How popular is Fred Jackson? Thurman Thomas told Channel 7’s Shawn Stepner this past week that if Jackson ran for mayor of Buffalo he would probably win.
There were few Bills players more beloved than Jackson, who was released by the team on Monday. A number of fans felt they got to know the man under the helmet by watching “The Fred Jackson Show,” which ran on WBBZ-TV for the past three seasons and was scheduled to return for a fourth. Jackson stood out on the show for his sense of humor, his ability to connect with fans as well as teammates, and the image he projected as a well-grounded family man.
No matter what the future holds for the 34-year-old Jackson as a player in the NFL, it’s a good bet that he could have a long run in football broadcasting if he chooses to.
Steve Tasker and James Lofton are two examples of former Bills who made the transition from playing careers to jobs as network broadcasters. Tasker is a TV analyst for NFL games on CBS Sports, while Lofton is part of the Sunday Night Football team on Westwood One Radio, along with hosting a weekly Friday show on SiriusXM Radio, among other duties.
Jackson, of course, is looking to extend his playing career. His future intentions beyond that are not known, but broadcasting might be a logical next step.
“Certainly if you want a career in anything you’ve got to start early and make it known that that’s what you want to do so that you’re committed to doing a great job,” said Tasker, who studied communications at Northwestern University. “A lot of work goes into making it look very easy.”
Tasker took a job as an intern at WKBW Channel 7 early in his career.
“After the internship I did standup reports during training camp,” Tasker said. “Then I had my own show for five or six years on Channel 7 as well. In a few years I kind of graduated, step by step.”
Tasker retired from the Bills in 1997, one year before the TV rights to AFC games returned to CBS from NBC.
“They were hiring a new roster of announcers so there were several openings right when I retired, and I got a job there” at CBS, he said.
Both Tasker and Lofton pointed out that the increase in sports cable networks the past few years has created plenty of opportunities in the field.
If Jackson returns to Buffalo, he’ll be near the East Coast, Lofton said. “He’ll be near ESPN” in Connecticut, “he’s near half of the NFL Network, which still produces some things out of New Jersey.”
Lofton said he had a TV show in Green Bay while he played for the Packers. He also did a radio show and TV program in Buffalo while he was a Bill.
“Van Miller was kind of like my Ed McMahon. He sat on the couch opposite me for the James Lofton Show.”
Lofton said that to be a network game analyst “is a big jump from being a former player. To get one of those jobs is tough. But there’s a lot of work out there.”
Just getting a toehold in the business, landing that first job, can be humbling for a former NFL star who was used to being paid a salary that could barely fit into a Brink’s truck.
Getting an entry-level job is “something you’ve got to be willing to do,” Lofton said. “Obviously when you first get started your salary that you make compared to what you got as a player, it’s like what used to be your tip money when you went out to dinner.”
John DiSciullo is promotion and production director for WBBZ-TV, which hosted the Fred Jackson Show. DiSciullo said Jackson became “his own brand” during his time in Western New York.
“When he was released” by the Bills, “people talked about not just the performance on the football field, they talked about his community events, his television show, his work on radio, his impact in the business community,” DiSciullo said.
Hosting his own show, Jackson “grew in that role from the time he first joined WBBZ.
“And he is also very comfortable in the role of spokesperson, which I think is a very important quality to have. He was doing work for” M&T Bank, “he had interfaced with a lot of our clients, the sponsors of the show. There was nothing that Fred wouldn’t do.”
DiSciullo said Jackson has a rare talent for connecting with people. He said Tasker has similar qualities.
When Tasker was doing on-air work at Channel 7 in his playing days, DiSciullo was an executive there.
“I was at the station at the time and we put him in everything. He co-hosted ‘AM Buffalo.’ He did features with his family, the show with the players, he interacted with clients. I remember doing a poster signing with him at a Valu Home Center on Dick Road,” DiSciullo said. “And the lines were – you know the old cliche, out the door and around the building – but they were. In that instant I realized, Steve Tasker is above being just a member of the Buffalo Bills – he’s just got it.
“He connects with people. Fred connects with people.”
“And we still consider him part of the team” at WBBZ, he said. “What I mean by that, and our owner said it, is say Fred plays, two more years, three more years or four more years. The door is always open here for him to do something.”
Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame coach who took the Bills to four Super Bowls, did not get to have Jackson on his team. But the two men have something else in common: Both graduated from Division III Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Levy said he thinks Jackson would be “outstanding on TV.”
Jackson is “a bright young man, well educated, got his degree in college,” Levy said by phone from Chicago. “A very high-principled guy. He’ll work hard at preparing and studying his insights.”
When Levy served as the Bills’ GM in 2006 and ‘07, he hosted a TV show of his own. “I had” Jackson “on as a guest and I was impressed with his responses,” Levy said. “And I do know him well from my same small school alma mater. He was an excellent student there as well as a player. He’s one of the finest guys, everything about him, character, humility, intelligence. The answer is yeah, I think he’d be great.”
Mark Kelso, the Bills’ radio analyst, is another former Bills player who works behind a microphone. Kelso said that he’s confident that Jackson has some more football left in him. Once he retires, though, he has the personality to make it in broadcasting.
“He certainly is a handsome guy with a magnetic personality,” Kelso said. “He is energetic and he knows the game. … I think he could be outstanding at that. I don’t know if that’s what he aspires to or not.”
Kevin Connors is an anchor for ESPN’s SportsCenter who grew up a Bills fan. He has been known to give a shout-out on the air to the red, white and blue, and was happy to offer his take on Fred’s future.
“Our best NFL analysts here at ESPN are the guys who are personable, who know the game and who work hard at the craft,” Connors said.
“It’s one thing to understand football in a general sense – it’s another to know the granular details about the current players, coaches, storylines. Based on Fred’s work ethic, not only with the Bills, but in the way he persevered in making it to the NFL, there’s no doubt in my mind he’d be a welcome addition to any network when he decides to hang 'em up.”