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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.”

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SALT LAKE CITY — Donovan Mitchell looked at coach Quin Snyder when he arrived for shootaround Thursday, and the intensity on his face and in his body language was unmistakable.

“When he comes in like that, man, we generally respond with the same energy,” Mitchell said.

The Jazz rookie scored 19 points, Rudy Gobert had 15 points and 10 rebounds and the Utah Jazz beat the Los Angeles Clippers 117-95 on Thursday night for their fourth straight victory.

Derrick Favors scored 16 points, and Jonas Jerebko and Alec Burks each had 13.

The Clippers are desperately chasing a playoff spot, but the Jazz displayed an urgency from the opening tip and never trailed.

“Tonight we were just tighter. We had more connectivity as a group. I think our guys understood what an important game this was,” Snyder said. “As you move forward every game matters in a significant way.”

Meanwhile, the Clippers couldn’t explain their sluggish performance.

“It was terrible,” said Austin Rivers, who led Los Angeles with 19 points. “… They played harder. It looked like they understood how important this game was.”

Montrezl Harrell had 17 for LA, which trails eighth-place New Orleans by 2 1/2 games with three to play.

The Jazz are in position for home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs — win out and they will host at least the first round, an almost inconceivable notion before they went 27-5 over the last 11 weeks.

“We’ve just been locked in defensively,” said Joe Ingles, who had 11 points and nine assists. “We executed early tonight and got them to call an early timeout and then we just kept stepping on their throat from there on out.”

The Clippers, who shot just 3 for 17 from beyond the arc, have lost three of four and have nearly been eliminated from the postseason.

“They beat us in every way, so give them credit. First game that I thought we let go of the rope was tonight. You could see it early. It was disappointing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.

The Jazz put the game away with a 9-2 run early in the second half and led by 30 during the fourth quarter.

The Clippers had trouble staying with Utah’s multiple screen-and-roll actions and seemed to be chasing the ball all game.

Utah took the season series 3-1.

TIP-INS

Clippers: Tobias Harris got a technical foul with 5:58 left in the second quarter for arguing. … Danilo Gallinari missed his fourth game in the last six with a sore right hand. … The Clippers failed to reach the 100-point mark for just the second time in their last 12 games.

Jazz: Rubio, who missed the Memphis game with a sore left hamstring, scored nine points in the first quarter but did not return as his leg tightened. … Jae Crowder also left the game in the first quarter after getting poked in the eye. … Gobert got a technical foul in the second quarter. … Mitchell had scored at least 20 points in his last 10 games but sat the last 14 minutes of the blowout.

GOOD FROM DEEP
Ingles became the first Jazz player to make 200 3-pointers in a season after hitting a jumper from beyond the arc in the opening minutes of the second half. The Australian forward was fourth in the league in 3-point percentage at 44.2 coming into the game and has the NBA’s longest active streak with 36 games with a 3-pointer. Mitchell, who is six behind the rookie record for 3-pointers made, has the second-best mark at 179 and counting. Both passed the 178 that Randy Foye made in the 2012-13 campaign.

PEAKING AT THE RIGHT TIME

“We almost pulled off a complete 48-minute game. We played well at both ends of the floor and played Jazz basketball,” Jerebko said, before acknowledging that Utah has been building to this crescendo over the past three months. Favors said Utah has been playing as well as any time in his eight years with the Jazz. Coach Rivers agrees, saying “if you don’t think they’re better than last year, you’re crazy.”

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Would the Baltimore Ravens really draft a quarterback in the first round this year?

Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta didn’t make it sound like the Ravens are primed to select a quarterback with the No. 16 overall pick, but he also doesn’t rule it out.

“I feel like if there is a guy there that we think is really too good to pass up, we’re going to take him,” DeCosta told the Ravens’ team website.

The chances of Baltimore selecting a quarterback in the first round have never been considered great, based on previous comments by Ravens officials.

2018 NFL DRAFT
When: April 26-28
Where: Arlington, Texas
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Last month, owner Steve Bisciotti shot down the notion that the Ravens were beginning to think about life after quarterback Joe Flacco, saying, “We’ve got bigger fish to fry.” In January, coach John Harbaugh was the first to indicate the team could draft a quarterback this year but said the Ravens would be “looking for a young backup.”

The future of the Ravens’ quarterback position has become an increasingly hot topic. Baltimore is only financially committed to Flacco through this season, which means the Ravens can move on from the struggling former Super Bowl MVP in 2019.

