Almost daily, red, white and blue T-shirts paying homage to Fred Jackson pop up around the Buffalo Bills' locker room. The front of the shirt reads "Jackson 22" while the back gives a nod to Jackson's Division III roots: "Reppin' The Nation D3: Pledge Your Allegiance."
The same T-shirt can easily be made in burgundy, gold and white for London Fletcher, the Washington Redskins' middle linebacker, who like Jackson was an unearthed gem from the NCAA's lowest, and often ignored, division of football.
"I have to think about it everyday, it's what motivates me to be here," said Jackson, who earned All-American honors at Iowa's Coe College. "It's something that I try and reflect on as much as possible. It's one of those things that keep me motivated out here."
A product of Division II Tuskegee, Drayton Florence said a few weeks ago, "big school, small school, I don't think it makes a difference," in terms of success on the pro level. He probably had players like Jackson and Fletcher in mind.
Jackson and Fletcher were underrated and overlooked, perhaps because their journeys began on the Division III level. But Jackson is a legitimate MVP candidate while Fletcher, the former Bills linebacker, is again on pace to eclipse the 100-tackle mark, something he's accomplished every year since the NFL started recording the stat in 2001.
"When you come into the league as a Division III player you come in with a chip on your shoulder knowing that they're always trying to replace you, and they don't think you're good enough," Fletcher said. "They don't really know the full story of why you may have ended up at the level that you played at. There's always a reason why the Division III players defiantly play with a chip on their shoulder."
Fletcher is a 5-foot-10, 245-pound linebacker playing in a profession that covets athletes four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. Sports Illustrated once named him the "best player never to be selected to the Pro Bowl", an honor he had missed despite making more tackles than anyone in the last decade. The oversight has been corrected the last two seasons with Fletcher being named to the Pro Bowl.
In 2006, Fletcher's last season in Buffalo before he signed with Washington as a free agent, the Redskins ranked 31st in total defense. But they ranked in the top 10 during his first three seasons in D.C.
When the Bills host the Redskins in Toronto on Sunday, Fletcher, despite a sore hamstring, will likely play in his 215th consecutive game.
"I'm not sure if [the Bills] thought I didn't have any more years left in me or not," said Fletcher, who played at John Carroll in his hometown of Cleveland. "It worked out where I ended up coming to Washington and I've been able to play another five more seasons and still playing at a high level."
Fletcher was a mentor to Jackson when he was signed to the Bills' practice squad in 2006.
"I thought Fred did a good job," Fletcher said. "He was just on the scout team when I was there. I think maybe my last year he was on the active roster. I'm not sure how many carries he actually got, but he did a good job of giving us great looks in practice."
Jackson was already three years removed from Coe College and worked his way up through the pass-happy world of indoor football before the Bills invited him for a tryout. With 601 yards, Jackson is the league's sixth-leading rusher and is tied for second in rushing TDs by a running back with six, which trails only the eight scored by Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.
"Going to a Division III school, you're not going to get a lot of workouts," said Jackson, who was a 5-foot-8, 140-pound backup tailback in high school. "I went to a not too relatively known Division III school so that makes it tough. When I got my first start the first guy I played against was London Fletcher. I've always had a great amount of respect for him being he's a Division III player as well. He was one of the guys I used to talk to a lot when I first got here."
They talked about their path to the NFL, approaching the job as if getting shipped to the practice squad remains a possibility. Yet more of Jackson's teammates are reppin' the D3 nation. Corey McIntrye has one and so does Terrence McGee. Stevie Johnson walks around with the sleeves cut off his.
"I think the thing is with the NFL, because he didn't go to a big school, a lot of coaches and people get caught up in the Division III stuff and because he played at Division III, small school, a lot of people are just trying to write him off," Fletcher said. "As you look at it, he's definitely an excellent football player."
Bills vs. Redskins
Kickoff: 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Rogers Centre in Toronto
TV: Ch. 29
Radio: 96.9 FM
Line: Bills (-6)