Fred Jackson has helped transform the Buffalo Bills into a winning team, but his journey to the NFL was far from ordinary.
Jackson may very well be the best featured running back to play for the Buffalo Bills since Thurman Thomas shone back in the 1990s, but he didn’t walk the red carpet or steal the spotlight until much later in his career.
The 30-year-old was never drafted into the NFL, nor did he star for any NCAA Division I schools.
Jackson played his football at Coe College, a Division III school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he rushed for 1,702 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2002 and was named to five All-American teams.
If you haven’t heard of Coe College, you’re not alone.
After graduating in 2003, Jackson played two seasons for the Sioux City Bandits in the National Indoor Football League (2004) and the United Indoor Football League where in 2005 he rushed for 1,770 yards, 41 touchdowns and was named co-MVP while making just $200 a week.
Some highly sought after Division I players were being given cars and other illegal incentives from schools that were interested in recruiting them, but Jackson remained humble working as a youth councilor at a facility called Four Oaks just to make ends meet.
Believing in his own talent and future aspirations, Jackson played in NFL Europe during the 2006 season for a team called Rhein Fire. It was here where his lifelong dream of being an NFL player began to finally take shape.
Marv Levy, the Bills’ then-GM and a former coaching legend, who happens to be Coe alumni as well, invited Jackson to training camp with the Bills in 2006.
“By that time, I liked him a lot,” Levy said to the Democrat and Chronicle. “But there were still people in the organization who’d say, ‘I don’t know. Who’d he play (against)?’ Even still they kept drafting running backs.”
In 2007, Jackson made his first start against the Washington Redskins, rushing for 82 yards while catching four passes for 69 yards in a Buffalo victory and was thankful of Levy’s support.
The feat was substantial in more ways than one as Jackson became the first Division III running back to start an NFL game since 2000, when Chris Warren started for the Philadelphia Eagles against Cincinnati.
“I had a lot from my wife, my family, my friends, but Coach Levy was my biggest supporter,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “He knew about me when I was playing indoor football, and he always told me that he wanted to get me a shot in the NFL.”
2009 was also a monumental year for the Texas native as the Bills signed him to a four-year contract extension, cementing his position as a legitimate NFL back.
During that season, after stealing the starting job from Marshawn Lynch in Week 12, Jackson rushed for 1,062 yards and had 1,014 kickoff return yards making him the first in NFL history to put up more than 1,000 in both.
However, there has yet to be a point in Jackson’s career where he hasn’t had to worry about his position and in 2010 Buffalo picked running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall in the NFL Draft, bringing more competition for the aging back.
It proved to be yet another challenge that Jackson would eventually relish.
The Bills have had success so far in 2011 and Jackson has played a sizeable role in it, rushing for 303 yards with another 115 yards receiving, including 161 total yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s 34-31 stunning comeback win against the New England Patriots.
But if Buffalo wants to complete its Cinderella story and vie for a playoff spot, Jackson will need to provide the humbling presence he has shown throughout his life and his turbulent road to success.