Asked how soon is too soon to draft a quarterback, DeCosta said, “If we really like the guy and he’s there, it’s not soon enough.”

DeCosta predicted four or five quarterbacks will get drafted in the first round this year, especially after the impact made by Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz and Houston’s Deshaun Watson. USC’s Sam Darnold, UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson are considered the top quarterbacks in this year’s draft, and it’s possible none will be available when Baltimore is on the clock.

The Ravens haven’t drafted a quarterback in the first round in a decade. The last time was Flacco in 2008, when he guided Baltimore to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie.
“When you see certain franchises, their fortune really turns around quickly with a quarterback,” DeCosta said. “We were a great example of that in 2008 and 2009. But when you see these teams that are able to do that, whether it’s the Philadelphia Eagles or Houston Texans last year, you start to see the success that these guys have early on as young players and you see how it just shapes the entire franchise.”

Flacco, 33, is now among the 10 oldest starting quarterbacks in the NFL. But the concern with Flacco isn’t his age, it’s his declining performance.

He ranks No. 36 in passer rating since winning the Super Bowl. He has thrown 98 touchdowns and 74 interceptions over the past five seasons.

This is why a few mock drafts have linked Baltimore to a quarterback. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, predicted Baltimore would go with Mayfield.

“It basically depends on our evaluation and how we feel about the guy, what we think he can become as a player and what we think his upside is and if he’s there,” DeCosta said.

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TORONTO — In the opinion of Raptors All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, there should be no debate about this season’s MVP race. Just hand it to Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.

“He earned it,” DeRozan said after Friday’s shootaround, hours before the Raptors and Rockets will meet in a clash of the first-place teams from each conference. “The things that he’s been doing all year are incredible. I think he’s a lock for it. He deserves it.”

DeRozan said Harden “should have been MVP last year,” when Harden was second in the voting behind Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, the second runner-up finish of the Rockets star’s career.
DeMar DeRozan says James Harden, who is averaging a career-high 30.9 points and 8.9 assists per game, has “earned” the MVP award this season. Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images
Harden has built a case as the clear front-runner this season. He leads the NBA in scoring with a career-high 30.9 points per game and ranks third in the league in assists (8.9), and the 51-13 Rockets have the league’s best record, carrying a 17-game winning streak into Friday’s game at the Air Canada Centre.

Some, including Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors, believe that Anthony Davis has pushed his way into the MVP discussion with his dominant play since DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury for the New Orleans Pelicans, who have won 10 straight games.

EDITOR’S PICKS

Draymond: Davis could snare MVP over Harden
Golden State’s Draymond Green said Thursday that he’s impressed with how Anthony Davis has carried the Pelicans in the absence of the injured DeMarcus Cousins. Green said Davis’ play could even earn him the league’s MVP ahead of Houston’s James Harden.

Lowe’s 10 things: Houston’s sharp edges, Lillard’s ice and the new old Iggy
This week’s highlights include a brand-new superstar, shots of entitlement and Dame’s dominance.

Rockets have a path to NBA streak record but eye a bigger prize
Houston’s 17-game winning streak is the longest of 2017-18, but these Rockets don’t want anything associated with the regular season to be a focal point. Said Chris Paul: “We know with us that everything is about building for the playoffs.”
DeRozan doesn’t think Harden has any legitimate MVP competition. But DeRozan readily admits that he is biased toward his friend, fellow Los Angeles native and former AAU teammate.

“I knew him when he didn’t have a lick of hair on his face,” said DeRozan, who is averaging 24.0 points and 5.2 assists per game for the 47-17 Raptors. “It just came about, man. We’ve grown. We talk about it a lot, to where we never thought we’d be in a position that we are today. To be able to have that type of conversation with a guy that you grew up with, that you went through every stage with, it’s definitely crazy to see.

“He was always nice. He was always nice, but none of us thought we would be where we are today. We would be lying to you if we told you we knew we would be who we are today. But like I said, to be 28 years old and be able to talk about the things we’ve accomplished, that’s the most incredible thing.”

Harden has made a point to avoid discussing his MVP prospects this season, but he smiled when informed of DeRozan’s comments.

“That’s like my brother,” Harden said. “He’s playing at an all-time level too. He’s out there killing. He has his team in the No. 1 seed in the East. He’s doing extremely great things as well. Just to hear it from him, especially with the level he’s playing at now, means a lot to me.”