Steven Jackson sat in the living room of his suburban St. Louis home Tuesday night, waiting impatiently for history to hit him over the head and wondering what the two people who raised him must be thinking.
The St. Louis Rams' star running back had insisted that his parents, Steve and Brenda, extend their visit from Las Vegas so that they could spend election night with him and his girlfriend, Supriya Harris.
"Just looking at them as it all unfolded, as the wall came crumbling down," Jackson says, "I almost started crying."
For Jackson and so many other NFL players, Barack Obama's ascendance to the U.S. presidency was a landmark moment they never saw coming as kids. For people of his parents' generation and background, it took on a different level of incomprehensibility.
"They grew up in a small town in Arkansas," Jackson marvels. "They went to segregated schools their whole lives. For them to experience that moment was just really, really special, and I wanted to make sure we shared it."
If you still subscribe to the stereotype that professional athletes are so self-centered and oblivious that they avoid politics like drug tests – well, that's as outdated as the notion that a biracial man can't get elected to the highest office in the land.
Consider that Minnesota Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte called me Tuesday evening after getting off a flight from St. Louis to Minneapolis, frantically seeking updated electoral-vote tallies, or that Cincinnati Bengals wideout Chad Johnson and Denver Broncos wideout Brandon Marshall each planned touchdown celebrations (both of which ended up getting aborted) in support of Obama.
At the Rams' training facility, which is hardly unique, players were engaged and argumentative in the months leading up to the election, paying as much attention to issues like health-care reform as they did, say, luxury-car customization.
"In the morning, we keep all our [locker-room, training-room and weight-room] TVs on CNN," Jackson says. "We definitely argue back and forth, and the main issue is always taxes. It pisses me off because we have so many issues facing this country, and the guys who supported McCain seemed to only care about that one thing. Even a couple of the [African-American players] on the team said they would vote for McCain, and it was all because of money."
As Jackson's comments suggest, he is a staunch Democrat who supported Obama's candidacy based on policy. Yet there's no debate that for him and so many other African-American NFL players, the election's obvious social significance triggered a new level of enthusiasm.
Again, that goes back to Steve and Brenda, whose outlooks were shaped by their experiences growing up in Warren, Ark., population 6,752.
Jackson has plenty of reasons to smiles.
(Getty Images/Stephen Dunn)
Steve, who joined the U.S. Marines at 20 to serve in Vietnam, recalled during a conversation we had last year: "I worked in the saw mill. I hauled puffed wood. I picked cotton, picked tomatoes, hauled hay. I'd be out there without a shirt, loading trees onto trucks, and it was so hot. It was hard work."
Brenda worked at the Georgia Pacific paper mill and as a Wal-Mart clerk before she and Steve decided to move to Las Vegas – with $60 in their pocket. They each found jobs at casinos, with Brenda eventually becoming a blackjack dealer and Steve working as a pit manager at Caesar's Palace. As a boy, Steven learned to count by playing blackjack at home with jellybeans, though his parents successfully scared him away from gambling by relating the horror stories they regularly encountered on the floor.
"My mom always told us, 'Follow your heart and work hard, and you can do what you want to do in life,' " Steven says. "But even so, there were just some positions that we felt like a black man could never hold. When I first started playing football, my dream was to play quarterback. But my dad would explain to me that the NFL wasn't ready for a black quarterback – about the struggles that Doug Williams and Warren Moon had to go through, and how it was a much tougher path."
Jackson, who has a 2-year-old son, says people frequently ask, "Is he going to play football when he grows up?"
His answer: "No, he's going to own a team. I want so much more for him than to get his body beat up week in and week out. Right now there are no African-American owners, but I'm hoping that in the years to come we can break that barrier, too. We don't always want to be the employee. We want to be the ones making the big-time decisions and running the corporation."
Jackson, who in August signed a lucrative contract extension that could be worth up to $49.3 million over five years, has been banged up for much of this season – one in which the Rams (2-6) have gotten off to a horrible start for the second consecutive year. (Limited by a thigh injury in last Sunday's defeat to the Arizona Cardinals, he missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game at the New York Jets. He posts regular updates on his website .
