With bulgingmuscles forming a coat of body armor and a triumphant smile welded to his face,Steven Jackson looked every bit the conquering hero when he returned to his oldschool this off-season. A couple of months after concluding his breakout NFLcampaign with the St.¬†Louis Rams, Jackson strode the halls of Las Vegas'sEldorado High. He hugged former teachers and coaches, shook hands with thecustodians and ROTC recruiters, and posed gamely as the cellphone paparazziclicked away, memorializing the Pro Bowl running back in their midst. ¬∂ Jacksonwas there in part to give his version of the obligatory stay-in-schoolspeech.
"You can becool after class, but while you're here, take care of business," he told agroup of 50 football players. But first he endured an unexpected physicalassault. While passing through the school's weight room, he was spotted byplayers conducting an off-season workout session. "No way," yelped MikePearson, a senior linebacker. "Oh, my God, dude. It's Steven Jackson!"Pearson stopped mid-rep, approached Jackson and, giving new zest to the phrase"irrational exuberance," slapped him across the face.
This was noplayful love tap. Jackson's head rocked back, and his trademark braids cleavedthe air. Jackson's response was impressive. He kept smiling--surely behindclenched teeth--aware that the kid had simply gotten carried away. But theepisode was also notable for this reason: It marked the first time in recentmemory that Jackson had been stunned by physical contact.
A 6' 2",231-pound alloy of strength, speed and indefatigability, Jackson can stake acredible claim to being the best back in the NFL not named LaDainian Tomlinson.In 2006, his third NFL season, Jackson simply gorged on yards, registering1,528 on the ground and 806 on his 90¬†receptions. His total of 2,334 yardsfrom scrimmage was the fifth-highest in league history. Unlike his nimble Ramspredecessor Marshall Faulk--who didn't play a down for St.¬†Louis lastseason and formally retired in March--Jackson did most of his damage by simplylowering his shoulder and charging forward. If you ever doubted that forcereally does equal mass times acceleration, Jackson is the personification."When you have the football, you have the authority to do whatever you wanton the field; you can run through a guy, you can run around a guy, you canstiff-arm a guy," he says in a soft voice at odds with his strappingphysique. "But I notice that a lot of the time guys don't want to take meon straight ahead."
Perhaps mostimpressive is Jackson's durability. Some of his most prolific games--includinga 252-yard land grab in a win against Washington last Dec.¬†24--came latein the season. In fact he scored 10 of his 16¬†touchdowns in the Rams'final four games. "It was a give-him-the-ball-and-get-out-of-the-waysituation," says Rams coach Scott Linehan. "It got to the point wherewe needed to script plays for another back just so we didn't wear Stevenout."
As Jackson saw it,his breakthrough season was less a surprise than a logical result of hisgetting the ball. "I was groomed for this," he says. "It was just aquestion of having coaches who believed in me and gave me the touches. Withtouches comes yardage, with yardage comes success."
And his standardfor success is high. "There are some big names who've played running backin a Rams uniform, and I want to be right up there with them," he says."I'm targeting Jerome Bettis, and after I knock that out I'm going afterEric Dickerson, and then Marshall."
Though the Rams,who went 8-8 last season and missed the playoffs, have surrendered the title ofthe Greatest Show on Turf, the 24-year-old Jackson is unquestionably anascending star who may reclaim that nickname all by himself. "He was alwaysdying to be in this situation, [and] now this team is his," says wideoutTorry Holt, a veteran of the Rams' Super¬†Bowl teams. "It was excitingto play with a great back in Marshall and then right away with another inSteven. . . . But what I also like [about Jackson] is that he takes heed todirection, he works hard."
Jackson comportshimself much the same way he runs, barreling straight ahead, leaving the fancyfootwork and the artifice to others--a battering Ram, as it were, comingstraight at you. When he was buried behind Faulk during his first season, morefallback than fullback, the first-rounder out of Oregon State didn't exactlyconceal his frustration. Apart from calling his parents nearly everyday--"I never thought I'd be living in a dream and hate it!" he'd tellthem--Inaction Jackson moped around the Rams' complex.
He felt that Faulkwas being inaccurately portrayed as his mentor, and says that the two playerswho he feels took him under his wing were Holt and his fellow veteran wideoutIsaac Bruce. "In my opinion, he could have helped me out and hedidn't," Jackson says of Faulk, before adding, "[But] that's all behindus now. We're cool." (Told last week of Jackson's comments, Faulk laughedand disagreed that there was friction between the two, saying, "Ask anyonewho was in our meeting room, or the running backs coach [WilbertMontgomery].")
