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On Sports

Jackson was beacon of hope in a bleak stretch of Bills history

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Rochester Business Journal
September 4, 2015

Saturday afternoon, two snaps after leaving players a decade younger in his wake on a 41-yard scamper, Fred Jackson found himself in a familiar place: the end zone. Although this was just a seemingly meaningless exhibition football game, the 34-year-old Buffalo Bills running back could barely contain his emotions. Jackson spun the ball like a top, clenched his fists and puffed out his chest. The Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd roared its approval as they witnessed a scene they’ve witnessed numerous times through the years. The man known as Fred-Ex had delivered again.

The long run and touchdown on the Bills’ first drive against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting defense sent a message to those skeptics who wondered if Father Time had caught up to the league’s oldest running back, who had missed much of training camp with a strained hamstring. Jackson’s performance showed that he still had something left in the tank—that he still could be a contributor to a Bills team hell-bent on ending a 15-season playoff famine.

But the statement Jackson made wasn’t enough to convince coach Rex Ryan, general manager Doug Whaley and Bills owners that he deserved a ninth season with the team. In a surprising move, Jackson was cut on Monday. Fred-Ex became an Ex-Bill.

The news caught fans like a sucker punch to the jaw. Not surprisingly, social media quickly was rife with praise for Jackson and anger toward the Bills. There were even a few protestors bearing signs outside the stadium. Although he had played during one of the darkest stretches of franchise history, Jackson became one of the most popular and respected players in Bills annals.

Part of Jackson’s appeal had to do with his underdog story. The perseverance he displayed during his arduous, circuitous journey from undrafted small-college player through football’s bush leagues to National Football League practice squad to bona fide star was downright inspiring.

“The fact I didn’t get drafted and had to take a lot of detours to get here is one of the reasons you will never hear me complaining out there,” Jackson once told me. “I can assure you, I’ll never take anything for granted because I know just how difficult and improbable it was for me to get to where I am.”

Fans appreciated Jackson’s dependability. Fred-Ex did, in fact, deliver—time and time again. In five of his eight seasons, he produced more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and he leaves town as the team’s third all-time leading rusher (5,646 yards) behind Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson. He and Thomas are the only Bills running backs with more than 5,000 rushing and 2,000 receiving yards. And like Thomas, the versatile Jackson was a smart and willing blocker who picked up blitzes, buying his quarterback that extra second that spelled the difference between a completion and a misfire.

Buffalonians also loved Jackson’s grit. His willingness to play through sprained ligaments and cracked ribs is part of the legend. He proved to be as tough as the steel once forged in those Lackawanna mills not far from the Ralph.

Jackson further endeared himself to Western New York by immersing himself in his community. “This kid from Texas never imagined he would one day fall in love with Buffalo,” he said. “But he did.” And Buffalo fell in love with him too.

His graciousness and desire to give back were as notable as his football achievements. The franchise has never had a more genuine ambassador. He has spoken to thousands of students through the years. His message is a simple one.

“I tell them never to give up,” he said. “If you want to achieve your dream, the best thing you can do is not listen to anybody tell you that you aren’t capable of achieving something. I never stopped believing in myself, even though there were times people told me to pack it in, and look where I am today.”

Football can be a cruel, cold, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business. There is little room for sentimentality. Fail to produce and you’re shown to the curb. I think the Bills made a mistake. Yes, Jackson is ancient by running back standards, but I still believe he could have played a complementary role for this team as LeSean McCoy’s backup. Although Jackson’s yards-per-carry dipped to 3.7 last season, he still produced 1,026 yards from scrimmage and led the team in rushing and receiving (66 receptions). His per-carry decline was more the result of a putrid offensive line than Jackson’s age. He would have been a better alternative this season than Boobie Dixon, fumble-prone Bryce Brown and promising but untested rookie Karlos Williams.

Jackson also provided something very valuable but more difficult to quantify: leadership. He always was a positive influence in the locker room and on the field, offering encouragement and advice even to those who were after his job. His willingness to play through pain inspired teammates to do the same. There was no more respected player on this roster. When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed. Little wonder the likes of Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells constantly sang his praises. I was happy to hear reports that he might sign with the Seattle Seahawks and be reunited with his former Buffalo teammate, Marshawn Lynch.

Jackson’s legacy as one of the most productive, popular and classiest Bills of all time is secure. In my mind, he is the fifth-best running back in franchise history behind Simpson, Thomas, Cookie Gilchrist and Joe Cribbs. One day, after he is done playing football, he will return to the Ralph to have his name affixed to the Wall of Fame. The crowd will roar like it did last Saturday, when Fred-Ex delivered once again.

You can talk sports daily from 3 to 7 p.m. with author, columnist, radio co-host and television correspondent Scott Pitoniak on ESPN Rochester 95.7 FM or online at www.espnrochester.com.

9/4/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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