For most people, a 30th birthday occasions some celebration.
For an NFL running back -- and there aren't many still playing at that relatively advanced year -- it's an indication of impending athletic mortality, an anniversary that comes perilously close to the expiration date. That's the common wisdom, at least. Teams tend to consider the 30-year-old running back as one who is approaching mandatory retirement.
Not so for Steven Jackson, of the Atlanta Falcons by way of the St. Louis Rams, where he labored for nine years through three owners, four general managers, six head coaches and 12 starting quarterbacks. I'll admit an unabashed admiration for Jackson. Not only did he turn 30 late last month, he reached that milestone while defying the conventions of the game.
The term "throwback" is a much-abused one. Still, Jackson reminds me of the backs I grew up watching in the 1970s, guys who seemed to dominate each installment of "This Week In Pro Football." He's never been part of a "committee." Nor is he a little guy. Rather, he's built like something that should be cast in iron and admired in a public square.
Big guys make big targets for opposing defenders, though. Think of Earl Campbell, who had his fifth and final 1,000-yard season at 28; he was done at 30.
Jackson, meanwhile, is going for his ninth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. By way of comparison, Shaun Alexander had five. Terrell Davis? Four. To me, the mere duration of Jackson's streak qualifies him as the most underappreciated player of this still-young century.
"If you ask the common fan, 'Who's a top-five running back?' they won't mention me," he says. "It doesn't bother me anymore."
That's what happens when you play through some very lean years in St. Louis. Then again, that perception might well change -- very fast. He has a chance to win -- big -- in Atlanta, where the PR staff was kind enough to let us set up the interviewing apparatus by a heavy bag at the Falcons' practice facility in Flowery Branch, Ga.
It's entirely appropriate that Steven Jackson is a big fight fan. He possesses that highest order of athletic virtues: a chin. In other words, he has the ability to take a shot -- and get back up.
"I run the way I do not because of fear," he says. "I just believe that sometimes, the fight could be over with one punch."
By "fight," he means "career." Steven Jackson knows full well that each carry, each reception could be his last.
He has 2,803 career touches. Of the 13 NFL players who had 2,800-plus touches over a span of nine seasons, seven are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The others -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Ricky Watters, Jerome Bettis, Eddie George and Edgerrin James -- comprise a veritable waiting list for the Hall.
I wonder if Jackson believes he belongs there, too.
Yes, he says. "In my heart."
Big heart, big chin. Consider all those touches, all those hits.
Taking them, he says, is "a craft. You really just focus on your breathing. You don't absorb the hit. Once you make contact, you blow out. You just roll with the punch and you breathe out."
Guy makes it sound like yoga. Still, I can't help but ask, who hit the hardest?
"Rookie year, Lawyer Milloy," he says without hesitation. "Felt like I swallowed my tongue."
Send Lawyer Milloy a birthday card -- postmarked "Flowery Branch."