The helmet, pads and cleats have been replaced by dark jeans, a yellow button-down shirt and black dress shoes. Yet Steven Jackson still looks every bit as intimidating strolling through Town Square on a toasty late-spring day as he does running a counter-sweep on a Sunday afternoon in the fall. At 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 240 pounds, the man is scary big, and standing next to him it’s easy to understand why middle linebackers head straight for the ice tub after spending 60 minutes trying to tackle the 28-year-old St. Louis Rams running back.
Anyone who’s ever conversed with the Las Vegas native for five minutes, though, knows that off the field he’s a giant teddy bear. They also know that the guy who rushed for 6,396 yards and 81 touchdowns for Eldorado High School … who had back-to-back 1,500-yard-plus rushing seasons as a sophomore and junior at Oregon State … who has eclipsed Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson and Marshall Faulk on the Rams’ all-time rushing list (and is just 907 yards away from becoming the 27th player in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards) … is more than just a football player. Much more.
Many professional athletes would rather not be looked at as role models, but you seem to embrace it. Why?
Well, it’s one of those things where you’re going to be a role model whether you embrace it or not. So having been given this stage, I try and use it as a positive. …I don’t have to be the most popular person in the room, and I don’t assume that everyone should know me. But if there’s that one kid or that one fan that has an interaction with me that lasts a lifetime, I feel that’s my purpose in the universe.
The Steven Jackson Foundation focuses on literacy. Why did you go in that direction?
Well, we have one of the highest dropout rates in the country in Clark County. I saw how a lot of young people were deciding to give up on their education—and a lot of it is due to [extenuating] circumstances, like they might have to help be breadwinners in their households. But I just wanted to reemphasize to them that you can’t put a price on education, and although situations may come up, it’s better for you in the long run to stay in school, get your diploma and hopefully go off to [college]. I just felt an education was being devalued, and I want kids to know that here’s someone who came from the same public schools they’re going to, walked the same hallways, and I was successful. I graduated with a 3.8 GPA, so I was not only a great athlete, but also a good student. So contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be a dumb jock.
What are some of the ways your foundation is combating the problem?
I fund a lot of after-school programs and help build computer labs throughout the community, so these kids who may not have the resources to use a computer at home, they can go to these computer labs and use those. I help fund tutoring in those computer labs. And in August, we do a back-to-school program where we give out backpacks and notebooks and school supplies, so kids can have a fresh start on their school year.
You studied drafting at Vo-Tech, a local trade high school now known as Southeast Career Technical Academy, and you mentioned your GPA. Did school come easy for you?
It actually didn’t. I struggled in elementary school. I was very shy about reading out loud—anything that had to do with standing in front of the classroom, I was terrified of. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. But I was fortunate to have both my parents [at home] and they put me through summer-school programs, worked with me after school, and eventually I realized I do know the answers; I just have to believe in myself.
Why have you remained so loyal to Las Vegas?
When I was in high school, trying to be recruited, a lot of big-time universities just weren’t really giving [Las Vegas] credit for having talent. They thought the level of talent I was going against—even though I was a standout—was questionable. They didn’t know how good I was, and I took that personally. I wanted to create an open door for the younger generation of kids coming behind me so that they could get full-ride scholarships to top-notch programs and pursue their dreams, not only in sports but education as well. If someone like myself could just knock the door down and be successful at a high level, it would attract more people to give the area a second chance or maybe look a little deeper.
So have you seen an improvement in the perception of high school football here in recent years?
Absolutely. It’s amazing now when I watch college football, you’ll see them say, “a sophomore out of Las Vegas, Nevada.” Or you see someone like [Dallas Cowboys running back] DeMarco Murray. That’s cool.
You’re about to enter your ninth season as an NFL running back. How’s your body holding up?
Feels great. I take great pride in taking care of myself. I eat healthy, I try to make sure I get all my rest. You know, I understand as you get older, things are naturally going to just change; that’s just the way it goes. But I don’t feel like I’m slowing down anytime soon, and I plan on playing for a few more years. Whenever my body tells me that I need to stop, I’ll listen. But until then, I feel great.
What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit?
There’s no one true hit I’ve taken that was the hardest. The ones that hurt the most are when I’m fighting for extra yardage and I’m being held up, and then someone comes and cleans you off. But I’ve been fortunate to be a big guy, so more times than not [defenders] don’t want to see me coming. It’s definitely more fun to be the one delivering the blow!
How much does it hurt to get out of bed on a Monday morning in the fall?
A lot. Sometimes you just can’t get out of bed. Mondays are normally the day when you watch film from the game the day before, you lift weights and you stretch. But a lot of times I’m pretty much on what you’d call football bed rest—just icing, being stretched and massaged to try to get the kinks out and get ready for Wednesday’s practice.
Do fans have any clue about the type of punishment you guys take week to week?
I shot a documentary two years ago [In the Life] highlighting what we go through, and I think from that documentary a lot of fans [now] look at it from a different point of view. Before that documentary I don’t believe they did. Fantasy football made fans think we’re just like [the] video games.
Speaking of that web documentary, it received positive reviews. Do you have filmmaking aspirations?
I do. I want to be behind the camera, more of a director/producer kind of role. But I love the art of storytelling, and I love being able to once again kind of use that [celebrity] stage to tell stories and influence or motivate people to do things.
The NFL is clearly trying to address the concussion issue. Are they doing enough?
They’re on the right path, but there’s always more that can be done. I believe they want to clean up the sport, and they’re doing that with the way they’re ruling on hits. But it comes with technology. We’ve got to continue to study, continue to put money into it, so that we can come up with a safe helmet that can help minimize these kinds of issues.
