The vicious predator was closing in, and Steven Jackson's heart felt like the bass drum in a Parliament-Funkadelic concert. The St. Louis Rams' Pro Bowl halfback was breathing so rapidly, he feared he might lose consciousness.
Jackson, the best player on the NFL's worst team in 2009, is used to bracing himself for fierce hits from All-Pro defenders like 49ers middle linebacker Patrick Willis(notes) and Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson(notes). This, however, was a different level of apprehension.
Last month in South Africa, during a trip that included World Cup watching and a perilous staredown with a wild elephant, Jackson and a friend went on a shark dive that could have served as a metaphor for the relentless runner's 2009 season – really, his past three seasons, during which the Rams have lost 42 of 48 games.
After boarding a boat near the Capetown coast at dawn, Jackson and his fellow passengers were transported to the aptly named Seal Island, where breaching great whites hunt with abandon. As the boat neared its destination, Jackson recalled earlier this week, "a giant shark jumped out of the water right next to us with its jaws wide open, like a scene out of National Geographic. I was like, 'Do I really want to do this?'"
Minutes later, Jackson and his friend were inside a cage with breathing hoses connected to oxygen tanks on the boat. The two of them were lowered 10 feet into the water and left there for 20 minutes.
"I was freaking out all the way down," Jackson said. "I had a lot of trouble with the air at first; I was breathing really fast and [screwing] up the oxygen tank. Eventually, by getting control of my breathing, I calmed myself down, but it was still pretty insane. Like I told my mom when I got back, the scariest part isn't when you first see the shark or when he eats the bait right in front of you – it's when he disappears into the murky water and you're like, 'Where the hell did he go?'"
The assaults Jackson faces on the football field are far more direct. A talented runner and receiver, he led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2006. He had another impressive season in '09, running for an NFC-best 1,416 yards in 15 games, the last five of which he played with a herniated disc in his back. The hard-running, 6-foot-2, 236-pounder practically willed St. Louis to its lone victory at Detroit in early November, carrying the ball 22 times for 149 yards, including a game-winning, 25-yard touchdown blast with 1:38 remaining.
Opponents consistently praised Jackson for continuing to play with intensity despite the Rams' glum circumstances. "I think a lot of guys knew I was fighting an uphill battle and respected my ability to go out and perform weekly," he said. "Every game, someone of stature from the other team would come up and say, 'I admire your effort.' It didn't get me any special consideration, but it was cool to hear."
Given the Rams' struggles at quarterback and receiver, and their ongoing offensive line issues, Jackson, who also had 51 receptions last season, was the obvious target of defenses. As he prepares to turn 27 next week, the six-year veteran worries that he has taken an inordinate share of punishment for a franchise that has been unable to replicate any of the Greatest Show On Turf sizzle that immediately preceded his arrival.
"I understand I'm taking a huge amount of abuse right now, but it's funny, I don't feel like my career's wasting away," Jackson said. "I find inspiration from [Chiefs running back] Thomas Jones(notes). To see him still putting up 1,400 yards rushing at 31 [for the Jets last season], that's tremendous. So I'm not in panic mode."
Besides, Jackson is no scatback – the man is built to last. "At least his body is big enough to endure it," says A.J. Feeley(notes), the Rams' newly signed veteran quarterback. "Most guys couldn't. He's an intimidating back for people to line up against in terms of size, strength and speed."
Still, there's no doubt Jackson feels a sense of urgency. Drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2004, he backed up future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk as a rookie when the 8-8 Rams reached the playoffs as a wild-card team. The team degenerated from there. Jackson has yet to experience a winning season as a pro, and last fall he resisted the temptation to ask for a trade, expressing his faith in first-year coach Steve Spagnuolo's leadership.
"I think our coach is a winner and has a great gameplan," Jackson said. "I just hope he has time to put it in place."
And if fear of losing his job compels Spagnuolo to start No. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford(notes) ahead of Feeley at quarterback, either at the beginning of the season or shortly thereafter, Jackson won't complain.
"It's kind of hard," he said. "I could see why they'd want to protect their $50 million investment and wait until the offensive line has jelled. But I'm going to be selfish right now, with me being in year seven. If he's the best guy, he needs to play now. I don't want to wait four years like the Packers did with Aaron Rodgers(notes). I don't know if he'll be the best guy, but if he is, I want him in there now."
Jackson has been impressed with the young quarterback's arm, mobility, intelligence and sociability but said, "I'm more interested to see him take a hit from a blitzing linebacker or safety – not only his [surgically repaired] shoulder, but to see how he reacts as a leader and as a quarterback."
It would help if the Rams could get some playmaking receivers into the mix, and Jackson is optimistic. "I think we're going to have a passing game again," he said. "We have two young receivers that have really impressed me – they're both rookie free agents."
And what are their names?
"Ummm … believe it or not, I don't know. I just know their numbers: No. 15 and No. 83."
"I haven't been on prime time in three years," Jackson said. "People were asking me in the spring, 'You know your schedule? Any Monday nights or Thursday nights?' I said, 'Yeah, I know my schedule – it's Sunday at 1 p.m. eastern. That's my [expletive] schedule!'"
The team's anonymity apparently extends to Africa – "I don't think people there know who the Rams are," Jackson said – but the awareness of American football exceeded his expectations. He was surprised how much he was recognized, "especially by women," during his memorable trip, which included visits to Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.
Jackson attended three World Cup games, including the U.S.'s dramatic comeback to earn a 2-2 draw with Slovenia. As for the apparent American game-winner that was disallowed on a controversial referee's whistle, Jackson said, "We were celebrating so hard, we didn't realize there was an offsides call till like three minutes later."
The shark dive wasn't his only excellent adventure, either. On safaris, Jackson saw lions, wild dogs and elephants, and he experienced his share of heart-thumping excitement.
"We were in a truck in the savannah in Botswana, and an elephant saw us and started flapping his ears and stomping his feet," Jackson said. "Our guide stopped the car immediately and said, 'We have to be very still. If we make a sudden noise he'll charge us.'
"He was about 10 yards away – three to four elephant strides – and I'm looking around thinking, 'If he rushes this truck, where am I gonna run to?' It was flat except for one tree, and the elephant went over and knocked it down. I was in trouble. I told the guide, 'He has no chance of catching me.' Eventually he walked away, and the guide said, 'He's just trying to prove a point.'"
Jackson knows the feeling – one carry at a time.