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Even in slightly hushed tones, you could hear the pain in Steven Jackson's voice. It wasn't so much the aching back, which had kept him out of Sunday's 31-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and held him out of practice for the last three weeks. It was more the reminder of a conversation he had only four months ago, in which he expressed optimism that the St. Louis Rams were on the verge of stepping out of the abyss.
Now he thinks about it and his voice goes a little quiet – maybe the only thing about Jackson that has been stifled this season.
"I thought we'd definitely have more than one win," Jackson said, before taking a long pause to measure his words. "I knew it was going to be a trying year. I didn't think we were going to go out and go undefeated or anything. But I am a little disappointed just having one win on this year. But I feel like I've grown and matured so much more as a person and a player from the season."
He calls it his "season full of trials," and one need only look at the Rams' struggles this season to know the immensity of that understatement. But Tuesday should bring a small amount of vindication, with the NFL's Pro Bowl rosters set to be announced. Indeed, if Jackson's name is omitted, it would constitute one of the biggest injustices in the history of the voting process, which is split between coaches, players and fans – particularly considering what Jackson has endured.
After an offseason of regime change and an offensive line that was expected to be boosted by an infusion of young talent, St. Louis has repeatedly fallen flat. Indeed, the franchise has done more holding together than pulling together. But while the media and fans waited for the emotionally charged Jackson to go off a cliff, he has instead showcased remarkable poise. Not only has he carried the offense despite being brutally battered each week, he has held the line in the locker room. The coaching staff and front office told him when the season began that they were going to need him to be a leader through all the turmoil, and he rose up and delivered, both in his play and his solitude.
"We're dealing with a lot of young guys," said Jackson, who is second in the league behind the Tennessee Titans' Chris Johnson with 1,353 rushing yards. "I have been advised that you have to be even keel. You can't be emotional. People don't know how to read you [when you make emotional statements]. An emotional outlet for me, it might relieve some stress for me, and allow me to get some things off my chest, but it impacts other people around me differently. …
"I've learned to be even-keeled. I constantly talk to my father and my mother for guidance and leadership and how they would handle things. The things that have been taught to me in life, I'm actually applying them. When I do want to vent, I vent to them. I don't vent in the public and I don't vent in the media. It's just an open session of me saying the things I'd like to say, but behind closed doors."
That mindset, along with 1,675 yards from scrimmage, might make Jackson the most worthy Pro Bowler of this season. In spite of St. Louis' one win, a porous offensive line and a lackluster passing game, Jackson has been one of the league's most remarkable talents in 2009.
How remarkable? A defensive assistant who faced the Rams this year said Jackson took "maybe 70" accrued hits over the course of their game, and seemed to get stronger as the game wore on.
"Big [running backs] get tired late, because they will absorb a lot of punishment and it really takes it out of them. But his stamina was still way, way up there," the assistant said. "Adrian Peterson gets tired in games like that. You can see it where you get into that 50-hit territory. Muscular, heavy guys will slow down. They play a little softer. … We whacked Jackson all day, and [in film review] he just kept putting his forearm into guys' throats. He was still nasty."
With that punishment in mind, it's all the more impressive Jackson survived the first 14 games of the season, before his back forced him out of the lineup against Arizona. It's a testament to one of the most intense offseason workout regimens of his career, which included Olympic-style weight training. He entered training camp in the best playing shape of his career.
This week, it should deliver him to his second Pro Bowl, too. Not that he's taking it for granted after annually seeing players edged out in what often develops into a popularity contest.
"I don't like to think it's a surefire thing, because I do understand the circumstances," Jackson said, referring to St. Louis' lone win this season. "I know I am fighting an uphill battle."