Fred Jackson knows he's standing toe to toe with an unbeaten opponent.
Father Time eventually tracks down even the most stubborn of athletes.
But the running back who so captivated Western New York during his time with the Buffalo Bills isn't ready to stop being chased - not when he believes in his heart he can still help an NFL team.
"I still do want to play," Jackson said in a lengthy interview with The Buffalo News. "I feel like I can play for one more year. It would be awesome to get that opportunity, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen."
Not every player can go out like Jerome Bettis or Peyton Manning, riding off into the sunset with a championship ring. Mostly, those stories are reserved for Hollywood. Breakups are usually bitter, especially when one side isn't ready to say goodbye.
That's the grim reality Jackson is now facing.
"Every competitor wants that chance to compete, but you may not always get that," he said. "It's not always going to go the way you want it to. Being able to be around family, the guys that care about you and are constantly encouraging you, that definitely makes it easier.
"It helps to have a good corner that you can lean on and can get you through those tough times, when you're watching a game and you're like, 'I know I could have made that play.' Things like that, you can talk to people, and they'll say, 'we believe you can, but you probably won't get that opportunity.' "
That's why Jackson and his wife, Danielle, have settled with their four children in Ankeny, Iowa, just about 15 minutes north of Des Moines. There, they are surrounded by family.
"We came here because we didn't know what was going to happen," Jackson said. "We got out here so that in case I ended up going somewhere else, my wife could be close to family so they can help her with the kids while I was doing whatever I needed to for football.
"I'm still staying in shape just in case I get a phone call from somebody who's looking for a third-down back or somebody to come in and help with pass protection or anything like that."
When the Bills meet the Seattle Seahawks on Monday Night Football (8:30 p.m., ESPN), Jackson will be watching, some 1,800 miles away.
"Going to Seattle last year and experiencing that, getting a chance to play in the playoffs, it was a great organization to be a part of," Jackson said. "I made some tremendous friends out there, guys that I'm still in contact with today. Then Buffalo speaks for itself. The fans have always been great to me. They loved what I did on the field and I loved performing for them. It's one of those things that, if I don't get that opportunity to suit up again, I can always hang my hat on what I did."
A fan favorite
By now, Jackson's story has been thoroughly digested among Bills fans.
It started at little, Div. III Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa - the alma mater of Marv Levy.
From there, it was off to Sioux City, where he played two years in the United Indoor Football League, winning league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year in 2005 with 1,770 yards and 53 touchdowns.
After that came a year in NFL Europe - Jackson led the Rhein Fire in rushing yards with 731 in 2006 - before Levy gave him a shot in the NFL with the Bills.
What followed was a career that even Jackson didn't see coming.
"If you would have told me in high school that when I came to Buffalo that the only two names that would be in front of mine would be OJ Simpson and Thurman Thomas, I would have laughed at you," he said. "To be able to say that is something that's pretty phenomenal. As the years go by, it's something I'm sure I'll think about a lot. I'm always going to cherish those moments that I had in Buffalo."
Jackson became the first player in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and gain more than 1,000 yards on kickoff returns in the same season in 2009, the same year he led the league in combined net yards with 2,516.
His 5,646 career rushing yards with the Bills ranks third behind Thomas (11,938) and Simpson (10,183), while his 30 touchdowns are fourth and his career average of 4.41 yards per carry is fifth among players with at least 200 attempts.
Jackson's career in Buffalo outlasted that of three first-round draft picks at the same position in Willis McGahee, Marshawn Lynch and C.J. Spiller. It's no wonder, then, that he became such a fan favorite.
Defying the odds. Always falling forward. Playing through pain. Those were the qualities that defined him.
"Fred's one of my favorite teammates of all time -- if not my favorite," Bills center Eric Wood said. "It hurt when he left. He's a guy who I learned a lot from coming in. Just the way you should work, the way you should handle yourself, the way he was a leader for this team. I'll forever be grateful for the times that we got to play together."
That time ended during training camp prior to the 2015 season. Jackson was surprisingly released by the Bills, who opted to go with rookie Karlos Williams as LeSean McCoy's primary backup. Jackson landed on his feet when he signed a one-year contract with Seattle, playing in all 16 games for the Seahawks primarily in a third-down role. He finished the season with 26 carries for 100 yards and 32 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns.
The Bills had an adventurous offseason in the backfield, with McCoy having a run-in with off-duty Philadelphia police officers during a bar fight, rookie Jonathan Williams getting arrested for DWI in Arkansas and Karlos Williams showing up out of shape to spring practices and eventually getting suspended for violating the NFL's drug policy.
At the height of that, safety Aaron Williams - Jackson's closest friend on the team - tweeted in July an apparent plea for the team to re-sign him. That sentiment was shared by a large segment of Bills fans on social media.
"You play for an organization as long as I did and kind of immerse yourself in the community like I wanted to, people have always had great things to say about me and I appreciate that," Jackson said. "Buffalo and all of Western New York will always be home for us. For me to get all the positive feedback that I get from every fan that I run into - still wanting to take a picture or get an autograph - that's what I busted my butt for when I played in Buffalo. It's always great to see fans that love you and appreciate you."
Just in case
At 35, Jackson admits he's "ancient" by running back standards. He was the oldest running back in the NFL last season. But he's staying in shape on the off chance the phone does ring.
"It's on me just to stay ready," he said. "I've been working out. I have to be able to come in and hit the ground running. I've always thought I've been able to pick up a system pretty easily. It's about just staying in it.
