SOMEWHERE OVER MONTANA – Fred Jackson’s football journey, the reason Buffalo Bills fans adore him, was grueling.
He scratched out his career. He didn’t start for his high school team. He didn’t get drafted. He lived off team-issued food vouchers in some moonlighter arena league. Practice squad, NFL Europa, cut a handful of times … Bills fans can recite Jackson’s story of Sisyphean perseverance by heart.
In one regard, however, Jackson had it easy.
Once he made the Bills fall in love with him nine years ago, he never had to worry about finding another home.
So there Jackson was Sunday afternoon on Delta Flight 218 to Seattle. On his lap sat 2-year-old daughter Maecen. Curled under a blanket was his wife, Danielle, whose voice cracked whenever she talked about leaving Buffalo behind.
“It’s been hard,” Danielle said, forcing a smile. “If he can go somewhere and share success with a team, I think that’ll make it feel all right.”
Buffalo released its four-time captain a week ago. The move stunned many at One Bills Drive. Within an hour, he said, two clubs had called to sign him: the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots.
Jackson visited the Seahawks last week and signed a one-year, $900,000 deal Sunday shortly after the plane touched down. While he flashed an autograph on the contract at Seahawks headquarters, Maecen squiggled with orange and yellow highlighters on some papers right beside.
The moment was exhilarating, adorable and bittersweet. The Jacksons’ three oldest children remained back home. School starts Wednesday, and there’s one 8-year-old boy in particular who bursts into tears at the thought of his dad not playing for the Bills anymore.
“I’m disappointed I didn’t get to do what I wanted to in Buffalo, but I’m excited about Seattle,” Jackson said while still on the plane. “It’s another opportunity to win some football games and chase a Super Bowl.
“Ultimately, that’s what you want to do. They have a great team out there, and they’re excited to have me be a part of it. I feel good about that.”
To immediately hear from last season’s Super Bowl teams hardened Jackson’s resolve that he still could contribute and help somebody – if not the Bills – make a championship run.
“It revitalizes you,” Jackson said. “Instead of being down in the dumps and feeling sorry for yourself, you say, ‘I know teams think I can still play.’ ”
Jackson wore a different NFL jersey for the first time in his life Monday at the Seahawks’ dazzling practice facility. Lake Washington glittered in the sun, with a gorgeous view of Mercer Island across the way.
The Seahawks gave him No. 22 regardless of rookie cornerback Tye Smith having it first. Jackson didn’t have to compensate Smith. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll merely “had to shake the rookie out” of the jersey before giving it to Jackson.
“He’s a smart guy, a very tough competitor, a real team guy, all of that stuff,” Carroll said. “This team is made up of a bunch of guys that have come to prove something. He comes from Coe College. He’s been battling his whole life to prove it.
“That’s a guy that really fits in with the makeup of this team.”
The Seahawks restructured their backfield depth chart to welcome Jackson as the No. 2 running back behind old friend Marshawn Lynch.
After the Seahawks agreed to terms with Jackson on Saturday, they placed backup running back Robert Turbin on season-ending injured reserve and traded third running back Christine Michael to the Dallas Cowboys.
Jackson would have made $2.35 million for the Bills. He doesn’t play special teams and was projected to be the third-string running back behind LeSean McCoy and either Karlos Williams or Bryce Brown.
In other words, despite the slashed paycheck, Jackson went to the two-time defending NFC champs and got promoted.
“It’s comforting,” Jackson said. “You’re going to a place where they’ve done it. They’ve proved it. When you sit back and think about their accomplishments going to the Super Bowl two years in a row, you get excited about that opportunity to contribute.
“You don’t want to come along for the ride. You want to be able to say you played a role and had fun.”
‘He’ll play a lot’
Jackson could get the ball 10 to 15 times a game. Carroll marveled at Jackson’s ability to execute much of the playbook at Monday’s practice. Lynch was absent because of personal matters, giving Jackson even more snaps.
“He’s going to give us real secure play,” Carroll said. “He’ll play a lot” when the Seahawks open their season Sunday against the St. Louis Rams.
Bills fans connected with Jackson because he played with a grudge. He was out for vengeance. He’s a rarity who stuck in the NFL so long despite not being drafted, an exponential rarity to emerge from teensy Coe College.
He and Danielle both laughed at the notion that chip on his shoulder somehow grew over the past week. Neither of them imagined it possible.
“It can get bigger,” Jackson said. Maecen, watching the movie “Inside Out,” leaned back against her dad’s black Incredible Hulk T-shirt. “I didn’t think it could. I didn’t think I had to continue to prove stuff, but you always have to. The chip is bigger, and I’m highly motivated.
“When the team that you’ve poured everything into says you’re not good enough and then you get that letter that you’ve been terminated, you wanted to say ‘Nah, I’m one of the best guys at the position.’
“Now, it’s on me to go out there and prove it. I’m looking forward to that.”
