Less than 24 hours after the Bills said they didn’t want him, after he overcame the initial shock, after he broke the news to his family and huddled with his wife about their next play in this crazy game, Fred Jackson was on a plane Tuesday for Seattle.
Jackson had a difficult time saying goodbye to the Bills and a fan base that stood behind him for eight seasons while he blossomed into a quality back and better person. He, his wife Danielle and their four kids had built a good life in Buffalo before he was waived Monday.
The end is never easy and rarely pretty. The longer a popular player stays in one place, the harder it becomes for everybody when he leaves.
“It definitely was tough,” Jackson said Tuesday night by telephone from Seattle. “I’ve said all along that the goal was to finish my career as a Buffalo Bill. That ended yesterday. It was a tough pill to swallow, especially because I felt like I can still contribute. I didn’t get that opportunity.”
Jackson sounded upbeat after agonizing over his departure Monday night. His spirits were lifted by a sign someone left on his truck overnight that read, “I’m your No. 1 fan and will always be your No. 1 fan.” The cross-country trip gave him enough time to digest what transpired and turn his attention toward the immediate future.
He was eternally grateful for his time with the Bills, the only NFL team that gave him an opportunity. He evolved into one of the more productive backs in team history and a fan favorite. But he was angry with the team’s decision and the way it was handled. He felt betrayed after giving the organization his heart and soul.
“I have the utmost respect for the organization,” he said. “They gave me a shot, allowed me to play most of my career. I’ll always be happy about that, but at the same time they closed the door on me playing there, too. There’s a little motivation there. It’s a business. Those decisions are made as such.”
The Bills never clarified why they waived him. Common sense suggests they were going with younger and faster running backs under Rex Ryan.
Once the wheels were up on his 7 a.m. flight out of Buffalo, Jackson started getting excited about Seattle. The Seahawks were intrigued by the possibility of making him their No. 2 back behind Marshawn Lynch, his friend and former teammate in Buffalo. He did not sign a contract Tuesday.
Seattle needs a reliable back who is effective in short-yardage situations, can give Lynch a breather and provide another option in the passing game. Remember, the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl on an interception because they feared Lynch getting stuffed at the goal line.
The Seahawks have been the best team in the NFC for the last two years. They won the Super Bowl two years ago and came within a whisker of repeating. Their defense is superb. They have a great quarterback in Russell Wilson and a true ground-and-pound back in Lynch. Jackson looks like a good fit.
But just like he could fill the Seahawks’ needs, they also could meet his desire to play in a postseason game. If Seattle doesn’t sign him, Jackson should land somewhere.
Fred will be fine.
He overcame much bigger obstacles than the speed bump he faced Monday. He made more money than he ever expected after bouncing around football’s minor leagues, hoping an NFL team would give him a shot. He could retire tomorrow knowing he gave everything he had and reached his potential.
It’s why Buffalo loved him.
You know a player has become entrenched in the community when people refer to him only by his first name. Around here, he was just “Fred.” And the truth is Fred deserved better from the Bills, which might explain why more than 12,300 fans signed a petition urging Buffalo to bring him back.
“It’s stuff like that that continues to baffle me,” he said. “It separates Bills fans from other fans. It’s how passionate they are about every one of their players. They live and die by their football. If you give everything you have to them, they return the favor. It’s one thing I’ve grown to appreciate about Buffalo Bills fans.”
The chance of him returning is minuscule at best. Jackson knows the drill. He’s aware anything can happen to any player on any team at any time. Still, the decision shocked him based on conversations he had with Doug Whaley. Jackson expected to have a significant role with the Bills’ run-oriented offense.
Instead, he was told to pack his bags.
The Bills put up a united front after making decisions, but it doesn’t mean they always agree. Numerous times, they made it clear that Whaley determines the 53-man roster while Rex Ryan decides who plays on Sundays. No problem there, so long as people know Whaley made the call on Jackson and not Ryan.
“Doug Whaley was behind it, to my knowledge,” Jackson said. “He wasn’t honest with me the entire time that I’ve known him. I have the utmost respect for the organization. There’s only one person in that organization that I haven’t gotten honesty from, and that was him.”
Whaley hinted that Jackson’s $2.5 million salary was a factor, but it’s a bargain for a productive veteran and leader. Anyway, if money was a problem, he should have approached Jackson or his agent about restructuring his contract. Rather than entertain that option, Jackson was waived.
Of course, Whaley and Ryan made it sound Monday as if releasing Jackson was an act of kindness. If they wanted to do him a favor, they would have waived him in March. He would have had time to find the right fit without having to uproot his family the week before his two older children started school.
“I was definitely blindsided,” he said. “I was not given that indication. I was under the impression that I had done enough to show I can still contribute to the team. To come in on the first cut with 10 days left, it definitely caught me off guard.”
By Tuesday, he gathered his emotions and prepared for departure to another city in another time zone to meet with another team in another conference. It was a tough 24 hours, but Jackson learned long ago how to cover long distances. It became the hallmark of his career in Buffalo.
And he quickly realized his end with the Bills was not really the end. It could mark the beginning for him in Seattle, which looks like a nice landing spot for a man who was waived by a team that failed to make the playoffs for 15 straight seasons. Maybe it’s not all bad after all.
What a difference a day makes.
“It’s the best thing you can take from this,” Jackson said. “When one of the best teams is one of the first that’s calling, it lets you know that somebody does want you. That’s the icing on the cake. It was great to have them tell me they’re excited. I’m looking forward to showing that this old man still has something left in the tank.”