I've been an NFL fan for quite some time now, and there's only one undeniable, inevitable thing that happens. The players we watch, cheer - and even emulate when we're young - leave us. While some retire, others move on to other teams. It's just the way of the NFL world, and it never gets easier for the fans. The thing is, there's something natural about the process which helps displace any feelings of abandonment. When a player like Steven Jackson made his move to the Atlanta Falcons, it only took me a few seconds to stop grinding my teeth. There are certain players who cast such an amazing light when the play the game of football. The special ones, like Johnny Unitas, Deacon Jones, Walter Payton, Joe Montana, and the hundreds of great players who fill the National Football League's Hall of Fame, have cast a permanent aura on the game. New players who come into the league are measured against them or compared. Ask anyone whose job it is to take the place of a iconic player that's left, as they try to fill their golden shoes. Ask them what it's like to hear fans say, "He's good, but he's no ______ ." You can fill in the blank, and if you're honest, you know you've done this once or twice yourself when a favored player leaves your team. The player who replaces "the guy" on any team is in for a long hard slog to earn the fan's respect.
Steven Jackson had a tough time breaking through to St. Louis Rams fans after Marshall Faulk left the team. He replaced a guaranteed Hall of Famer, who may be the best "all-purpose" running back in NFL history. Who he replaced wasn't his only challenge. When he was taken in the first round of the 2004 NFL Draft, he had no idea his new team was about to slink into the lowest ranks of NFL teams for close to a decade. The Rams and their fans were still living in the afterglow of the "Greatest Show On Turf". Before Jackson's eye, teammates disappeared and head coaches flew in one window before being thrown back out head first. The team's front office had a revolving door that threw failed general managers out as fast as they came in. Draft picks by the Rams during this time were heavier on "miss" than "hit". First round picks for the Rams were just this side of a joke, let alone those taken in later rounds. The team's ownership changed, but not soon enough to matter for Jackson.
I often wonder what it was like for Jackson. A near shoe-in for the Hall of Fame himself, he's a consummate competitor. What was it like before each season began over the last nine years? How hard was it for him to say "We're going to turn this thing around this season", only to see his team wallow in losses. Yet, each and every year, #39 strapped on his helmet, and charged onto the field like he was playing in the Super Bowl. Giving all he had on every play, he held his head high, and inspired those around him to never give up.
You all know his statistics as a player, so forgive me for not restating them here. To me, they really don't measure this incredible man, player and teammate. If you doubled his stats, it would be nothing compared to what he's meant to the St. Louis Rams on so many levels. Jackson wasn't just the heart and soul of the Rams, he was the blood coursing through its veins, and everything else too. While there were a few good players for the Rams during Jackson's time, the only player every opponent knew they had to pay attention to was #39. The 6'2", 240 lbs running back punished opposing defenses. His unique skill set - a combination of power and speed - made him a undeniable force on the football field. Jackson's intellect may have been his greatest asset. A student of the game, you'd never even begin to think Jackson wasn't the most prepared Rams player every Sunday.
I'll remember March 14th, 2013 for the rest of my life. It's the day Steven Jackson left the Rams for the Atlanta Falcons in the hopes of a chance to play in a Super Bowl. That he's chasing a dream is OK with me. He's earned the right. No one can accuse Jackson of quitting on the Rams, and the team didn't quit on him either. This may be one of the most unique "free agent moving to another team" moments you will ever see. There won't be acrimony, or calls of greed for a bigger pay day. Go look in comment threads on any sports site in the world, and you won't find a Rams fan begrudging Steven Jackson his chance to achieve his personal goal of winning a championship. It's just not going to happen. My, my... Rams fans know how lucky they are to have had a player like Jackson, who has gained so much respect and admiration from fans and teammates alike.
Steven Jackson has earned the thanks of every Rams fan, and I hope when he retires he'll return to the team he started his NFL career with, and take one last bow before his throngs of admirers. On that day, in whatever stadium housing the Rams, we'll get one last chance to view a part of our souls - the part that showed us courage, honor, and a love for the game of football. It will be a special day, and I hope I can be there...