Fred Jackson remembers the moment like it was yesterday. He was walking toward the locker room for halftime when the man he idolized stopped him for a conversation usually reserved for after the game. The man complimented and encouraged him, told him he belonged. The man gave him hope.
The man was opposing linebacker London Fletcher, who two years ago had left Buffalo for Washington. Jackson revered Fletcher for proving that there's a place in the NFL for Division III players. It doesn't matter where you attended school or whether you were drafted. If you're good enough, they'll find you.
They spent a year together in the Bills' locker room, but to say they were teammates was a stretch. Fletcher, from John Carroll University, was a veteran, a Super Bowl winner, a leader. Jackson was on the practice squad, an opportunity granted by fellow Coe College alumnus and former Bills GM Marv Levy. And then came that day.
Jackson had 151 total yards in his first NFL start while Marshawn Lynch nursed an injury. Jackson had 58 yards on eight carries in the first half. He ripped off a 22-yard gain on the first play from scrimmage and ended the second quarter with Fletcher tackling him after a 5-yard gain.
"It was like, 'I'm here now, and I can play at this level,' " Jackson said. "He came to me at halftime and told me, 'Fred, you're doing a great job, keep it up.' I told him it was a pleasure playing against him. It was a lot of fun. It was a great way for me to get introduced to the NFL."
Jackson now wants to establish himself as an NFL starter, the way Fletcher did. He has two more games to show the coaches that he should be their No. 1 back before Lynch comes back from his suspension. If all goes well, the Bills will have a running back controversy when Lynch completes his sentence.
The Bills certainly can't justify returning Jackson to the bench. He was their best offensive weapon against the Patriots. He finished with 140 total yards and gave the Bills a 24-13 lead when he scored off a screen pass in the fourth quarter. His performance was largely lost after the Bills blew the lead and suffered another incredulous defeat.
Take a closer look, though, and his performance has become the norm. He's had 13 touches seven times in two-plus seasons and finished with 100 yards or more in every game but one. Three came last season, including a 136-yard rushing effort in the season finale against New England in miserable conditions.
Lynch is a powerful back, but Jackson is a better one. He's more suited for the Bills' no-huddle attack. He's a better receiver and more elusive in the open field, which fits the Bills' short-passing game. The Bills should keep him as their primary back and change the pace with Lynch rather than the other way around.
Compare their character, and it's no contest. Jackson has been humble since he arrived while Lynch has been nothing but trouble. He's not worth the aggravation. He can easily be replaced. For all the mistakes Lynch has made off the field, his biggest was opening the door for Jackson on the field.
Trent Edwards has repeatedly said the Bills need to find more ways to get the ball to Jackson. Offensive coordinator Alex Van Pelt suggested the Bills could have both backs on the field at the same time. Unfortunately, there's only one ball. It's in Jackson's hands now, and he's not about to fumble it away.
"It's a three-week audition," Jackson said. "The opportunity is here. More than anything, I have to make it my job. That's all that I can control. That decision, when it comes to it, I want to make it a hard decision. That's what my motivation is right now. Make it a tough decision for them."
So far, he's making it easy.