But nearly as important as his health was the election. Steven's older sister, Rhonda, worked on the Illinois Senator's campaign in Nevada for more than a year and a half, and got Obama to autograph a copy of his 2006 book, The Audacity Of Hope, which Steven has sitting on his dresser. Over the summer, Steven visited the future president's Las Vegas campaign headquarters to fire up the workers, and attended several campaign rallies.
Late last month, Jackson became emotional as he checked off Obama's name on an absentee ballot.
"It was my first time voting," he says. "In '04, I was just like everybody else – I didn't think my vote would matter, and I was suspicious of the system, especially after what had happened in Florida in 2000."
On election night, Jackson nervously watched the returns, becoming increasingly emotional as he realized that Obama was likely to prevail. As the polls closed in California and CNN projected Obama as the winner of the election, there were hugs and screams in Jackson's living room, and tears and champagne flowed freely.
"The women were crying, and my dad was just speechless," Jackson says. "I was clapping as loud as if I was in the crowd in Chicago. My mom said, 'Son, you are witnessing history. The rest of your life, you'll always remember where you were and what you were thinking at this moment, so take it all in. This is like what we experienced with JFK and Martin Luther King. It's one of the bookmarks of your life.' "
On his way to work the next morning, Jackson stopped at a convenience store to buy a newspaper that he plans to save forever. He thought about Steve and Brenda – where they'd come from, all they'd seen – and remembered the mesmerized looks on their faces the previous night as Obama gave his speech in Grant Park.
"I knew that one day, as grandparents, they'd be relating that moment to my kids," Jackson says. "And I knew that I'd be doing the same for my grandkids. I know he's not going to be able to accomplish everything he's setting out to do, but I have high hopes, and just seeing him up there lays everything to rest. Now we can legitimately say, as a race, that all our dreams are possible."
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Sage will be all the rage at Reliant Stadium as the Texans air it out in a victory over the Ravens. … The Bills will snap out of their recent trance and upset the Patriots in Foxborough. … The Colts, as usual, will show lots of heart, but that won't be enough to overcome the Steelers at Heinz Field, no matter who plays quarterback.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
Like James Taylor, I'm going to "Carolina In My Mind" – to check out the 7-2 Panthers, one of the '08 season's pleasant surprises thus far. But because John Fox's team plays in Oakland Sunday, I'll be going to the Coliseum in my car. If nothing else, I'm curious to see which high-priced Raiders player might get cut … at halftime.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. The college students who spontaneously gathered outside the White House on Tuesday night to celebrate President-elect Obama's victory were drowned out by a larger, more raucous group of Terrible Towel-waving Steelers fans.
2. Less than a week after being fired by the Patriots for appearing in an ethnically insensitive Facebook photo, former cheerleader Caitlin Davis was hired by ever-enlightened Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi as a special foreign-relations emissary.
3. After learning that Bills fans Alicia Venneman and Jeramy Kemper were arrested for having too much fun in a Ralph Wilson Stadium ladies room during last Sunday's game, halfback Marshawn Lynch presented the couple with an autographed football because, he said, "I sympathize with anyone accused of hit-and-run."
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Phoenix Suns GM Steve Kerr went out in an inglorious blaze, watching in horror as the Jaguars missed the two-point conversion that could've forced overtime with previously winless Cincinnati. And, upon the official conclusion of his three-week run, he blamed me for having sent a confusing text message that inadvertently compelled him to change his pick from the Giants (who crushed the Cowboys) to Jacksonville. "This is all YOUR fault," Kerr said. I plead no contest – which is exactly what this week's pick (Chargers over Chiefs at home) should be. Our new prognosticator, rap legend Luke Campbell, did some careful political analysis before selecting San Diego. "The Chargers just changed defensive coordinators [from Ted Cottrell to Ron Rivera]," the former 2 Live Crew front man explains. "Things got so bad that Rivera has to come in and clean up a giant mess – just like Obama. I think both will be successful."
