The two hardest decisions about dreadlocks are trying not to cut them right after you start the process (there’s an ugly, unavoidable early stage) and when to finally cut them.
Steven Jackson started letting his hair grow 15 years ago. It was before he stepped foot on Oregon State’s campus. Before he carved out a place for himself as one of the best running backs in school history. Before he left for the NFL Draft. Before the Rams drafted him as the understudy for Marshall Faulk in “The Greatest Show On Turf.” Before the nine seasons he spent as the every-down workhorse in St. Louis’s backfield. Before he parted ways with the Rams to go to Atlanta in hopes that all the yards he’d accumulated would add up to wins.
It wasn’t more than just a lifetime ago — it was several lifetimes.
He found himself traveling through time last winter, once his two-year run with the Falcons came to an end.
“That’s when I initially realized that this was a part of my chapter,” Jackson said. “That’s why my locks are gone. I had them for 15 years.”
He made the decision March 15.
“I remember the date exactly,” he said. “When I cut them, it was me saying, ‘I’m closing this chapter of my life, I’m ready to move on.’ ”
He wasn’t in a hurry to find a team to play for.
“It had to be for the right situation,” Jackson said. “I had to become selfish.”
Instead, the next thing he did was hop on a plane. It’s what he’d always done. Whenever the schedule allowed it, Jackson traveled the world. If it wasn’t Rome to see the Colosseum, it was Paris to visit the Louvre. If it wasn’t South America, it was South Africa. But Jackson always found some corner of the world to explore. The only continent he hasn’t been to is Antarctica, he said, and the two places he most recently added to his bucket list are the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island.
It started in 2010 with a solo trip to South Africa for the World Cup.
“That was my initial breakthrough,” he said.
He went without a travel partner. Instead, he met people and made experiences along the way.
“Not having to have someone with me to travel, “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not that bad by myself.’ You kind of forget that you needed a wingman. As you venture further and further away, that’s when you become an explorer, so to say. You want to see what else is there.”
‘I was like, “You know what? If I still say no, I’m going to be mad at myself in five years for not taking advantage of the opportunity.” ’Steven Jackson, on deciding to join Patriots late this season
This time, he plotted a trip through Central America. The starting point was Panama, then he hopped to Nicaragua, then Guatemala, then Belize.
He realized something along the way.
“I would go on these journeys and I reflected,” he said. “You could pile up all these accolades and it means nothing. I could go to the airport, get on an airplane and sit next to someone who’s just as unaware of my accomplishments as I am of theirs.”
Before he left St. Louis, Jackson ultimately surpassed Faulk and Eric Dickerson as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher. He stands as the NFL’s third active leading rusher (behind Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson).
But Jackson has never been on a team that’s won more than eight games. He hasn’t felt the next-level adrenaline rush of a playoff game since his rookie season.
“In 11 years, I’ve never been in a winning situation,” he said. “I had to ask myself what’s important.”
The Central America trip offered Jackson some clarity in terms of his career and his life. It jogged memories of the goals he set for himself when he came into the league in 2004 and also the promises he made to his family. He told his parents he would complete the degree in design he started at Oregon State.
Jackson grew up with a passion for art — he drew a football-themed comic book and dreamed of working at Disney — that matured into an interest in architecture and design. His father, Steve, served in the Marines during Vietnam and stressed education to him.
“It was a way that he wanted to make sure that we provided for ourself and, regardless of what may happen to him, he could rest knowing that his children were OK.”
Jackson left Oregon State after his junior year, but promised his mother, Brenda, he would finish his degree. Initially, he wasn’t sure how long his football lifetime would last.
“I remember telling her verbatim, ‘Hopefully, I can make this thing last three, four years,’ ’’ he said. “I didn’t want to let this opportunity pass me by. You never know what can happen, especially with injuries and the risks of it.”
When he returned from Central America, those promises to the people around him, as well as to himself, began to crystallize again and he started taking online classes.
“I’ve been blessed with a great career,” he said. “I wanted to keep my word.”
He wanted to say no
In December, about 10 months into his football sabbatical, Jackson’s phone rang.
It was Patriots coach Bill Belichick. The Patriots had a need in the backfield and Belichick was curious if Jackson could fill it.
Initially, Jackson was skittish.
“When Coach Belichick called me, I wanted to say no,” Jackson said. “I really wanted to say no.”
He had two reasons.
“One, I got comfortable,” he said. “Two, I’m a fan of other people, right? It’s hard to see some of your favorite athletes get old and not be what we all remember them to be. Those two things — me being comfortable and me being afraid of looking old — were the two reasons I wanted to say no.”
None of the 10 other running backs in Stephen Jackson’s 2004 draft class are still in the NFL. Only three played more than five seasons. Michael Turner was the only other one to go to a Pro Bowl. And Jackson has as many 1,000-yard seasons (eight) as everyone else in the class combined.
“So many of my peers, when they move on, normally it’s taken away from them due to injury or just lack of the ability to play. Neither was the case for me. Thank God I haven’t had any major injuries and as far as the ability to still play at a high level, feel like I could still do that.”
He had to remind himself though. He called the personal trainer he’d been working with the past six years. They went through a grueling two-hour workout.
“I wanted to make sure I was ready,” he said. “Button-tight.”
At the end of the workout, Jackson had a different outlook.
“I was like, ‘You know what? If I still say no, I’m going to be mad at myself in five years for not taking advantage of the opportunity.’ ”
He decided to take up Belichick on his offer. He came to Foxborough to work out in mid-December. The opportunity that had eluded him his entire career was now knocking on his door.
“That’s why I decided to get off the couch,” Jackson said. “I said, ‘Let’s take advantage of this opportunity because it’s a wonderful one.’
Belichick understood why Jackson wanted to make sure he was ready.
“For guys that aren’t playing football, they’re just training or working out or staying active or whatever you want to call it, there’s a difference between doing that and playing football and going back to doing football-type drills,” Belichick said. “It’s a little bit different.”
But he wanted to see Jackson for himself.
“When I talked to him, we had a conversation about it and then we followed up and had another conversation and then there were certain steps we took after that,” Belichick said. “I’d say with him, I’ve relied on my personal conversations, which went back to pre-draft, and then there have been a couple along the way and then obviously more recently.”
What Belichick has noticed about Jackson is that the 32-year-old is treating the opportunity as if it’s important to him — because it is.
“You would think he’s a rookie,” Belichick said. “He’s just trying to soak everything in, understand everything as well as he can. He practices hard, he runs scout team, does the things he needs to do to improve and work on — some things he hasn’t been able to do in months when he was working out but not playing football.
“So he’s trying to take advantage of all those opportunities. He’s been great, he’s got a great attitude and he’s picked things up well and has gotten better. Really literally every day he walks of the field is better than it was the day before, including the games, which again are limited, but hopefully there will be more of them.”
For all the places his travels have taken him, Jackson realized the opportunity was as rare and as special as the sights he’s been able to see.
“At the end of the day, I asked myself what makes Steven happy, and what I realized is that it’s fulfilling these things, becoming a better version of myself, keeping these promises to my parents to fulfill those things and just make them proud.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.