SIOUX CITY– 16 years later, Sioux City is still a special place to Fred Jackson.
Jackson, a former Sioux City Bandits running back who went on to be a star with the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League, returned to his old stomping grounds at Tyson Events Center on Wednesday as the keynote speaker at a Bandits’ luncheon, where fans were able to snap photos with Jackson and listen to him give a short speech about his career.
Jackson didn't take the usual path to the NFL. He wasn’t a star player in high school, and didn’t get any interest from major colleges. Instead, he attended Coe College in Cedar Rapids, where he was named to five different All-American teams as a senior in 2002.
Jackson then spent two years with the Bandits, rushing for a total of 2,630 yards and 65 touchdowns. Jackson was the 2005 United Indoor League Most Valuable Player and led the Bandits to the UIFL Championship Game.
After leaving the team following the 2005 season, Jackson played a season in Germany before signing a contract with the Bills, where he played eight highly successful seasons.
Jackson started off as a practice squad signing but ended up totaling 5,646 rushing yards with the team, the third-most in franchise history behind only Pro Football Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson.
That’s a pretty decorated career for any football player, and Jackson is proud of his unconventional route to stardom.
“It’s one of the biggest things that I pride myself on, not only the role that I took to get to the NFL, but to stick around in the NFL,” Jackson said. “I was a 25-year-old rookie, who had two first-round running backs drafted while he was on the team."
"I was still able to carve out my niche, still able to have a long successful career of 10 years and do some things that nobody else has done in the league.”
Jackson was introduced at Wednesday’s luncheon by Bandits’ team owner JR Bond and head coach Erv Strohbeen, who was Jackson’s teammate in Sioux City all those years ago.
In his remarks, Strohbeen praised Jackson for his hard work in going from a Division III college to the heights of professional football. In Strohbeen's words, Jackson “did it the right way.”
“We used to practice at Four Seasons Health Club,” Strohbeen said in his speech. “We had to roll out 50 yards of turf before and after practice. You’d think the star running back, the MVP of the league would skate out of that. He was the first guy there and the last guy to leave.”
For Jackson, his path is an example to other players who may not get drafted out of college, or recruited by a big-time school. He career is proof that a player can make it, even if they have to take an unconventional path.
"This is an opportunity,” Jackson said. “I made it out here, so if this is an opportunity for you to come out and continue to showcase yourself, jump on it. We all know the NFL is the pinnacle of where we are trying to get as football players, and I still have some of my fondest memories out here on this field that is behind me.”
Jackson drew laughs from the crowd when he mentioned the biggest lesson he had learned from the unique challenges of indoor football. In the indoor league, players will oftentimes hit the padded wall that separates the end zone from the crowd when they are tackled out of bounds.
Needless to say, the wall isn't exactly forgiving.
“The number one lesson that I took from playing this game to the NFL is that I could take a hit from anybody,” Jackson said. “I didn’t care who it was. Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Brian Dawkins, whatever. Because that wall is undefeated."
"There is nobody in the NFL that hits as hard as that wall."