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
"This is the biggest story in sports right now," my buddy Malibu boasted last Tuesday. "You may want to move this to the top of your column, because what Hand of Doom accomplished this weekend was truly amazing." I told Malibu I appreciated his editorial advice but would not follow it, saying, "What do I look like – one of your beefcake actor friends?" He didn't hear me; he was too busy talking about Hand of Doom's stunning upset over previously undefeated You Are A Jerk. "And I did it with just about all of my important players (Drew Brees, LaDainian Tomlinson, Marques Colston, Chris Chambers) on a bye week," he boasted. "I did it while playing Antonio Gates at tight end even though he had a bye because I didn't want to have to cut him." He did it thanks to big days from running backs Tim Hightower and Kevin Faulk and quarterback Matt Ryan – and because some of You Are A Jerk's better players (Steven Jackson, Plaxico Burress, Santana Moss) had off weeks. Now tied for third in his Sex, Drugs and Fantasy Football league with a 6-3 record, Malibu gets his horses back for what looks like a mismatch with The Fever Dog (JaMarcus Russell, Willie Parker, Leon Washington, Kevin Walter, Andre Johnson, Muhsin Muhammad). I advised him to play Ryan (vs. Saints) instead of Garrard (at Lions); to pick up Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers (vs. 49ers) and the Panthers' defense (at Raiders) for this week; and to put in a waiver claim on the suddenly available Darren McFadden (just got fitted with new shoes in an attempt to alleviate his turf-toe issues) for the playoff push.
As for UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb, she followed up a resounding fantasy victory (86-44 over The NoYokoRomo Tank) by winning her first game on the Gauchos' bench last Wednesday. UCSB actually trailed Westmont College at halftime of the exhibition, and Gottlieb jokes, "I thought about pulling a Singletary, but I decided I'd stay clothed and make some adjustments." Now tied for fourth in her league with a 5-4 record, Gottlieb has what looks to be a daunting battle with 4-5 Jabba The Hut, the team managed by Princeton assistant and former Stanford star Milena Flores. Jabba's roster includes Jay Cutler and Kellen Winslow, each of whom lit it up in Thursday night's Broncos-Browns game, as well as Hightower, Michael Turner and Greg Jennings. Gottlieb is choosing Aaron Rodgers over Gus Frerotte in their head-to-head showdown and hoping for big games from Steve Breaston and Tony Gonzalez. (She also picked up Rackers and stuck with the Jags' defense, which faces the Lions.)
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Am I the only dubious dad who has been trying to fend off a reinvigorated push to bring a new puppy into the household since last Tuesday night? Just wondering.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Well, you know what for – change … and history. Among those being toasted as the high-end tequila flowed liberally at my house Tuesday night was 88-year-old Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who after eight long years of hanging on is free at last. I'm also ordering a round of Shirley Temples for my son's soccer teammate, Jacob Sherwood, whose awesome arm and leg propelled him to second place last Sunday in the 8- and 9-year-old division of the regional Punt, Pass and Kick competition in Oakland and included an Oakland Coliseum appearance before the Raiders-Falcons game. (And no, Al Davis didn't offer him a multiyear contract.)
THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
Congratulations to my old college classmate and friend, Kevin Johnson, for becoming Sacramento's first African-American mayor. I expect him to attack his new job the way he blew past opposing defenders during a decade of NBA brilliance, and for his first act I suggest the following: Convincing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to draft a joint resolution that on Saturday at the L.A. Coliseum, the Golden Bears overcome their status as three-touchdown underdogs to defeat the USC Trojans and improve their Pac-10 record to 5-1. It won't be easy, but hey, this is a year of change.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
It was a huge week for Reading, beginning with last Saturday's 4-1 destruction of Bristol City at Ashton Gate and continuing with Thursday's news that leading scorer Kevin Doyle has signed a contract extension through June 2011. Doyle, who tallied the first and third goals in the Bristol City match, has 11 in 15 Football League Championship games, tying him for the division lead. The 25-year-old striker said he and the club agreed to the new pact to squash speculation that he'd be moved in the upcoming January transfer window and that he was determined to help the Royals fight their way back up to the Premier League. At this point that looks like a legitimate possibility. Heading into Saturday's game at Derby County, another team that got relegated from the Premier League after last season, Reading is fourth in the League Championship table with 27 points, seven behind first-place Wolves (a team the Royals defeated 3-0 in late September).
