Time was running out for Fred Jackson. A recent graduate and Division III football star, he knew that it was now or never if he wanted to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.
A close friend and mentor helped him set up a tryout for NFL Europe. Maybe not what Jackson had in mind — but he had never been one to pass up an opportunity. A few hours later, he was added to the roster of the Rhein Fire.
In NFL Europe, where the talent level is inferior to its American counterpart, players who want to make it big are a dime a dozen. This was Jackson's shot. This was where he could show that he had the skill set and work ethic to run with the big dogs. This was his moment to shine.
Today, we all know that Jackson made the rare Europe-to-NFL leap. But to truly understand Jackson's journey, rewind to his ascension at Coe College. Nothing was ever handed to him. But inch by inch, he got closer and closer to the running back he is today.
Jackson grew up in Arlington, Texas with his mother and twin brother Patrick. They both played football under Coach Wayne Phillips, who realized that these two boys were something special. In Jackson's senior year, he averaged 7.3 yards per carry – and that was as a backup. Phillips, not wanting two potential talents to go to waste, drove the brothers to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to visit a small, D-III school. Coe College.
Phillips has a long history at Coe. A former running back and track athlete, he also was the head coach of the team for eight years. When it was time to decide, both brothers committed to Coe.
Their freshman year, both players ended up starting for the Kohawks under head coach Erik Raeburn. Fred was the starting running back and Patrick started at defensive back. However, Raeburn realized that he couldn't limit Fred to just the backfield. Incredibly gifted athletically, Raeburn started utilizing Freddy in multiple ways – punt return, kick return, having him go out wide, anything.
"Fred has incredible hands", Raeburn said. "He averaged 5.8 yards per carry his freshman year and rushed for four touchdowns, returning a kick for a score as well. He couldn't be stopped."
Three different coaches all stressed the same thing about Fred Jackson — work ethic. Jackson was a dual-sport athlete — a rarity when it comes to collegiate athletics. After football season, he would start training for track.
Paul Wagner was the Head Track Coach at Coe during Jackson's tenure. When Jackson was a freshman, he didn't break the lineup for the 100, an event he had never run before. Over the summer, Jackson didn't sit back and relax like a normal college kid. His perseverance wouldn't let him.
He came back for football his sophomore year bigger and stronger, showing more physicality in practice. Raeburn noticed.
"I've never coached at a Division I level, so I wasn't sure if Fred had what it took to make it big," Raeburn said. "However, I was fully aware of how hard Fred had worked that summer. He came back ready to play harder than he had his freshman year."
In 2000, Jackson's numbers reflected the work he had put in. He averaged 5.5 yards a carry and 99.8 yards per game. When adding in his punt/kick return and receiving yards, Jackson was slowly blossoming into one of the best all-purpose players in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
At the start of his sophomore track season, Wagner noticed too. Jackson's speed had erupted – he had gone from not breaking the lineup to the fastest on the track squad. Jackson not only made the lineup that year. He went to the conference meet and won the 100-meter dash and placed second in the 200.
"He was unbelievable," Wagner said. "Fred was one of the guys who got bigger and faster for football but kept his speed up for track. A truly gifted athlete."
The following summer, nothing changed about Jackson's work ethic. If anything, he pushed harder than he had before. He had showed potential. He had worked hard to get to this point. Thankfully for Coach Raeburn and the Kohawks, Fred Jackson was ready to take it to the next level.
Fred Jackson dominated at Coe College to dot himself on the map.
Jackson's soft hands and quick feet made checkdowns go-to plays at Coe. He caught 14 more passes and averaged nearly 50 yards receiving per game. He caught two passes for scores and rushed for 12 more. His impact was everywhere, including special teams where he averaged more than 33 yards per runback. As a result, he was awarded the MVP of the IIAC.
Jackson wasn't just a force on the football field. He was a leader. He led by example and when necessary, used his voice to encourage teammates. He never screamed, nor degrade. He was the one who would pick their chins up after a bad play, practice or loss.