Broach the topicof politics--usually a conversational no-fly zone among athletes reluctant toalienate fans--and he's just as forthright. "I'm a Democrat," saysJackson, who finished Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope shortly beforethe start of training camp. "Other generations had protests and the civilrights movement. Now look around. It's not just that a young black man and awoman are running for president. Things like interracial dating have become away of life for us. We need to take notice that we're really evolving."
This blazingcandor isn't always well-received. Jackson is aware of the perception amongfans, for instance, that he lacked the proper reverence for Faulk. "Peoplethought it was the Keyshawn Johnson 'give me the damn ball' cliché, that I wasdemanding the same respect as a Hall of Famer," he says. "That wasn'tit. I just wanted to contribute." More generally, he's puzzled by thelarger implications of speaking his mind. "I know some people perceive meas cocky because I don't always say the 'right' thing. But to me, tellingpeople how you really feel, being yourself, talking to people in public thesame way you'd treat them behind closed doors, that's being respectful andhumble."
The source ofJackson's straightforward manner, his healthy self-confidence and his workethic is no great mystery. Jackson's father, Steve, served as a Marine inVietnam, where he was last stationed on guard duty near the South China Sea. Hereturned to Warren, Ark., in September 1970 and worked in a sawmill. InDecember, Steve and his wife, Brenda, headed west to Las Vegas, armed with $60and big dreams.
Steve tried hishand at gambling but soon realized, as he puts it, "I was on the wrong sideof the table." He found work as a porter at Caesars Palace, and when heretired 34¬†years later, he had risen through the ranks to become ahigh-level pit boss, even learning some Mandarin and Cantonese so he couldcommunicate with Pai Gow players. Brenda initially found work in housekeepingat the Hilton but spent more than 22 years there as a blackjack dealer. TheJacksons raised their kids--Rhonda, 37, Yolanda, 35, and Steven--in a quietneighborhood, with the usual middle-class trappings. Steven had a strictupbringing, and for most of it he was more aesthete than athlete, likelier todraw cartoons than play sports. (When he wasn't studying, that is. A NationalHonor Society member, he graduated from high school with a 3.8¬†GPA.) At16, however, he was blessed with a sudden growth spurt, and his designs onplaying Ivy League football gave way to bigger ambitions. He rejected overturesfrom the likes of Dartmouth, choosing instead to play at Oregon State. Inretrospect, he says, being a late football bloomer imbued him with the best ofboth worlds: big-time talent and grounded sensibilities. "My parentsallowed us to make our own decisions," he says, "but there was alwaysdiscipline, a real system of values."
Included in thesystem was an inherent distrust of easy money. Thanks to his combination ofgood looks, thoughtful demeanor and ascending stock, Jackson will appear innational ad campaigns for Pepsi, Nike and Fox Sports this season; but sufficeit to say his agents are unlikely to field their next endorsement offer from,say, the Bellagio. "Being from Las¬†Vegas, people always say, 'You mustlive in a casino,' " says Jackson. "I don't gamble. You might not knowthe first thing about a game, and the casinos are happy to let you put yourmoney down. My parents have horror stories of people losingeverything."
He does, however,appreciate the Vegas that exists beyond the Strip. He recently bought a home inthe Southern Highlands development, 15 minutes from his folks' place. Followinghis 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 oppressivedesert heat. "The harder I work in the spring and summer, the easiertraining camp is," he says. "I figure I'd rather beat myself up thanlet the coaches do it."
Sure enough, atRams two-a-days last week in Earth City, Mo., Jackson held up almostfrighteningly well. After the first session in the stifling Missouri summerheat, he walked off the field toward a clutch of fans and accommodated SharpieNation. Then, his body still pebbled with sweat, he headed to the team's poolfor a water exercise session (The Greatest Show in Surf?), where he worked onbuilding endurance and developing muscles that get overlooked in traditionalweightlifting. After a break, he returned for the second session on thepractice field a few hours later.
Why the relentlessconditioning? Jackson knows he faces the challenge that confronts all athleteswho 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 whoplummets after getting national attention." There's no guarantee, ofcourse, that he'll replicate last season's success, much less attain his avowedgoal of "putting up 2,500 yards on the way to the Super Bowl." But asone might expect from the son of casino workers, Jackson will do what he can totip the odds in his favor.
Ready for Battle
A gallery of the most intriguing training-camp positionbattles.
ONLY AT SI.COM
"Some people perceive me as COCKY because I don'tsay the 'right' thing," says Jackson. "But to me being yourself isbeing respectful."
Photograph by Dilip Vishwanat/AFP/Getty Images
Jackson's total of 2,334 yards from scrimmage last season ranks fifth alltime;his goal this year is 2,500 yards--and the Super Bowl.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
KEVIN TERRELL/WIREIMAGE.COM (TOP); JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
ROLE MODELS Holt (81) provided valuable NFL mentoring, while dad Steve kept his Vegas-born son on the straight and narrow.