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Why Buffalo loves Fred Jackson

This story was originally published Sept. 13, 2014.

The moment was classic Fred Jackson.

In overtime last Sunday, the oldest player on the Buffalo Bills roster – the oldest running back in the NFL by 10 months – took a handoff, burst through the line untouched, cut up the left sideline and dashed deep into Chicago Bears territory.

Already a game-sealing play, what happened next provided a signature Fred Jackson experience.

With the ball locked inside his left elbow, he used his right paw to jam Bears safety Chris Conte in the chest. Jackson, 33 and eight years his senior, shoved Conte back. Jackson popped him again and ducked underneath Conte’s last, helpless swipe.

Conte toppled onto his rump at the 4-yard line. Bears linebacker Jonathan Bostic prevented the touchdown, tackling Jackson at the 1.

But the game was virtually over. Jackson’s relentless run was the reason.

And it was yet another reminder why Western New York loves Jackson like few other players over the past 20 years.

“It felt like Freddy stiff-armed Chris Conte in overtime last week with the combined strength of every Bills fan,” Bills fan Chris Burns wrote on Twitter.

Jackson “looked like he was stiff-arming the last 14 years of no playoffs,” another fan, Greg Westlake, tweeted.

Jackson’s appeal isn’t merely that he plays with the subtlety of a bone saw.

The backstory of Jackson’s career is phenomenal. He’s a top-shelf player. He has been a compass for the roster. He’s charming. He does marvelous work in the community.

While outsiders routinely talk about what Buffalo isn’t good at, what it can’t do and why it won’t succeed, Jackson personifies a region’s rebuttal.

“He symbolizes the hope that Buffalo fans have in their teams,” Buffalo Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta said.

Kaleta, raised in Angola, grew up a Bills fan and has become friends with Jackson.

“We’re looked down upon sometimes,” Kaleta said. “People who aren’t from here easily forget about our teams.

“The people who live here are so passionate about our Sabres and Bills, and to see someone you can root for who has overcome so much in his career inspires fans and people like me with the way he works and carries himself.”

The long road to Buffalo

Any Bills fan worth his Zubaz knows Jackson’s journey from Arlington, Texas, to the NFL.

He was a backup for Lamar High, didn’t even start as a senior. No university offered him a football scholarship. He played for Division III Coe College, didn’t get invited to the NFL scouting combine, didn’t get drafted. He couldn’t latch on with an Arena Football League club.

Jackson played in something called the United Indoor Football League for $200 a week. The Sioux City Bandits provided hotel and food vouchers, too.

When fellow Coe College alum Marv Levy became Bills general manager in 2006, he offered Jackson a tryout. The Bills signed Jackson to their practice squad, dispatched him to NFL Europa and then finally added him to their active roster in 2007.

Two seasons later, Jackson rushed for over 1,000 yards in the NFL.

“If you want him to do something, tell him he can’t,” Jackson’s agent, Ron Raccuia said. “That’s the way he plays football.”

Raccuia knows what our region is about. He’s president of Buffalo apparel company ADPRO Sports and represents former Bills players Brian Moorman, Terrence McGee, Coy Wire and Jon Corto.

“Fred plays the game I think the way every fan would like to play the game,” Raccuia said. “He leaves it all out there.

“He’s passionate about it. He plays with a chip on his shoulder, which is the quintessential Buffalo mentality, us against the world, always the underdog.

“He finds a way to play with that edge. He does things you don’t think he’s capable of doing because he has that passion.”

Simply being a hard-charging player isn’t enough to connect with fans the way Jackson has.

Although Travis Henry played on a broken leg, Marshawn Lynch ran like a bulldozer and Willis McGahee was a star, all three running backs were viewed as knuckleheads for various off-field missteps.

Jairus Byrd, a three-time Pro Bowl safety, was polarizing for his contract demands. Left guard Andy Levitre started every game he played, but many fans shrugged when he departed last year.

When it comes time for the Bills to choose their captains each year, Jackson’s name is written down on the ballot automatically. This is the fourth straight year his teammates voted him captain.

“That’s where I start,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams, also a captain. “He always does the right thing. He’s always in the right place. He practices hard. He leads by example. He speaks when things need to be different. He’s earned it.”

Jackson has overcome assorted injuries expected of a rugged runner.

Kaleta, recovering from a torn knee ligament, has leaned on Jackson for support and has taken away lessons he hopes to bring to the rink.

“There are a lot of things I’ve learned from him that I can bring over to the Sabres,” Kaleta said, “leadership, work ethic, a mindset that can make me a better person and a better teammate.

“I see how he handles himself on the field and his pregame speeches. I want to emulate that.”

Going the extra yard

Each Monday during the NFL season, “The Fred Jackson Show” airs live in front of a WBBZ studio audience in the Eastern Hills Mall.

Louise Ramunno has taken her 11-year-old son, Nick, to almost every show. Nick has amassed dozens of Jackson autographs. He has three signed jerseys and stacks of trading cards.