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL): "And I quote a recent ATM: 'The Packers will play their best game of the season and take the Titans down to the wire before losing, instilling hope for the second half … 'The Packers led in total yards, passing yards and time of possession, literally taking the Titans to the wire only to lose in overtime. While it may not have been their 'best' game of the season, how in the @#$* do you do that?"
Three words: Psychic Friends Hotline. Or is it four words: Psychic Friends Hot Line? Wait, shouldn't I have already known that this question was coming?
"Dude just stop being a Homer. Green Bay sucks and you credibility is in question when you can't let it go. If you want to be taken seriously be more credible. You are a joke right now good thing you don't have children otherwise your kids would be a product of stupidity."
Well, James, as it turns out I have three children, each of whom seems to view me as credible (so far). Then again, I tell my kids things like, "If you disagree with a columnist's opinion about how good a team is, take a few deep breaths and remember that it is not an attack on your own self-worth." Radical, I know, but it seems to work for our family.
"You have alot of nerve ranking the Cowboys higher than the Jets … the Jets killed the Cardinals, have a better record and have wins on the road at Miami and Buffalo … Do you watch football? W/o that pathetic win against Tampa (13- 9), the Cowboys would have a four-game losing streak. I truly question your judgment!"
Staten Island, NY
The Jets lost to New England, San Diego and Oakland. Yes, Oakland. they have a lot of nerve.
"Are you serious I know raiders ain't playing to their potential and yes Al has to go but to rank them behind the Chiefs and others we beat your â€˜almightyâ€™ brett farve you (expletive)"
Dude, the Raiders had three first downs last week. That's not even one per quarter. They're lucky they even got a number …
"Michael I always enjoy reading your columns. However, for some reason this week you omitted team 29. Is that team Seattle and are they 29th? I can see why you might have forgotten them, as most fans would probably like to do the same."
Sorry, I wasn't sleeping on Seattle: A coding issue was responsible for the Seahawks' question being temporarily misplaced (at the end of the Bengals' question, which is a good hiding place if you're trying not to be discovered). Now, if I would've ingested a bit more of that famous Seattle coffee, it might have spared you a couple of other grammatical calamities …
" 'I'm not to proud to admit that more than two months later, I still don't have it all figured out.' Hey Mike – you're missing an 'o' in there … kind of like the Redskins this past Monday night."
Clifton Park, N.Y.
Now my pride is truly taking a (deserved) beating …
"You're my favorite sportswriter, but it creeped me out when the phrase 'The Ravens (5-3) creeped to within half a game … ' crept into view …"
All I can tell you is that I hadn't "sleeped" enough while writing Morning Rush the previous night – and, evidently, I slept on my responsibilities.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Back in 1995, rapper Tupac Shakur included lyrics in his posthumous hit "Changes" that were typically incisive: "And although it seems heaven sent/We ain't ready to see a black President." A decade later things had progressed enough that rocker Neil Young could see change on the horizon. I wish Tupac could have been with us to experience history on Tuesday night, and I can't imagine what brilliance would've poured out of his lips as a result. The best I can do is offer him a hypothetical serenade by a chorus made up of the NFL community's many Obama-backers – from Steelers owner Dan Rooney to Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb – with his classic "Dear Mama" as divine inspiration.
When he was young he and his mama had beef
Woke him up at 4 a.m., made him read
Took him back to Hawaii, he was a child of mixed race
Went to kick it in Chi-town, when MJ owned the place
Harvard Law Review, and still he came home, the dude stayed true
To his people and his core values
We shed tears when he got elected
Cause it appears that racism has been rejected
And even though McCain campaigned hard, the same drama
For Reverend Wright, they'd blame Obama
They tried to diss, called him socialist – talkin' smack
Watchin' Joe The Plumber with his plumber's crack
And who'da thunk in the '90s
O.J.! We'd have a brother in the White House, one day?
And a sister first lady, that's right
And a puppy lickin' everybody's face at night
And though his name rhymes with Osama
He's President-elect Obama
He finally understands
The BCS is no way to pick a champion
Gonna party in Corvallis
Cause Coach Robinson is gonna bring in some real talent
There's no way Tupac can come back
But his fans wish that somehow he could meet the man
Who'll be inaugurated
Don't cha know this country's amazing
Hoopin' on Election Day? Crazy
He'll be inaugurated
Forty years since MLK