It is said that out of darkness will emerge light. How quickly that light emerges depends on whether you move with confidence or tiptoe through the shadows.
It’s a task that many would choose not to take on for enduring the pain that goes with it would be too much for just about anyone to bear.
Jackson has been called many things in his career but there’s one common nickname he’s been called that he never quite grasped until he took the time during the offseason to wrap his head around it.
“It’s funny I have been referred to as a beast for quite some time and I said, ‘You know, I am going to look it up. What does the word beast mean?’” Jackson said. “And to give you a quick synopsis of how I look at it and how I thought of it is ‘a mammal that bears the weight of something and transports it.’ I feel like I have been a beast because I bear the weight of some tough times around St. Louis and I have carried it from the days of glory to now hopefully to a new age and a new version of the days of glory. And I have been the particular, chosen one to feel like maybe he’s the one strong enough to bring us through the darkness back to a point where (quarterback) Sam (Bradford) and these younger guys will bring us back to glory.”
Bearing the weight of an entire franchise’s struggle is a burden Jackson has carried for all of his seven seasons in the NFL. On closer inspection, it’s clear that Jackson’s sacrifice has gone well beyond simply being a part of a losing team.
In fact, he’s one of the last of his kind in the NFL, a running back willing and capable of taking on a full load in a league that grown more specialized by the season.
The job of the single running back carrying the load is one thing; the job of the single player carrying the hopes of a franchise on his back is another. Jackson has done both.
It’s a job Jackson believes he was chosen for, a job he was selected for by powers greater than a general manager or head coach.
“I think it’s a divine job not for the organization but for me, myself because I never knew some of the strong characteristics and the things that I believe in were within me until I had to go through some tough times,” Jackson said.
A DYING BREED
With each passing NFL season, the league evolves and changes in ways that consistently alter the way players and positions are perceived.
Today, in 2011, the NFL is almost universally viewed as a quarterback’s league, a passing league in which running backs can be found and deployed in a variety of ways and you can win without having one guy handling the bulk of the work. Likewise, they can be dispatched without a second thought.
In a cyclical league, it remains to be seen whether the NFL will ever go back to the heyday of the superstar running back, the days when the likes of Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and Marcus Allen were the guys that made offenses go.
“Although it is a dying spot, a dying position to be a 300-plus carry guy year in and year out, I actually don’t look at it that way,” Jackson said. “I see the guys I looked up to in my childhood; you had guys a lot smaller than me carry the load and doing it for quite some time and being successful at it. I mimic myself after them. I wanted to be them when I was a child. The way I am playing out my career is everything I dreamed of and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The reasons for the decline in running backs such as Jackson or Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson handling a full workload every week vary depending on who you ask.
Some insist that it starts with the simple fact that in a league where defenders are getting bigger, stronger and faster, it’s hard to find a running back with the body to hold up over the course of a season.
Others believe that guys simply don’t have the desire to do it anymore and others think economics factor into it.
After teams like New England won three Super Bowls in the early part of the 2000s without a bell cow back, teams started to specialize their backfield with short yardage runners, pass catchers and pass blockers.
That specialization of the game has created even more reason to be proud of the final few guys who can do it.
“It’s a badge of honor for them,” Dickerson said. “It’s an honor they want you to carry the ball that much and be that guy and to me it’s bad when I don’t see that anymore. There are very few teams that do that anymore.”
McDaniels earned his reputation through advanced passing schemes with the varied multiple running back system complementing it. But he also never had a back like Jackson.
“I am just glad we’ve got the one that we have and he can do the things he does,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “I think we have to be careful that we don’t wear anyone out so we’ll try to be smart with that. People get into multiplicity, third down and all that. We’ll do it a little bit but we think we’ve got a guy that can always be a threat so we try to keep him in the game.”
A GRUESOME THING
Every Monday morning when a NFL player wakes up, he feels like he’s been in a car wreck. Nobody feels that pain more than a running back and none of them feel it more than a running back who has had 25 to 30 touches the day before.
It’s an unforgiving position that kills careers quicker than any other in the league. According to the NFL Players Association, the average NFL career is 3.3 years and running backs have the shortest stays at just 2.57 years.
“It is a gruesome thing,” Jackson said. “It’s painful just to pick up the cell phone and talk. Showers are painful. It’s a pain you don’t get used to. You just learn to tolerate.”
Few athletes in any sport take care of their body the way Jackson does. No matter how painful it is to get out of bed on Monday morning, Jackson peels himself out of the sheets as quickly as possible to begin attacking the recovery process.
After every game, Jackson bathes in a tub full of 20 bags of ice and sleeps in an oxygen-rich hyperbaric chamber to begin the healing before he even wakes up on Monday.
Upon waking up, Jackson does everything possible within the rules of the league to get back up to speed. Massages, visits to doctors and chiropractors, vitamins, supplements, whatever it takes.
In addition, Jackson has a strictly regimented and difficult workout plan he follows devoutly that has resulted in a sculpted 6’2, 240-pound frame which contains only about five percent body fat.
“I mean, what is it that Steven doesn’t have to make him that top caliber franchise running back?” center
It’s that mental approach, more than any work he does in a weight room or on a football field that allows Jackson to handle the constant pounding.