There’s a fine line, isn’t there, because you can’t take all the physicality out of football?
You take too much physical-ness out of football and you lose why we love football as Americans.
Have you had concussions?
I have not. I mean, I’ve had small ones, but nothing that’s taken me out of the game or prevented me from playing in another game. So, yes, I’ve had concussions, but none that were serious.
What was your reaction when you heard Junior Seau committed suicide? Do you worry about your post-career health, both mental and physical?
Knock on wood, I haven’t had any serious injuries that would make me rethink if I’m going to be ailing from something when I retire. But once I heard about Junior’s death, I was definitely taken aback. I was hurt. Growing up, I was a huge fan of his. So I was deeply hurt and saddened and shocked—very shocked—that someone who had such a great career, his life would come to an end like that. Now you do kind of wonder, “When I retire, will I have these issues? And if I do, do we have a support group to help us out with it?” I hope the NFL or the NFLPA comes up with some kind of support group as we transition.
You’re about to head off to training camp. What’s one thing about the experience that the average NFL doesn’t know?
We literally put in 15-, 16-hour days, daily. Training camp is seven days a week, and it’s for a month straight. It’s very grueling on the body, but it’s needed to get your body into football shape, get ready for the wear and tear and pounding of the season, and to allow coaches to evaluate the talent and see who can last.
Is there anything fun about training camp?
Only the jokes and pranks that go on in the locker room! And sleep—and that goes too fast.
Who’s the best running back in NFL history?
I’m a huge Walter Payton fan. I think each generation provides a great running back—like in the 1990s, you could argue between Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. So it’s really hard to pick one. It’s more about what kind of style of play does a person like in a running back? For me, Walter Payton did it. I’m not old enough to have watched him play, but I still emulated him. I wore No. 34 in high school and Pop Warner because of him. My dad loved the sport, so we’d watch old film, and that’s how I became a big fan of Walter Payton.
Who should be the first running back drafted in fantasy football this year?
Me. And the reason I say that is I believe that is because Coach Schottenheimer [new Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] and Coach Fisher [new Rams head coach Jeff Fisher], they’re very run-first kind of coaches. They’re dedicated to it. They believe in a good defense and a good running game. What we’re doing and what we’re building here in the spring and summer is going to make for a wonderful fall for me.
You’re known for taking some pretty wild adventures, including shark diving in South Africa. Is that the craziest thing you’ve done?
That’s the craziest. I’m definitely a thrill-seeker. I love to travel, and when I’m traveling I love to see the sights and sounds of the culture, I try the food. This year I hiked Machu Picchu in Peru, and that was an amazing experience. Once you get to the top, it’s breathtaking.
I mean, I watch the Travel Channel more than I do ESPN. That’s just my thing. My next adventure, I’m not quite sure what it’ll be, but each offseason I try to find something new to do, try to push myself and try to erase fears. I believe fears are in the head.
Do you ever worry about your wild offseason adventures compromising your career? Most guys wait to do this stuff until after they’ve taken their jerseys off.
Yeah, they do. But I don’t think about it. I’m one of those people who believes if something’s meant to be, it’ll happen. You see in the offseason guys getting hurt playing basketball. I probably drive the Rams crazy, but it’s my thing, and I love to do it.
What’s the craziest thing you haven’t done but want to try?
Skydiving. But I’m definitely going to wait until after I retire to do that—I’m pretty sure that’s in the contract! But I have a fear of heights, and I believe that’ll help me get over that fear.
Do any teammates or opposing players still give you an odd look when you tell them you’re from Vegas?
No one believes it. Everyone thinks I decided to move here after becoming a professional. But once they do realize I’m actually from here, then everyone wants hookups. They want me to be their own personal tour guide. So I find myself hosting a lot of weekends, but I try to take them off the beaten path on occasion.
Have you given much thought to retirement, and do you have an exit plan for life after football?
I have thought about retirement. I thought about it maybe four or five years ago. Then I realized the reason I wanted to retire wasn’t because the passion for the game left me, it was other circumstances. So that’s what made me decide to continue with my career. And I’m happy I did. I do have an exit strategy when I retire. I will be residing in Las Vegas, and life after football will include everything from real estate to writing and being an author, and continuing to just be a positive person in the community and helping these young people.
Do you plan on settling in Las Vegas after you retire?
That’s a no-brainer—not even up for discussion. I might even run for mayor one day!
What’s the last book you read?
Steve Jobs, the book about his life [by Walter Isaacson]. It was a great read. The one thing I’ve realized about all successful people is … you think they all had a plan, when a lot of times they’re just feeling things out as they’re going. They knew they wanted to change the world, and they had some idea how they wanted to do it, they just didn’t have an A-to-Z plan. They just felt their way through it, and that’s what’s quite amazing. Sometimes I get caught [thinking about] what I want to do next, how do I get there, and I always write it down, and it never goes to plan. But … I just try to learn how to enjoy the ride, the ups and downs. And that’s what I try to explain when I talk to young kids at school: You’re going to have ups and downs. You’ve got to embrace the downs so you can enjoy the ups.
What’s one of your hobbies fans don’t know about?
I’m huge into the arts. I love art, I collect art, I sketch. I want to learn how to paint. I enjoy all type of arts—I even go to plays and operas. I was in Sydney last year and actually had a chance to go to the Opera House. I remember my tour guide said to me, “I never thought I’d ever see a football player at an opera.”
What’s the one number in your cellphone people would be surprised to know you have?
I hate to say this on the record, but … Denzel Washington. He’s like another father to me. I’m best friends with his oldest son, who played with the Rams for two seasons on our practice squad. Great family. I don’t abuse the number—but I have it!