Bills General Manager Doug Whaley had legitimate reasons to cut Jackson. Age and money concerns were obvious. Whaley also wanted to give younger running backs Williams and Brown more touches.
Another motive was turning the page on the organization’s bleak recent past. The Bills hope they’re emerging from the NFL’s longest playoff slump, 15 years and counting. Jackson provided encouragement and joy during a dark period, yet there’s a lovable-loser reputation the Bills are eager to abandon.
The Jacksons on Sunday were greeted at Buffalo Niagara International Airport by a two-story-tall Sammy Watkins advertisement for New Era Cap Co. They strolled past racks of Bills and blue-and-red Buffalove merchandise on the way to their gate.
The Bills finally might have a playoff team this season, but Jackson won’t be a part of their pursuit.
“He said last year was their best year, and they went 9-7. That’s crazy,” Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. “I’ve played in the league four years, and we’ve been three times.
“Hopefully, we can change that for him. Usually, we got a nice chance to make noise in the playoffs. You want a guy to experience that.”
Element of leadership
At 34, Jackson is the NFL’s oldest tailback by 21 months over the next-closest, Frank Gore of the Indianapolis Colts.
Jackson, though, has taken fewer hits because of his unusual path to the NFL. He has 1,673 touches (combined rushing attempts, receptions and kick returns), fewer than the 27-year-old McCoy at 1,761 touches and the 29-year-old Lynch at 2,272 touches.
He offers specific skills offensive coordinators covet. Not all running backs can block, but Jackson jams blitzing linebackers. He’s a reliable receiver, leading Buffalo and ranking third among all NFL running backs last season with 66 catches, a career-high. His 501 receiving yards were most by Buffalo running back in 14 years.
Jackson also led Buffalo in rushing. Jackson gained an uninspiring 525 yards and averaged 3.7 yards a carry, but analytics site ProFootballFocus.com graded Buffalo’s offensive line the league’s worst.
“He’s a unique player,” Carroll said. “Some guys defy it, and he’s doing it. We saw in his last preseason game he went 40 yards with a run. He can still do it.”
Jackson also provides a leadership element for Seattle. The front office has been mindful of finding another back who has chemistry with the mercurial Lynch. The two have remained close since the Bills drafted Lynch 12th overall in 2007.
“He’s definitely going to be that guy I put my arm around and treat just like a little brother,” Jackson told Seahawks reporters Monday.
One day before flying to Seattle, Jackson was driving down McKinley Parkway and spotted a sign on the roadside.
Drew Wagner, an Erie Community College freshman, posted a thank-you note to wish Jackson well. Wagner isn’t sure why, but he included his Wilson Drive address in Hamburg.
Wagner was watching a replay of the New York Yankees game Saturday afternoon, when his sister answered a knock on their door. There stood Jackson, who dropped by to say thank-you himself.
“I was in shock,” said Wagner, who didn’t even have time to put a shirt on until it was time to snap a photo. “When he did that, all the things you’ve heard about him being a good guy and an asset to the community, it all hit home.”
Wagner is 18 years old. He has no recollection of his beloved Bills reaching the postseason. Wagner is excited about the Bills’ chances to make the playoffs this season, but. …
“I just wish Fred could be a part of it,” Wagner said.
As much as the Jacksons were dazed by the Bills’ decision, they have been buoyed by the rousing response from the fans. “It’s special how much support he’s had,” Danielle Jackson said, 36,000 feet above Big Sky Country. “More than anything, we appreciate that. It helps everything.”
Jackson’s name and number likely will be installed on the Bills Wall of Fame someday. He never made a Pro Bowl roster, but he’s third on the club’s rushing list behind O.J. Simpson and Thurman Thomas. Jackson ranks fifth in yards from scrimmage.
In 2009, he became the NFL’s first player to gain 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards on kickoff returns. He led the NFL with 2,516 all-purpose yards, the fifth-highest total in league history.
The Bills last season nominated Jackson for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, the NFL’s top honor for community service in addition to playing excellence.
Echoes of ‘Fred-dy!’
Nine days ago, chants of “Fred-dy! Fred-dy!” filled Ralph Wilson Stadium. On his first carry of the preseason, he zipped through a hole for a 41-yard gain against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Jackson said he wishes he would have known that would be the final time he’d hear that chant for the Bills.
“I don’t care who you are,” Jackson said. “If that doesn’t thrill you, then you shouldn’t be playing the game.”
But there isn’t time to moan anymore. Jackson, amazed at what’s transpired over the past week and a half and with a game to play Sunday, beamed in the Seahawks’ locker room Monday.
The image was much different than 48 hours earlier, right before Jackson departed Western New York.
Fred and Danielle were anxious about what was ahead for them in Seattle. Fred thumbed through Twitter and fed Maecen a banana while they tried not to think about leaving.
Then they wandered down to the large rocking chairs outside Gate 26.
The sight of Jackson in an oversize rocking chair looked just as odd as seeing him in a Seahawks jersey.