The nametag was removed. The locker itself remained full.
Right there at the end of the running back’s row is a stall with 20-plus shirts on hangers, a Buffalo Bills bucket hat, a pair of gloves and, yes, a small stack of fan mail with “Fred Jackson” written on each letter.
Turn around in this Bills locker room, look up and you’ll find a portrait of Jackson outstretched in the end zone. Leave Ralph Wilson Stadium and on Abbott Road is one young, sad fan holding a “Thank You Fred” sign.
On Monday, the Bills cut their most beloved player in a move that stunned fans and teammates alike.
Jackson – the heartbeat, the conscience, the face of a franchise – was let go after nine seasons.
“A decision like this doesn’t come lightly,” General Manager Doug Whaley said. “A decision like this is something that we put a lot of thought into.
“He’s been the heart and soul of the Buffalo Bills for a long time.”
The news was a virtual August blizzard across all of Western New York. On social media, fans mourned the release like a death in the family. At One Bills Drive, players were surprised themselves – Boobie Dixon said he “froze” and “shook.” Jackson finishes as the No. 3 all-time leading rusher in Bills history with 5,646 yards and 30 touchdowns, trailing only Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson.
Above all, he’ll go down as one beacon of light through a dark, miserable era in franchise history. One reason to show up at The Ralph. One reason to cheer.
As the Bills’ playoff-less drought stretched to 15 years, Jackson always provided the occasional respite. The 212-yard game in the snow against Indianapolis in the 2009 finale. The catch-and-run to the 1-yard line in a thrilling 34-31 win over New England in 2011. The stiff arm of safety Chris Conte in an overtime win at Chicago. And he did it all with such lunch-pail grit.
Management has always seemed eager to shove Jackson out the door, from drafting Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller in the first round to trading a fourth-rounder for Bryce Brown to, this past offseason, acquiring LeSean McCoy from Philadelphia and drafting Karlos Williams.
Finally, Jackson’s time ran out.
In his final season, Jackson averaged a career-low 3.7 yards per carry and caught a career-high 61 passes for 501 yards. Asked if he believes Jackson still has gas in the tank, Whaley said “We’ll see.”
“As everybody says, ‘You can’t count Fred out,’ ” Whaley said. “He’s been counted out all his life and that’s what makes this decision that much more tough than any other one.”
Neither Whaley nor coach Rex Ryan provided any specifics as to why they cut Jackson. Releasing him saves the team about $2.5 million under the salary cap.
He is 34 years old – the oldest running back in the NFL – though he has 182 fewer NFL carries than the 27-year-old McCoy.
Jackson took the circuitous route to the NFL from Division-III Coe College to the Sioux City Bandits to the Rhein Fire to … Orchard Park. This underdog trek resonated with the fan base. One moment Jackson was taking 16-hour bus trips in an indoor league, making $200 a game. The next 70,000 are chanting his name.
When the Bills considered cutting Jackson in March, owners Terry and Kim Pegula actually stepped in to keep him on the roster. He got to training camp and Whaley insisted Monday that all 90 players on the roster had a legitimate shot to make the team at St. John Fisher College. He wouldn’t say what Jackson lacked for “competitive reasons.”
Behind McCoy, Williams is a strong, explosive, much younger No. 2 option and there’s also Dixon and Brown. Whaley and Ryan consulted the Pegulas before cutting Jackson loose.
“Obviously losing a man of such high character is a blow to your organization,” Ryan said. “There is no question about that. But I feel good about the people we have in there. Will we lose some of his fire and everything else that he brings in the locker room, yeah absolutely we will.”
Jackson on Saturday ripped off a 41-yard run against Pittsburgh. From the bench, defensive tackle Corbin Bryant told himself “Fred’s back.” On the field, receiver Marcus Easley crushed his man to help spring the run and said he never expected it to be his last game with Jackson.
When the two exchanged text messages on Monday, not much was said.
“I don’t even know what his secret to success was,” Easley said, “whether it was a couple drinks of the fountain of youth or whatever the case may be. Whatever he was doing, was working. Don’t stop.”
When approached about Monday’s “mixed emotions” – after all, the Bills did announce a starting quarterback – Bryant cut in that there’s only “one emotion.” Sadness. He was blown away by Jackson’s work in the community.
“It’s tough to see Fred go,” Bryant said. “He’s been a staple here. He’s been our leader, our captain. So that was something I wasn’t expecting this morning.”
And yet, as Bryant added, life goes on.
On Monday, the Bills locker room was quiet, despondent. Heads hung low, voices were quiet. It was downright eerie. On Tuesday, Bryant expects players to get back to business as usual. Dixon, for one, realizes the opportunity ahead.
“I can’t wait,” Dixon said. “I’m like that dog on the leash that ain’t ate. Just let me go. Just put me out there coach and I can show you what I can do. It is kind of sad to a certain extent. But it’s an opportunity.”
Players rarely ever get to leave on their terms. Brett Favre finished as a Minnesota Viking. Emmitt Smith as an Arizona Cardinal. Peyton Manning is still in Denver. Jackson, an icon on and off the field in Buffalo, now hopes to find a new team.
Once the dust settled, at 6:31 p.m., Jackson broke his silence on Twitter.
“Thank you Buffalo!!” he wrote. “We have loved being part of this community. The fan support has been overwhelming. The Old Man isn’t done yet!!”
And that’s what probably pains fans most.