"It's going to take some injuries, I'm sure. Teams will always want to go with the younger, fresher guy, but I can bring some stability to a running back room. That's what my job would be going in anywhere. That's what I'm accepting. It hasn't happened yet, but I'm not going to give up yet. I'll stay in shape, continue to work out ... so that if I do get that opportunity, if I do get that call, I can go in and help any team any way that I need to."
Bills strength and conditioning coach Eric Ciano put together a training regimen for Jackson.
"Not only was a coach, he's a good friend, so I know I can call him and say, 'hey, I need to know what it is I should be focusing on now,' " Jackson said. "If I follow that, hopefully when I hit the ground, I hit the ground running."
Working out is one way Jackson can come to grips with something that's out of his hands.
"It's controlling what I can control," he said. "If something happens and I do get the opportunity, I'll be ready for it.
In the mean time, Jackson is able to catch up on all the small things he missed during his playing career.
"I'm hanging out with the kids more than anything," he said. "Watching the kids grow. Waking up every morning, getting them to school and then watching them come home and get off the bus - it's things like that I've been able to enjoy."
Jackson's son, Braeden, is 10 years old and playing football in an Ankeny youth league.
"It's been awesome to be able to get to all his games and watch him and see how much he's taken to the sport," Jackson said. He and Danielle also have three daughters - Kaelen, 8, Jaeden, 6, and Maecen, 3.
Youth football participation has declined in the U.S. since 2009, partly due to the ongoing concerns over concussions and high-profile examples of former NFL players saying they would prefer or prevent their children from playing.
Jackson, though, said that hasn't been the case with his son.
"Really there was no stopping Braeden," he said. "He was all set on it. He loved it from the time he was 2 years old. He understood what was going on, that his dad played in the NFL. He absolutely just loved that.
"The conversation we had as parents, we let him know this is a dangerous sport that people can get seriously injured playing. We tried to educate him as much as we could about what could happen, so he knew what he was getting himself into, and how he has to protect himself on the field."
So with his son so involved, could Jackson see himself coaching one day?
"Once my kids get older and they're more independent, it's something I could see myself getting into," he said. "Right now, it's hard for me to say that I want to coach, because I still have the mindset of wanting to play. Once you get out of that mindset of wanting to play, the coaching aspect comes into it.
"If you're around the game long enough, there's some things you pick up that you definitely want to pass along. I do feel like I have a lot of knowledge that I do want to pass along to the younger generation."
Coaching might not be in his immediate future, but business is.
Jackson's next trip to Buffalo will come later this month for the official grand opening of Sear, the steakhouse opening in the Avant building on Delaware Avenue. He's a partner in the restaurant along with former Bills teammates Terrence McGee and Brian Moorman, among others.
"We're extremely excited about it," Jackson said. "It's another way for us to put roots down in Buffalo, and that's great.
"We will always be connected to Western New York. We love everything about it. For us, it will always be a place that we call home."
Jackson has watched both of his former teams closely this season, so he's anxious to see how Monday night plays out.
"It's going to be a good game," he said. "It's kind of been a tale of two different teams for both teams this year. Seattle's looked great at moments and then there's times they can't seem to string anything together, and that's the same case for Buffalo. I think it's going to be a good game, a defensive game, where whatever offense can get the most going is going to have the advantage."
One player who won't be on the field for the Bills is Williams. He suffered a season-ending neck injury in Week Seven against Miami when he was on the receiving end of a vicious crackback block by Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry.
It was the type of play that illustrated how there will never be a way to keep football completely safe.
"I finally felt like my wife, how she watched every game and hoped every time that I got tackled, that I was able to get up under my own power," Jackson said. "Watching him, it was the same thing. I was saying a prayer that he would get up and walk off under his own power. You never want to see that. I told him I don't want to see him go through that again.
"I can give him as much advice as I want to, but ultimately the decision is his. I'm going to support him in whatever he decides to do, but it's a scary situation to see, any time you're dealing with a head or neck injury. God always has a plan, and we'll see what His plan is for Aaron."
Jackson suffered one concussion during his playing career. He also broke the fibula in his right leg during the 2011 season, fractured his ribs during the 2013 season and gutted it out through knee sprains, hamstring pulls and assorted other bumps and bruises.
"I run around and play in the back yard with my daughters, or run around on the field with my son and think about how blessed I've been to play 10 years and still have that opportunity," he said. "I can run around like nothing ever happened, because I didn't have any of those major injuries that take their toll on the body. I'll tell kids that you don't always come away from this game physically the way that you entered it, so I have been blessed to be able to do that."
If Jackson never plays another down, he's had a career that most undrafted players can only dream of, which is why it's worth asking - why risk it at all? After what happened to Williams - whom Jackson considers a brother - is it really worth it?
"That's where I have to talk to my wife," he said. "That's something that weighs more on the family members and significant others when they watch their son or their husband out there on the field. Us as players, we want to compete and play the game we love to play. We don't always think about those things like that. It's something we probably should, take more time listening to those around us after we see a significant injury like with Aaron.
"I don't want to say there's a right answer. When we sign that contract, we know exactly what it is we're signing up for. We love to be out there playing this game. If you're not out there on the field competing and know what that's like, it's hard to sit back and say, 'why would they go out there again?' "
For Jackson, the answer is simple: Because he feels like he still has something to give.
"I bet he does still have something left in the tank," Wood said. "I wouldn't put it past him that he could come into an organization tomorrow and contribute at a high level."