Jackson played college football at Coe College, a Division III school best known for producing NFL Hall of Famer Marv Levy.
After going undrafted out of school, Jackson played two seasons for the Sioux City Bandits in the United Indoor Football League for a reported $100 per game.
Jackson also spent time with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe before new Bills General Manager Marv Levy (Coe '50) invited him to training camp.
After a year on the practice squad, Jackson made the team in 2007 and became a key contributor in 2008.
He received a four-year $7.5 million contract extension last week, and Jackson is the favorite to start the first three games of next season while running back Marshawn Lynch serves an NFL suspension.
Fred Jackson sat down with me on May 20 following the Bills' last practice of their first O.T.A.
Fred, if you have a minute, I'd like to talk to you about your journey to the NFL. (Laughs) Sure thing.
You received a contract extension last week and have a good chance to be the starter on opening day. How much does that mean to you, given the long journey you took to get to the league?
I finally got here. It was a long road from there all the way here, but it was well worth it. Getting the chance to possible start the first few games is an excellent opportunity for me. It’s just too bad the way that the opportunity came about.
Most of your old teammates are doing something different now. Why were you the one who was able to make it to this level?
Probably persistence. I just kept working hard, kept at it. That and knowing the right people along the way. People like Coach Levy. He knew me from Coe College, from being alumni. He gave me a chance. There aren’t a lot of people at Division III schools that know someone that can bring them to an NFL camp to get a chance like that.
So do you think that, if Coach Levy went to Grinnell, you might be doing something else now?
(Laughs.) I would say so. There’s not a lot of Division III athletes in the league right now. There’s more than there used to be, but there still aren’t a lot, and it’s hard for them to get noticed. I think it’s a safe assumption to say that.
If they did get a chance, would they be able to accomplish what you have? Is that all that a lot of those small-school players are missing is an opportunity?
Without a doubt. There are a lot of good athletes if they were just given the opportunity. Like I said, there are more Division III players in the NFL than there used to be, but they still don’t get as many chances as guys from other divisions.
What was the closest you came to quitting and getting a real job?
Probably right out of school. I’d sent out tapes to all the teams, and I got listed on some draft boards, but not on everyone’s . I had a phenomenal senior year. I made some All America teams. When I didn’t get drafted, I thought maybe it was time to get my life started.
What were some of the offseason jobs you had to help make ends meet while you were chasing the dream?
I graduated with a degree in social work. Right out of college, I got a job as a youth counselor. That was something that I did, while I was in Sioux City, anyway. During the season and the offseason, I worked with kids as a youth counselor.
If you had been drafted in a late round, do you think you could have done what you’re doing now? Or did you get something from the journey here that you wouldn’t have had back then?
I picked something up from everyplace I went. The indoor league prepared me for the speed of the game at this level, which wasn’t something I was used to. NFL Europe prepared me for the level of competition. I was going up against other NFL prospects over there. But, yeah, while all that is important, I’d like to think that if I’d had a chance back then--if I’d been drafted--I’d have been able to do the same thing. I like to think so anyway.
Thanks for your time, Fred, and good luck this year.