Jackson has what Dickerson calls the “will to be great.” While most players put in the work to be good, Jackson has something in his brain and heart that pushes him to go to a level beyond the norm.
As the most tenured Ram on the roster, Jackson probably could take time off in practice, maybe even sitting out Wednesdays. But as a team leader, he views it as his responsibility to show up and set an example for the young players even though he says he doesn’t feel ready to play again until Thursday night.
“The mental approach has got a lot to do with it too because when you carry the ball 20 plus times a game it takes you a while to get ready for the next game, to come back out and practice,” running backs coach Sylvester Croom said. “That’s one of the great things about him is he comes back to practice on Wednesday. I have coached guys that usually can’t do that.”
LAST MAN STANDING
Carrying the workload for a season, even two is a tough accomplishment in the league. And more than a handful of guys in the league today have accomplished that. That doesn’t mean they can handle it the way Jackson has.
“A running back’s career is pretty short – but can you be that guy for five, seven, eight years doing that job?” Dickerson said. “When I say doing that job, I don’t mean just catching the ball out of the backfield or carrying the ball 15 times. I mean, can you carry the ball 300 times a season for that many years? That’s what it comes down to.”
Jackson became the team’s full time starter in 2005 and since has been the unquestioned focal point of the Rams offense with defenses game planning to slow him down and routinely stacking the box with eight defenders all determined to stop him.
It hasn’t worked. Since 2006, Jackson leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage per game at 118.2. He also leads the league in touches with 1,755. For perspective, the next player on that list (LaDainian Tomlinson) is 118 touches (roughly four full games) behind Jackson.
Along the way, Jackson has set nearly every major Rams rushing record, including breaking Dickerson’s mark for rushing yards last season. This season, he is closing in on Marshall Faulk’s rushing touchdown list, trailing by just 11 scores.
Jackson believes the addition of Norwood and Williams will make him feel more comfortable if he does have to take a play off or if he does get injured enough to miss a game. But it doesn’t mean he’ll be looking to come off the field more consistently.
“When it’s all said and done, you can’t go back and do it over,” Dickerson said. “There are no do overs. When you are out of the league and you are my age at 50 years old, you look back at your career and wish you had worked a little bit harder or you wish you had done something a little bit different and then it’s over. When I look at Steven, I look at him as that guy that wants to be a great football player. When you say his name, you say ‘Oh, Steven Jackson? He was hard. He’s a great player, he played hard all the time, and he wasn’t soft. He brought it.’ That’s what I see in Steven.”
Like Dickerson, Jackson believes that eventually the cycle will turn back and running backs will again be the focal point of offenses around the league. For that to happen, though, Jackson is doing all he can to emphasize to young running backs the importance of developing a complete game that allows them to run, catch and block with equal aplomb.
Jackson has taken time to speak to young backs like Houston’s Arian Foster about the importance of being well rounded as a player and putting in the work to stay in shape and on the field to play every week.
“Any young guy that I feel has the hunger and the passion to be a franchise guy, a guy that wants to be a bell cow has to appreciate the importance of not only being gifted in three areas of being a running back but to take pride in it and then to do it because in the cycles of the game we play in, it will come back. But if we stop doing it, it will be looked at as a lost art,” Jackson said.
INTO THE LIGHT
The Rams’ turnaround in 2010 included a six-win improvement from the previous year. It didn’t meet the lofty goals the team sets for itself and it didn’t get them back to the playoffs for the first time since Jackson’s rookie season in 2004.
It did, however, give hope to a franchise and its fans that have been perpetually searching for the light at the end of the tunnel. It gave hope to a running back that all his work will not be for naught, that the daily grind it takes to handle the brutality of his position, the mental will required to learn the game and the heart necessary to lather, rinse and repeat week after week will pay off.
“I would’ve never given myself credit to do that if I never went through it,” Jackson said. “I think me in particular, as a player; I think I have shown what some guys who have probably won multiple championships have. I don’t think they could deal with the things I have dealt with. And I sure know I could deal with what they have dealt with.”
Jackson knows his job is not complete and he beams with pride when he looks at how far the team has come and talks glowingly about his teammates and the rising talent level of a group he believes is on the verge of big things.
In his eighth season, Jackson has no intention of slowing down. He says the game has slowed down for him and the mental part of the game is catching up to the physical part. He says the preseason game against Kansas City on Aug. 26 was as easy as the game has ever come to him.
Finding motivation is no problem for Jackson, either.
“Our organization, for quite some time, has been overlooked,” Jackson said. “I took that as a slap in the face. I’m saying ‘here I am, working hard.’ And I feel like I work just as hard as anyone else and I feel like I just kept getting overlooked. That put a huge chip on my shoulder. So when you see a 2-14, 1-15 season and you see the way I was running with a passion, it was not only a passion for the game, it was some hurt because here I am playing the game the way I feel it should be played and it’s not getting recognized. I wanted to dish out pain for my hurt.”
It’s a hurt that probably won’t leave Jackson anytime soon. But it’s what he’s gained from it that will eventually lead him and the team he loves so much into the light.