Niagara Gazette

September 23, 2009

BILLS GAMEBREAKER: Jackson proving small schools have talent too

By Jonah Bronstein

Fred Jackson has done for his alma mater what Marv Levy never could.

After graduating from Coe College, a small liberal arts school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Levy went on to Harvard University for his graduate studies, and the latter educational experience was cited most in the narratives of Levy’s Hall of Fame coaching career.

But one of the finest moves Levy made in his brief run as the Buffalo Bills general manager was to sign Jackson in 2006. With Jackson’s recent rise to prominence in the NFL, seven years after he earned All-America honors with the Kohawks, Coe College has gotten bit of national recognition that Division III programs rarely receive.

Wearing eye black strips that recognized his D-III roots Sunday, Jackson was the best player on the field during Buffalo’s 33-20 win over Tampa Bay. Rushing for 163 yards and gaining 25 more on six receptions, Jackson drew comparisons to another Hall of Famer, Thurman Thomas, who was honored at halftime of the franchise’s 50th anniversary celectration.

Jackson’s 337 yards from scrimmage in the season’s first two games rank second in the NFL, behind Tennessee tailback Chris Jackson, and is the third-most productive start in team history, behind Thomas’ 410 yards in the first two games of his 1991 NFL MVP campaign and O.J. Simpson’s 405 yards (all on the ground) in 1975, when he was a first-team All-Pro.

“It’s definitely an accomplishment to just be mentioned in the same breath as those guys,” Jackson told on Monday, before deflecting the credit toward the team’s young offensive line and rookie coordinator Alex Van Pelt.

Including the final two games of last season, Jackson has gained 600 yards in his last two games. The Bills haven’t had a back total more than 100 yards in four straight games since Travis Henry did so early in the 2002 season, despite having used first-round draft picks on Willis McGahee and Marshawn Lynch.

“He’s a workhorse,” Van Pelt said. “There is no question. There is nobody in this organization that doubts his ability.”

There were doubters all over the league, however, when Jackson came out of Coe College in 2002, having rushed for 1,702 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. He then spent two seasons playing for the Sioux City Bandits of the United Indoor Football League, making $100 a game and working as a part-time youth counselor to make ends meet. The Bandits have since retired Jackson’s number.

After he was signed by the Bills, Jackson was assigned to the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe, where he ran for 731 yards. He made the Bills’ practice squad in 2006, and ascended to the 53-man roster in 2007, where he eventually became the first former D-III running back since Chris Warren (Ferrum College) in 2000 to start an NFL game.

Jackson gained more than 900 yards last season, using the receiving skills he refined playing arena ball, and showcasing an aptitude for moving the pile that belies his lean frame and upright running style.

“Unbelievable,” teammate Lee Evans said after Sunday’s performance. “He probably had 50 yards in extra-effort yards. He just kept running and kept playing and he’s just never down.”

When Lynch returns from his three-game personal conduct suspension in Week 4, Jackson’s workload will be reduced.

“Obviously, we miss Marshawn because we don’t want to pound Fred 30 times a game and when we get those two guys back together I think it’s a dynamic duo,” Van Pelt said.

Only O.J. has a higher career rushing average than Fast Freddy — Simpson averaged 4.8 yards on 2,123 carries while Jackson has picked up 4.7 yards a pop on 230 attempts. He’s shed the “backup” label like a lazy arm tackle.

And run right over the Division III stigma.

Contact reporter Jonah Bronstein at 282-2311, ext. 2258.