ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Fred Jackson was so strapped for cash while playing professional football in Germany that he and his wife had to rely on their poker winnings to afford going out for fancy dinners.
“I was broke,” the former Buffalo Bills running back said, laughing while reflecting on his 2006 season with the now-defunct NFL Europa Rhein Fire.
“We played poker so we could go out to eat and go see some of the sights and stuff like that courtesy of my teammates,” he added, noting that his wife, Danielle, was better than he at cards.
“It was one of those things that made me appreciate everything about this, coming from those humble beginnings.”
Jackson had time to reminisce Wednesday upon returning to Buffalo to sign a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Bills. The formality brought closure to a nine-season NFL career that Jackson built on both a powerful running style and sheer perseverance.
Fred Jackson led the Bills in rushing yards during four of his eight seasons in Buffalo. He still ranks third on the team list, with 5,646 yards rushing and 15 100-yard games, and fourth with 30 touchdowns rushing. Chris Trotman/Getty Images
That combination led the undrafted Division III Coe College product to make the jump from playing in the U.S. Indoor Football League to Europe and then to Buffalo’s practice squad before finally entrenching himself as a Bills fan favorite.
“It’s a story that’s like nobody else’s, and that’s something to be proud of,” said Jackson, who made his NFL debut with Buffalo as a 26-year-old rookie in 2007.
“It’s something that I try to share with students when I go talk to schools. Just because you don’t get drafted, don’t give up. And it makes it that much sweeter when you accomplish it.”
Jackson led the Bills in rushing yards during four of his eight seasons in Buffalo, despite sharing a backfield first with Marshawn Lynch and then with C.J. Spiller. Jackson still ranks third on the team list, with 5,646 yards rushing and 15 100-yard games, and fourth with 30 touchdowns rushing.
As for popularity, Jackson became one of the faces of the franchise for his leadership and lunch-bucket approach. He was so respected by his teammates that many began honoring Jackson by wearing T-shirts that featured the phrase “FredEx Delivers.”
“When I looked at Fred, I identified him as a guy like, ‘You know what? I really don’t want to let that guy down,’” Bills veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “Those guys are — I’m not going to say rare because I feel like we’ve had some good guys come through these doors — but those guys are special, and Fred’s one of those guys.”
Overall, Jackson finished with 5,746 yards rushing and 39 touchdowns (nine receiving), including his final season in 2015, which he spent with the Seattle Seahawks after being cut by the Bills.
Although he hasn’t played since, Jackson said he was still attracting interest from teams, including the Minnesota Vikings last season. At 37, he decided it was finally time to call it quits.
“That’s ancient for a running back, and it was just time,” he said. “And to be able to come back to Buffalo and sign a one-day contract makes it a little easier.”
Although he now lives in Iowa, Jackson plans to maintain a connection to Buffalo, where he is a part-owner of a downtown steak restaurant. He has already made plans to hold a youth football camp in August, which he hopes becomes an annual event.
Jackson will always remain a Bills fan and felt a part of the team last season, when Buffalo clinched a playoff berth on the final weekend of the season to end what had been a 17-year postseason drought.
“I was running around the house screaming, and my son was doing the same thing,” said Jackson, who made the playoffs in his one season with the Seahawks. “We’re still huge Bills fans. This is still family for us. We were as ecstatic as everybody else.”