Why Steven Jackson answered Patriots' call
The phone interview had to be brief, because the New England Patriots were preparing for a bus ride to the airport and a flight to Denver for Sunday's AFC championship game showdown with the Broncos.
But the tone of Steven Jackson's voice reflected excitement with the way the NFL gods have smiled upon him the past month.
"It's been really fun," said the former Oregon State All-American, who will start at tailback for the Patriots Sunday in the biggest game of his 12-year NFL career. "It's been pretty cool to be here and to able to enjoy the game and get another lens into the league."
Jackson's latest football odyssey began on Dec. 21, when he was in the midst of a meeting with partners in his St. Louis restaurant, Tani Sushi Bistro.
"We were going over our quarterly statement," Jackson said. "I got a phone call from the area code 617. I didn't recognize the number. I wasn't expecting anything important. I let it go to voice mail.
"Then my agent called and said Bill Belichick wanted to talk. He doesn't just call for no reason."
Jackson excused himself from the meeting and returned the call to the head coach of the Patriots, who had lost running backs LaGarrette Blount (hip) and Dion Lewis (knee) to season-ending injuries. Jackson, 32, had spent the year away from football following his release by Atlanta after the 2014 season.
Bellichick wanted to know what kind of shape Jackson was in, and if he had interest in joining the Patriots.
"We spoke for about 30 minutes," Jackson said. "We talked about what I had been doing throughout the season. I told him about my concerns about coming on this late in the season, that I hadn't played football for quite some time. I asked about what my role would be.
"It was a good conversation. It allowed me to be open and transparent with him, and him with me."
Before he hung up, Jackson told Belichick he was on board. Within 24 hours, the three-time Pro Bowl selection had agreed to a one-year contract at the veteran's minimum.
And suddenly, an elite player with only two playoff games under his belt -- during his rookie season with St. Louis, when he was the backup to Marshall Faulk -- was the newest Patriot.
The Patriots' offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, had served the same position in St. Louis in 2011 when Jackson was with the Rams, so there was some familiarity there.
Still, Jackson had mixed emotions. He had enjoyed a full and fruitful career.
In nine seasons with St. Louis and two with Atlanta, Jackson had amassed 11,388 career rushing yards -- 18th on the all-time NFL list -- along with 460 receptions for 3,663 yards. Only 14 players in NFL history have at least 10,000 yards rushing and 3,000 yards receiving. Jackson joined Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, Thurman Thomas, Emmitt Smith and Curtis Martin as the only players who have compiled eight straight 1,000-yard rushing campaigns. Jackson stands as the Rams' career rushing leader 10,138 yards, ahead of Faulk and Eric Dickerson.
But Jackson had never been on a team that won more than eight regular-season games. Was the chance to get to a Super Bowl the biggest reason to accept Bellichick's offer?
"Absolutely," Jackson said. "That was the ultimate reason, knowing I had a legitimate shot with this team."
When Jackson signed, New England had two regular-season games left, then a first-round bye in the postseason.
"That was in my favor," Jackson said. "Gave me a chance to get back into the swing of things. It allowed me four weeks to get ready for the playoffs, to feel more comfortable in my role with the team."
Jackson had reconciled himself to the idea that his playing career had ended. He spent much of the past year at his home in Las Vegas, Nev., visiting with family and friends. He also had more quality time with his two sons, ages 6 and 9, who live in St. Louis.
"I'd fully transitioning back into a civilian lifestyle," he said. "I also spend quite a bit of time on a trip to Central America. My travels gave me time to think about what I want to do next in life, to reflect on goals. I thought I had closed the chapter on my football career."
Jackson visited Corvallis several times, watched his alma mater play and became acquainted with new Oregon State coach Gary Andersen. Anderson had Jackson and another ex-Beaver running back great, Ken Simonton, address the team before the spring game.
"My first impressions of Coach Andersen have been great," Jackson said. "He's a high- energy guy who seems to understand how to handle young athletes. He has a real understanding of the school, and I think he'll be strong-suited for us in recruiting, which is going to be really important to get things accomplished, especially in the Pac-12 North."
Jackson also began work on fulfilling a promise to his mother that he would get his college degree. When he left OSU after his junior year -- ending with most valuable player honors in the Beavers' 55-14 rout of New Mexico in the 2003 Las Vegas Bowl -- Jackson was about a year and a half short of a degree in human development/family science.
"I took some online classes through Oregon State last winter and this past fall," he said. "I still have a year left, and I'm going to get that done."
But now it was back to football. Jackson played the final two regular-season games for New England, carrying 21 times for 50 yards and a TD. In the Patriots' 27-20 playoff victory over Kansas City, Jackson had six of his team's 14 carries, for 16 yards.
On Sunday, the 6-3, 240-pound veteran hopes to take on a more substantial role in the New England offense.
"I was in pretty good shape, but now I'm back to game shape," he said. "I've done extra conditioning, I've been able to participate in three games now, and I'm back acclimated to the routine."
Jackson said his experience with the Patriots has been positive.
"The professionalism in the organization is extraordinary," he said. "Everything is good." What would it be like if the Patriots advance to the Super Bowl?
"It would make accepting the phone call and the challenge given to me worthwhile," he said. "I'm hoping I'll be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. That's why I decided to put on the helmet again, to try to get that feeling."
Would Jackson like to continue playing beyond this season?
"We'll see how everything works out," he said. "I believe that will take care of itself. I'm a very patient man."