Rams camp report: Unbridled spirit keeps Jackson running

Aug 7th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

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EARTH CITY, Mo. — His talents seem hidden beneath the rubble that has been the St. Louis Rams the past three seasons, a gem buried deep underneath the trash pile.

Running back Steven Jackson ran for a career-best 1,416 yards last season, but few noticed. For one, Tennessee’s Chris Johnson ran for over 2,000 yards to lead the league and steal the spotlight, with Jackson finishing second in rushing. Then there’s the team record. Going 1-15 doesn’t exactly bring the national spotlight to anybody on a team’s roster.

The Rams still play football?

“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Jackson said. “I know people don’t notice me the way they do other guys. But as long as I have the respect of my peers, I’m OK with it.”

That’s why when veteran quarterbacks Brett Favre and Peyton Manning sought him out after games last season, it meant so much to Jackson.

Manning gave him a quick message for a great player struggling on a bad team:

Keep working and heading in the right direction, Manning told him.

“Him saying that was cool, a neat experience,” Jackson said.

Any acknowledgement is a good thing when you’ve been playing for a team that has won a total of six games in three seasons.

Jackson is truly the NFL’s hidden superstar.

That can beat down any player, the constant negativity that comes with losing each and every Sunday. Do you know how hard it is to attend Pro Bowls or go to Vegas and hang out with fellow NFL players and have to explain the losing?

Players can often be sympathetic to other players in the offseason. So I asked Jackson what the players from other teams say to him.

“That they want to trade for me,” he said.

You can forget that. With the Rams likely breaking in rookie quarterback Sam Bradford this season, an offense that was last in the NFL in scoring in 2009 will need Jackson more than ever.

There will once again be heavy doses of Jackson right and Jackson left on Sundays again.

The good news is he’s healthy. Jackson wasn’t close to that last season, although he only missed one game. Jackson played the final six games with a herniated disc in his lower back. Usually that would mean a star on a team out of the playoffs checking out. Not this one, even though Jackson said the pain was “excruciating” and he needed back surgery to fix the problem after the season.

“I only missed the Arizona game, but that day the sciatic nerve was unforgiving,” Jackson said. “I really had to tell myself it wasn’t smart for my career.”

The long season could have broken the man. But it never did. That impressed Rams coach Steve Spagnuola, who was in his first season with the team.

“Luckily for me, personally, he’s great at handling it,” Spagnuola said. “You want it to turn right away, but this process is a little bit slower than some of the other ones. He was terrific through all that. Steven is just a workhorse. He had a bad back, but the guy is a competitor who loves to play football. What would really get him [down] was right after the game. By the time Wednesday came, it was time to gear up and play. He’d just carry on and go.”

Jackson never pouted. He never showed up his teammates. He never complained.

That’s just not him.

It would have been easy for him to spike the ball down after being tackled for a short run. Or get frustrated when teams knew what play was coming again: The handoff to Jackson. When you’re the entire offense, it’s not hard to figure that out.

“Several times defenders called out plays,” Jackson said. “They knew what was coming. I get very frustrated at times, but in a way that no one every sees it. I’ve adopted the mindset that there are a lot of hard-working people in America going through real tough times. They don’t feel like their hard work is paying off. Maybe they can see that mine is and it can help them relate in a way. Plus if you show any frustration, you are defeated. I want the defensive players to know that my will is stronger than theirs.”

To help get him through all the losing, Jackson developed his own way to stay driven, which was to avoid looking at the scoreboard.

“I would look at down and distance and think about what I had to do,” Jackson said. “I played mental games with myself, a game within the game to keep myself sharp.”

He’ll probably have to do that again this season. The Rams might be a little better, but don’t expect much more than five victories at best. This is a team being built for the long haul, which is why getting Bradford was so important.

The only hitch there is when Bradford is ready to break out in a year or two, you have to wonder if Jackson will still be playing at a high level? Age wears on backs, even a well-conditioned runner like Jackson.

“I think we’re at a point where I don’t feel like anything else could go any worse,” Jackson said. “I am so determined to come out of this slump. I think it can actually happen around here. I don’t know if it’s my upbringing, believing in faith, believing in something I can’t see, but I truly believe all the work I’m putting in will get us to the playoffs.”

Now that’s true faith. He doesn’t lack for it, that’s for sure. Maybe that’s why on a trip to South Africa this summer, he decided to do a dive in a cage surrounded by Great White sharks.

That takes true faith, especially since he said he came face-to-face with an 18-foot Great White.

“I did it because if I didn’t do it I never would,” Jackson said. “They can’t get through the cage, but if they choose to ram it, it’s over with. I’m pretty sure the power, the force knock the cage loose and it would sink.”

The bottom of the ocean is far more dangerous than the bottom of the NFL, but that doesn’t mean Jackson isn’t yearning, craving actually, to rise from the depths of the league’s bottom.

“Other players tell me they’ve been there before and to keep my head up,” Jackson said. “But they really haven’t. They really don’t know.”

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