Evolution of Steven Jackson
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
By Nick Wagoner
“Our response to an offense determines our future.” – Author John Bevere, “The Bait of Satan.”
Right there in black and white for his eyes to see, Steven Jackson constantly goes back to this book. It’s one of his favorites though if you ask him to name them it might take a while because he’s constantly diving into a new one.
On the surface, passages like the one above might seem simple. Then again, on the surface, a person might be viewed the same way.
What you don’t know is how complicated something or someone can be when you dig a littler deeper. In the case of Steven Jackson, a little closer look can reveal something you never would have guessed or even attempted to try.
A BORN LEADER
At the conclusion of nearly every Rams practice, a few players always lag behind the group on the long walk back to the locker room. Some stay behind and catch passes, others work on footwork. They all do it by choice but some undoubtedly do it because that’s what Jackson does.
Jackson is the one who will quickly peel off his pads and run extra gassers, not because he’s out of shape but because it sets the right example of what it takes to be successful.
The Rams have the fourth-youngest team in the NFL with an average age of right around 26. Coincidentally, Jackson is the same age. But because he entered the league when he was only 20, Jackson’s ascent to a leadership role has happened quicker than most.
As he’s grown and developed as a player, he’s seen players come and go and just now, in 2009, has he taken it upon himself to become the leader of this young group.
“I have seen nothing but great things,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “His greatness in that regard, in the leadership regard is shining right now when it’s not the best of times and the results haven’t been what we want. I’m not going to share with you one other thing but there was something he did that meant the world to me and I appreciated him and how he’s gone about things right now.”
Growing up in Las Vegas, Jackson’s lessons in leadership began at an early age. His father, Steve, practically majored in the subject as a Marine veteran in the Vietnam War.
That meant plenty of “yes, sir” and “no, sir” in the Jackson household but it also began a cultivation process in the planting of those seeds of leadership.
Jackson learned a lot of the details from his father, things like always being on time, keeping your word and being dressed presentably for every occasion. Those little things that can determine one’s character.
“You have to go through a maturation of becoming a leader,” Jackson said. “Everyone doesn’t have leadership qualities but those do have to be groomed, they have to blossom. You don’t just come out and start yelling at guys or put them in the right direction. You try to sit back and learn from other leaders.”
The process of growing those leadership qualities takes time and is undoubtedly cyclical. In the case of a football player, it can mean going from quiet freshman at Eldorado High School to imposing senior presence.
It starts over again when you arrive at Oregon State, looking to make a mark and it can rise again when you become a more prominent contributor to a team.
And with each cycle and each level of leadership, new elements can be added to the mix.
“You definitely go through it and each time it gets to another level,” Jackson said. “When you start in high school, you have to start over in college. Coming here, you have guys who have been to the Pro Bowl eight or nine times. You have guys who have won Super Bowls. You have guys that have a family and have to take care of kids. My rookie year I was 20 years old. What can I tell someone who has 14-16 years in the NFL? Only time can show that and only time reveals that.”
THE MATURATION PROCESS
Jackson would be the first to tell you that his time growing into his current role hasn’t been easy. He’d also quickly acknowledge that his learning process is far from over.
When the Rams drafted him with the 24th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Jackson came into a difficult situation. He was asked to follow in the Hall of Fame footsteps left behind by legendary back Marshall Faulk.
In addition to feeling his way through adjusting to the speed of the league, Jackson had to find a way to fit in off the field and develop a new level of work ethic that could propel him to success.
Jackson quickly latched on to the likes of Aeneas Williams, Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. That trio of potential Hall of Famers showed Jackson what it takes to become a great player on the field but an even better person off it.
“Seeing the locker room change over and seeing those unique guys, their work ethic, how they approach the game day in and day out not only on the field but off the field being men of integrity,” Jackson said. “I have allowed all of that to grow and the things I have learned from my household and blending all of that to where I’m at now.”
THE TELEPHONE GAME
Like any young player learning the ropes of his sudden celebrity and adjusting to a new city, Jackson had his hiccups along the way. In some sense, he became one of St. Louis’ most misunderstood athletes because of his tendency to occasionally speak out on topics beyond the X’s and O’s of football.
“It goes all the way back to communicating and that old game of telephone,” Jackson said. “I don’t want anyone else to mix up my words so I want them to come hear it for themselves.”
Coming off a breakthrough 2006 season in which Jackson led the league in yards from scrimmage and earned his first Pro Bowl berth, he set forth goals that would eclipse NFL records.
Because of some previous opinions, Jackson’s goals were misinterpreted as predictions. Jackson wasn’t saying he was going to reach those numbers; he simply had set them as numbers he’d like to reach.
“I know it may sound selfish but that’s just the amount of pressure I put on myself and it’s kind of what I take pride in when I train in the offseason,” Jackson said. “I train myself to be a franchise back. I think that has been lost in these days of the two-back offense. I think that Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, they all prided themselves on being an every down back that their franchises can depend on. I pride myself in the same way.”
Any damage that might have been done to the relationship between player and city has been remedied slowly but surely in recent years. Interestingly, Jackson’s affinity for technology has been instrumental in helping him connect with fans.
Jackson is a regular participant on Twitter (@sj39) and has built one of the most impressive athlete websites on the internet (sj39.com).
During the preseason, Jackson took the opportunity to really give fans an inside look at who he is by coming up with and executing “In the Life with Steven Jackson.”