“He has an obsession with Fred,” Louise Ramunno said after Monday’s show. “If there’s anybody he wants to see, Fred’s his man.

“Fred’s so down to earth. Sometimes, players can let their fame go to their head. But not him.”

Last year, the Ramunnos baked chocolate-chip cookies to thank Jackson for his kindness.

Another regular in “The Fred Jackson Show” gallery is Eric Speier, a Bills’ season-ticket holder the past 49 years.

Two years ago, Speier mentioned to Jackson that his sister in Rochester is a breast cancer survivor. The response became Speier’s favorite Jackson moment above anything the running back has done on the field.

“I approached Fred one day about Breast Cancer Awareness Month,” Speier said, referring to the pink equipment NFL players wear in October, “and I said, ‘If you ever have a spare pair of gloves, I’d love to give them to my sister.’

“He didn’t give me the gloves. He gave me the shoes he wore that month. He signed them, personalized them.”

As Speier spoke, Jackson’s kids darted around the studio. Jackson’s family always is there. He met his wife, Danielle, at Coe College. They have four children, a son and three daughters, ranging from 1 to 8 years old.

There are myriad stories of Jackson giving his time and energy to encourage others, to brighten a dark day, to show appreciation for his fame.

St. Joe’s grad Ben Georger proudly displays near his desk a handwritten letter from Jackson. Georger’s father happened to be on a flight with Jackson and asked if he could sign an autograph with a quick motivational note for Georger, who struggled with his transition to college.

On a page torn from a spiral notebook, Jackson wrote a heartfelt message that read, in part, “Nothing that you earn will ever be taken from you. Just remember that it isn’t always going to be easy to go where you wanna be in life, but once you get there, it’s well worth it.”

Jackson visited Canisius High in May to reward the top 20 raffle-ticket salesmen for the school’s annual fundraiser. The room was filled with a cross section of teens, from freshmen to seniors, bookworms to jocks.

“He spoke to them not as a star athlete, but like a big brother,” Canisius High director of special events Colleen Sellick said. “He wasn’t any better than they were. He was a kid like so many of them who grew up and worked for what he had.

“I’ve watched interaction with other professional people in that environment, and it’s all about them. But he had no arrogance. He was so giving of his time and wanted to listen to the kids.”

Jackson is an advocate for the Food Bank of WNY and has been a spokesman for the United Way, the Billieve campaign for breast-cancer awareness and NFL Play 60 for youth exercise.

“Freddy, from going to a Division III school, from growing up the way he did, he realizes that it’s important to give back to the community,” said Food Bank of WNY public relations director Mike Billoni, a former Buffalo Bisons general manager.

“If he’s asked to be there for 15 minutes, he might be there an hour. Other guys, they’ll be there for 12 minutes. They get there and can’t wait to leave.”

Joining select company

Charitable works don’t guarantee beloved status. J.P. Losman threw himself into local causes, but that didn’t matter to fans when he held onto the ball too long or threw an interception.

Jackson, though, has presented a comprehensive package.

In addition to his underdog background and his humanity, he’s a damn good football player. Jackson is a favorite of legendary coach Bill Parcells, who has compared him to borderline Hall of Fame back Roger Craig.

“He just finds a way,” Raccuia said. “Is he the same player he was four years ago? No, but does he make the same type of plays? Yes. It’s will and determination.

“He’s not the biggest guy or the fastest guy, but he’s the toughest guy. He plays hurt. He’ll hit you. He’ll sacrifice.”

Jackson’s versatile. He runs hard, has sure hands and can block a screaming blitzer. Buffalo coach Doug Marrone sent him out to return a punt in Chicago.

“From running the ball to protection, there’s a lot of different things that he can do,” Kyle Williams said. “When he’s out there, we can be doing anything.”

Jackson’s ability to defy his birth certificate makes him even more fascinating. Based on the stiff-arms he gave Conte a week ago, there seems to be more to come.

“You can think about his age if you want to,” said Bills linebacker Brandon Spikes, a former New England Patriots rival. “Then he’ll embarrass you.”

Asked about Jackson playing younger than his age, Marrone replied: “I think they’ll be saying that about Fred Jackson for a long time.”

Jackson likely will be on the Bills Wall of Fame someday. He’s in select company among the best Bills of the post-Super Bowl era and in even smaller company among the most beloved.

He’s one of only five undrafted players in NFL history with over 5,000 rushing yards. He and Thurman Thomas are the only two in Bills history with over 4,000 rushing and 2,000 receiving yards. Jackson ranks third on the club’s rushing list behind Thomas and O.J. Simpson.

“It’s the effort that he plays with and the genuine joy that he has for playing,” Raccuia said. “It comes from being so appreciative of the opportunity he had to be an NFL player.

“Fred Jackson loves to play football. He would do it until they rip the clothes off him, and the fans see that.

“Then, in the community, fans see him as a husband and a dad and one of them.”

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