I feel fortunate.
I saw Fred Jackson play in college, and not many people who have recently become aware of the Buffalo Bills running back can say the same thing.
Fred Jackson had 168 yards on 30 touches from scrimmage against St. John’s in the 2002 playoff game.
Photo by Pat Coleman, D3sports.com
Jackson was a great running back at Coe, in fact, and we named him the third-best running back that season, which got him a spot on the 2002 D3football.com All-American team. I was on the sideline in 2002 when Coe played at St. John’s in the first round of the playoffs, and to be honest, it wasn’t much of a game. Jackson got 150 yards on 29 carries but Coe threw four interceptions and was 11-for-32 passing in a 45-14 defeat.
I was standing next to a Johnnie on several occasions that afternoon who was very much not impressed with Jackson. I respect his opinion, but disagreed at the time. He ran hard and had good hands, plus was 6-1 and about 200 pounds, not out of reach of a pro career by any stretch. There just wasn’t much help. I thought Dan Pugh was clearly a better Division III running back and we also named Linfield’s David Russell to the first team, but in honesty, as we noted at the time, every other running back decision after Pugh was a struggle to decide.
From there, Jackson’s career is all over the map. He was the Team USA MVP in the Aztec Bowl that winter, running for 71 yards and a touchdown on nine carries. He spent two years in the United Indoor Football League, then got a break from Marv Levy, a fellow Coe alumnus, who got him into the Buffalo Bills organization and a spot in NFL Europe. He ran for 731 yards for the Rhein Fire, then made the Bills practice squad in 2006, ran for 300 yards in 2007. He made the 53-man roster last season out of camp and totaled nearly 900 yards from scrimmage.
Then, this season, of course, his big break, with Marshawn Lynch suspended for the first three games of the season. He’s taken the ball and run with it, including 163 yards on 28 carries in Sunday’s win against the Tampa Bay Bucs.
The sad thing, the next Fred Jackson may not get that chance. Since Jackson graduated, the pro football world has lost the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. The path is tougher now.
The new United Football League might provide a route for some players, and Buffalo State’s T.J. Cottrell, who was a senior in 2006, is in the league, as is former Mr. Irrelevant, Gustavus Adolphus wide receiver Ryan Hoag. Michael Allan, a Whitworth grad who was drafted at tight end by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007, is on the California Redwoods training camp roster. Brett Dietz, the former Hanover quarterback, is on the Redwoods roster as well after success in AF2 and the Arena Football League. UW-La Crosse defensive back Jeremy Unertl is there, still playing after training camp time with the Packers and a few years in the arena leagues. Menlo’s Nate Jackson, a long-time Denver Bronco, is on the Las Vegas Locomotives roster. Colby offensive lineman Daniel Oliphant joins Cottrell and Hoag with the New York Sentinels.
And of course, there are other D-III players in the NFL still, including Wheaton’s Andy Studebaker (Chiefs), Ohio Northern’s Jason Trusnik (Jets). Trusnik has four tackles through two games and is the No. 2 middle linebacker. Trinity (Texas) receiver Jerheme Urban has seven catches for 99 yards so far for the Arizona Cardinals. Derek Stanley (UW-Whitewater) is returning punts for the St. Louis Rams. Byron Westbrook (Salisbury) has three tackles through two games for the Washington Redskins. And Pierre Garcon (Mount Union) had three catches for 24 yards in the Colts’ opener. They play at Miami tonight. And veterans London Fletcher (John Carroll, Washington Redskins) and Matt Turk (UW-Whitewater, Houston Texans) remain in the league.
But the odds are long for any Division III player. And not every team has a Marv Levy, with respect for Division III and the willingness to give a kid a shot. What I hope D-III players can learn is to not give up.
Take Sean Malafronte, for example. Unless you’re a Mount Union fan who studies the roster, you probably have never heard of him. He caught one pass for 5 yards in 2006 and didn’t appear in the stats after that. But he’s still working hard and is in a showcase game coming up Oct. 3, along with Guilford quarterback Josh Vogelbach and a couple of other D-III alumni.
You never know who will be the next Fred Jackson.