The video series was based on Jackson’s love for the HBO show “24/7” in which an upcoming boxing match is profiled every week in depth. When all was said and done, it was a four-part series that gave fans a closer look at Jackson off the field.
“I think they had to get a feel for who I was and I had to get a feel for where they are coming from,” Jackson said. “I think the mutual respect is there now. I think they respect my opinion and I definitely respect theirs.”
THE PERFECT MIX
No matter where you go, whether it’s at the water cooler on Monday morning or at the local sports bar on a Sunday afternoon, people will eternally debate topics that have no real answer.
Questions like who is the best running back in the NFL or, on a more grandiose scale, who is the best running back in the history of the NFL?
Where one person might argue vehemently on behalf of Walter Payton, another might say Barry Sanders.
Were Jackson involved in the argument, he’d say nobody.
“When people ask me outside of myself who I like to watch, I tell them everybody,” Jackson said. “I am not biased. I don’t go by what the media says or who they try to tag as the best. There’s no such thing. I don’t think there’s a best because that’s someone’s opinion.”
Don’t mistake Jackson’s ambivalence toward those arguments as apathy about the game, though. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a player more aware and informed on the history of the game and the league than Jackson.
For as long as he can remember, Jackson has watched other running backs and tried to take bits and pieces of their game to incorporate into his. He has no favorite running back but enjoys watching everyone from Barry Sanders for his ability to make something out of nothing to Terry Allen for his ability to run with power despite his stature.
“You just try to take from everybody and just mix it all up,” Jackson said. “There are little things about different backs I admire and I try to put in my game.”
For all of Jackson’s knowledge of the game, he’s even more in tune with Rams history, particularly the legacy of Rams who have played his position.
Jackson recently passed Dick Bass to move into fourth on the team’s all time rushing list and he’s within striking distance of Lawrence McCutcheon for third.
“What I pride myself most on is I am a part of this organization because you have running backs from Dick Bass, Clutch, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, the list goes on and on,” Jackson said. “It’s just unbelievable. I don’t think too many franchises can say they have that much success at the running back position.”
Because of the violent nature of the running back position, Jackson is always looking for motivation to help him become a better player.
Jackson wasn’t the hottest commodity in the country coming out of high school. When he was drafted in the first round, Jackson was surprised he lasted as long as he did and even more surprised when Dallas passed on the opportunity to select him.
“I always put a chip on my shoulder not being considered the best but it also helped me realize that just because someone tags you as the best or not the best, doesn’t mean you’re not,” Jackson said. “I find refuge in knowing that you might be overlooked but it doesn’t mean you are not good.”
LEADING WITH THE HEART
By now, plenty of people have seen what Jackson is capable of on a football field. And even if they are slow to learn, they are quickly realizing that in terms of talent Jackson is perhaps the most versatile back in the league.
What they don’t see behind the scenes is the Jackson that is quick to purchase a piece of art that catches his eye. Or the Jackson that studies architecture and is designing his dream home in Las Vegas. Or the Jackson that can just as easily quote the Bible as he can the movie “Coming to America” or vividly recall a scene from one of his favorite Dan Brown books.
For as versatile as he is on the field, he is equally resourceful off it. He believes all of those things help him become a better leader.
At 26, Jackson is just now entering his prime as a player and he figures he has plenty of time to become a better player and continue to evolve in his leadership role.
In his first five-plus seasons in the NFL, Jackson has seen plenty of highs and lows. With each passing season, he’s done what he can to glean important lessons. The struggles of his team on the field have taught him more than anything about staying positive in the face of adversity.
Likewise, Jackson is still adapting to the idea of the proper techniques for leading.
“You have different leaders,” Jackson said. “Some are emotional, some are not. I am an emotional guy but I have learned that I need to tone that part of myself down. I have learned that although I might get fired up and that does something for me, it does something different for the team. If I get to yelling and trash talking that might take my level of play up but it might bring the level of the team down. I have been learning that I have to yield within myself. That’s still a learning process.
“You have to continue to work on your craft; you have to remain consistent even when everything around you is not consistent. That’s what I do day in and day out. That’s how I am treating the rest of my career. When the General manager and the head coach look at the team, I want them to say ‘39; we know we can get this out of him.’”
With so much football left in him, Jackson still has lofty goals. At the top of the list is playing in the Super Bowl, a team goal he knows won’t be easy to attain.
Jackson also aspires to be acknowledged by his peers by going to more Pro Bowls and to continue his ascent up the Rams’ record books in all rushing categories.
As for his legacy, Jackson would like to someday be a name that is brought up around those water coolers, in those sports bars and anywhere else the greatest running backs of all time discussion is being had.
“That is very contradictory but as much as I don’t think anyone’s the best, someone will always have an opinion and I want my name thrown around in that conversation,” Jackson said. “That’s all I can ask for.”
While that thought might be contradictory, it might also sum up the complex Jackson better than anything; football player, leader, son, reader, designer and plenty more all rolled into one.
And the only tie that binds them all is that he is constantly working to be the best…at all of them.
Re: Learn ing To Lead: The Evolution Of Steven Jackson
very interesting read..thanks for posting it Mike.
Re: Learning To Lead: The Evolution Of Steven Jackson
Very nice read. Up until this regular season started, I had my doubts about Steven. So far this year on the field and what has been written about his locker room leadership, he is stepping up and being a quality back as well as a veteran leader for the young kids on the team. It's too bad that he is mired in the mediocre talent level on this team.