He was always striving to make his team better. At the end of each football season, Coach Raeburn would ask his team if anyone had anything to say. Jackson would stand up and tell his team "to get their butts out on the track to get faster". His junior and senior years, Jackson won the 200 at the Conference Championships and qualified for nationals. He was a two time All-American in the 400-meter relay and set the record at Coe.
The offseason heading into his senior year, nothing changed about Jackson's work ethic. He stayed at Coe all summer and just like in previous years, he got bigger, faster and stronger.
Fred Jackson's senior football season was, in one word, epic. It was at this point when Raeburn and the rest of the coaching staff didn't just play Jackson – they unleashed him. If he caused mild headaches his freshman year, his senior year he was causing unbearable migraines. Defensive coordinators' players looked like pawns against the unstoppable Knight. They weren't concerned with stopping him. No, they were well aware that Fred Jackson could not be stopped. It was about containment to them.
In 2002, Jackson rushed the ball 299 times through 12 games. He averaged a whopping 5.7 yards per carry, and 141.8 yards per game. And that's just rushing. That year he also caught 19 passes, averaging just over 12 yards a catch. He rushed for 24 touchdowns, adding two through the air and three on returns. Returning punts, Jackson averaged 20 yards per return, taking two of those to the house. He returned 11 kickoffs, taking one of those back 92 yards for a touchdown.
Raeburn understood he had a thoroughbred and wasn't going to leave this stud in the barn.
"Freddy's senior year, our team never kicked a field goal in the red zone," Raeburn said. "That's how confident we were in him. We knew if we got him the ball and some open field that he would either get the first down or score."
Just like the previous season, the IIAC awarded Jackson with the MVP award.Then again, this was in Division III. Not exactly upper-echelon competition. Jackson understood this. He didn't expect to get drafted. He knew that making a practice squad was still a long shot. All he needed was an opportunity, which soon enough presented itself.
Wayne Phillips has been a close friend and mentor to Jackson since he played football for Phillips in Texas. Phillips watched the Jackson brothers grow, both physically and mentally. He knew that an athlete as gifted as Fred should be given a workout. So Phillips called in a favor from an old friend.
That friend? None other than Marv Levy. Yes, the same Levy who coached the Buffalo Bills when the K-Gun offense was running with John Deere-precision.
Levy called in a favor and got Jackson a tryout in Orlando, Fla., for NFL Europe. Jackson showcased the same talent he had at Coe, and a few days later was on a flight overseas.
That season, Jackson, playing for the Rhein Fire, led NFL Europe in total yards. He lasted one season before returning stateside and playing for the Sioux City Bandits of the Indoor Football League. Jackson burned through the opposition, rushing for 53 touchdowns in just 17 games and earning MVP of the team.
The play did not go unnoticed. Levy, then the general manager of the Bills, took a chance and signed Jackson to the practice squad. Jackson, paired with Marshawn Lynch to form a two-headed dragon in Buffalo's backfield — a dangerous combination of silky smoothness and bruising hits. After three years, Jackson has proven himself worthy of a starting role. Splitting carries with Lynch keeps him fresh and dangerous.
Jackson's journey to the NFL wasn't easy. He didn't pout when he wasn't offered a workout, nor did he complain when he settled for competition sub-par to the NFL.
"He is a high character, highly dependable individual," said Phillips. "He's like a son to me. Since I first knew him, his dream was to play in the NFL. Sure, I helped him. But nothing was given to him. He worked his butt off all those years, and he finally has been rewarded. His work ethic is outstanding and he'll never stop trying to get better."
Raeburn, Wagner and Phillips all have close relationships with Jackson. Each one stressed how hard he has worked – his work ethic is as big as his heart. A first-class player and person, Buffalo fans have rallied around their new underdog. Jackson has taken nothing for granted and has exceeded most expectations.
Fred Jackson is a classic story of a dreamer who worked harder than anyone else to achieve the loftiest of goals.