When it comes to creating an NFL career, a vast majority of players follow a single path. It’s relatively simple, if you work hard at it. Play young, get on the field in high school, specialize in college, and get drafted. But, it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, working hard isn’t enough, and (sometimes) nothing ever will be. That must have been the feeling for Coe College alumni Fred Jackson back in 2003 when he went undrafted. But, as we all know, “Freddy” went on to become one of the greatest rushers in Buffalo Bills history. How did he get there?
Fred Jackson: A Coe College Kohawk
His journey was derailed long before he went undrafted, as he received no scholarship offers out of high school. Instead, his coach Wayne Phillips arranged for his Coe College enrollment. The school didn’t offer scholarships, but at least they would put Fred Jackson on the field. It would be enough. In 2002, he was a consensus All-American, and become a two-time IIAC MVP whilst playing for the Kohawks. At his graduation, he was third in school history in both rushing yards (4,054) and TDs (47).
Graduating with his degree in 2003, he declared for the NFL Draft. He saw no suitors. Whilst he tried out for the Denver Broncos, Chicago Bears, and Green Bay Packers, no-one took him on as an undrafted free agent (UDFA) either. Yet another roadblock on the path to success, but Freddy would not be stopped. Just like on the field, he kept his legs churning and moved forward.
Indoor Football Leagues
Unwanted by the NFL, he signed with the Sioux City Bandits in the National Indoor Football League (NIFL). It was a far cry from his dreams of making the pros, but he couldn’t be kept off the field. As he reportedly earned $100 a game, with an extra $50 for a win, he put his degree to good use, working as a youth counsellor. Indoor football wasn’t glamorous, but it kept him in shape, and kept putting film out there.
Many players never want to retire, and Freddy wouldn’t let his journey end before it even began. He played two full seasons for the Sioux City Bandits, and was a force to be reckoned with. In 2005, he rushed for 1,170 yards and 53 touchdowns, sharing the league’s MVP award. It wouldn’t be enough to get him onto an NFL roster just yet.
However, he did earn himself a trip to Western New York, where he competed for a spot in training camp. Bills GM Marv Levy, a former Coe College alum himself, had heard about Jackson a few years previously, and took the chance to see what he could bring to the team. Fred said himself that he may not have gotten his chance if not for that connection. He was up against Willis McGahee and Anthony Thomas, and though he put his best on the field, he lost out. Once again, the NFL had decided he wasn’t good enough.
NFL Europe and the Rhein Fire
It wasn’t over though. You see, there are always opportunities for those who were willing to find them. Fred Jackson’s vision of playing in the NFL was still alive, and the Buffalo Bills sent him to NFL Europe. At the time, NFL Europe was being used as a sort of developmental league for players in America and, for the first time in his career, Jackson was no exception.
The player salary was about $13,500 annually at the time. It was a far cry from his days getting paid dirt in the indoor leagues, but Fred Jackson was hungry for more. He would lead the team in rushing, totaling 731 yards in his one season. It was enough to earn him a better look on the Buffalo Bills practice squad in 2006, and back to training camp he went. In 2007, Western New York officially welcomed him.
Welcome To The Buffalo Bills
At age 26, Fred Jackson had one of the most memorable pre-season runs in franchise history, finally forcing his way onto an NFL roster many years after declaring for the draft.
“In Buffalo, you can’t imagine how much people revere Fred Jackson, because of his high character, his community involvement, [and] coming from a Division III school.”Marv Levy on Fred JAckson, 2014 (Des Moines Register)
He would go on to hold high esteem in the hearts of both the fans themselves and the entire community of his adopted city. After all those years of turmoil and insecurity, it was a moment of great relief when he put pen to paper on his first major contract extension.
“I finally got here. It was a long road from there all the way here, but it was well worth it.”Fred Jackson On receiving his $7.5M contract extension in 2009 (Bleacher Report)
He had worked incessantly, fighting an uphill battle for his whole career, but he had made it. He didn’t let go, either. At one point, Fred Jackson was the NFL’s oldest running back, and still produced at a high level. During his career, he became the only player in league history to eclipse both 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
But, detailing his epic career is a task for another time. Today, Fred Jackson stands as one of the brightest spots of the Buffalo Bills’ darkest years. Universally beloved by Buffalonians, and begrudgingly respected by his opponents, his name is expected to be on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame some day. We all hope to see it some day soon.
Featured Image: Bill Wippert/AP