By Steve Simmons, QMI AGENCY
He is part Matt Bonner, part Tie Domi, part Wendel Clark, part Pinball Clemens, part George Chuvalo, everything Toronto admires in its athletes. All from a back who has spent his entire football life running against the wind, defying odds, now making a difference on a winning team in the National Football League.
His story isn’t just movie-of-the-week material. It’s a mini-series with the final episodes still unwritten. You meet Fred Jackson standing in the locker room at 1 Bills Drive and you want to shake his hand, and you want to hear what he has to say, because it isn’t often that the disregarded and the afterthoughts become players of consequence in the NFL or any professional sport.
In high school, Jackson was a skinny, 145-pound running back who played second string to the nation’s leading rusher and rarely saw the ball.
In college, he had no opportunities for football scholarships, didn’t even get a nibble from a Division II school. He wound up, instead at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a university with half the population of most Toronto high schools. Their big game is the annual rivalry match against Cornell. And no, it’s not Ken Dryden’s Cornell.
“I think about it every day,” said Jackson, talking about his background as unknown, undrafted, now unbelievable. “That’s what’s motivating me to be here. It’s something I try to reflect on as much as possible. And it’s one of the things that keeps me motivated out here.”
In Jackson’s sophomore year at Coe he had a chance meeting with Marv Levy, the legendary Buffalo coach, who is one of the famous few to have graduated from Coe.
He didn’t know then it would provide him with a life-altering opportunity.
“That’s the No. 1 reason I am in Buffalo,” said Jackson, who is third in NFL rushing, first in yards per carry, and would probably be leading the league if he hadn’t already had his bye week.
“Because I knew Coach Levy, I talked to him when I was at Coe, him being an alumni of Coe College. I had the opportunity to meet him when I was a sophomore. And when I was doing my workouts and playing in that indoor league for two years, he said if I ever get a chance, I’ll get you a workout with me or another team in the league.
“A week after he became GM in Buffalo, I got a phone call from the Bills saying we would like to give you a workout. Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Sort of. Levy got him the workout. Jackson, who had played two seasons in inferior indoor football leagues — not the Arena Football League — and one season in NFL Europe running against Bart Andrus, did the rest.
He first took the starting running back job away from former first-round pick Marshawn Lynch.
He then held the job — and more so — against C.J. Spiller, the first player selected by new GM Buddy Nix in last year’s NFL Draft.
And now, as the Bills prepare for their annual stop at the Rogers Centre, players walk around their locker room wearing red No. 22 Jackson T-shirts, that read D3 on them, with the words “small school” and “pledge your allegiance.”
Because he never wants to forget where he came from. Because every day he needs to know how hard it was to get this far, how much he needs to tell and hear his story over and over again.
“Life is always about challenges,” said Jackson, 30. “You know, I think all you can do is embrace those challenges and take advantage of the opportunity I got. Make plays and let them know I can play too.”
It can happen because it happened to Jackson. You can come from nowhere and still make it big. It’s not a dream as much as it’s a belief. Other players may have given up when they couldn’t make Arena Football. Others may have given up after a second pro season indoors going nowhere. Others may have given up after NFL Europe, not getting drafted, failing a tryout with the Green Bay Packers.
Jackson couldn’t let it go.
Now, he’s part of this shocking Bills team the leads the American Football Conference in scoring, with a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick who was never considered much of a starter and with Stevie Johnson at wide receiver, who was a low draft pick, and with Jackson running and catching the ball (the only back in the NFL with more rushing touchdowns is Adrian Peterson, who has played one more game.)
Which makes this team the perfect Buffalo symbol, the us-against-the-world Bills, and Jackson the quintessential Toronto symbol. Finally a mixing of the two markets, a disconnect put aside.
“I think we all think of that identity,” said Jackson. “It’s not just myself, Stevie and Fitz. We’ve got David Nelson, another undrafted guy and Donald Jones, another undrafted guy. We try and feed off of that. It took a lot of work for us to get us where we want to go. We have a lot more work to do now.”