[Editor's note: Playbook's "Fan Experience" series taps athletes to discuss their experiences with fans and their own memories of growing up as fans.]
Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson took an unusual route to the NFL. After playing college football at Division III Coe College and racking up 29 touchdowns and more than 1,500 rushing yards in 2002, he was still deemed too small, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, to play in the NFL.
He went on to play indoor football for the Sioux City Bandits and spent time in NFL Europe with the Rhein Fire before being invited to Buffalo Bills camp by Bills general manager and Coe College alum Marv Levy. The rest is history.
Jackson recently spoke to Playbook about playing high school football in Texas, his fandom of Emmitt Smith and the difference between fans overseas and those in the United States.
Playbook: What’s the craziest thing one of your fans has ever done?
Jackson: One of the craziest things I’ve seen them do is running on the field during the games. I can remember one game -– I think it was a "Monday Night Football" game -– I think we had 10 guys run on the field. It slowed the game down, but they get a real big kick out of that, so it was fun to watch.
Do they get tackled immediately?
Yeah, they do. One fan actually got some good time on the field. He was running around making a lot of them miss, so it was well worth it for him.
You wear No. 22 in honor of Emmitt Smith. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done as a fan growing up?
After the Super Bowl –- I can’t remember how old I was -– I wore my football jersey and my shoulder pads around for a couple of days pretending to be Emmitt Smith because I was so happy [the Cowboys] won.
So, obviously, you’re a huge Emmitt Smith fan. Is he the one person you’d be starstruck to meet?
He is definitely somebody I would like to meet. ... I mean, he’s in the record books for most yards all-time for a running back. It would definitely be an honor to meet him, and I’m pretty sure I would be starstruck. I have one of his autographed jerseys in my basement right now. So, yeah, that would be a lot of fun to me.
You grew up in Texas and attended Lamar High in Arlington. Is high school football there as crazy as it looks? Was it like "Friday Night Lights" with rally girls and rivalries?
Yes, it’s just as crazy as it looks. If you’re not at a game Friday night, you’re somewhere else listening to one on the radio or watching it on TV. Everything shuts down, and everybody is going to watch that game. The whole town. Pep rallies are ridiculous. You get people that went to school there 10 years ago coming back to pep rallies and stuff like that. We’re all about our football, and we love it.
Do you prefer to meet the crazed, crying fan or do you prefer to meet the calm, composed ones that you can actually talk to?
I like them all. I think you should enjoy each one of them -– every fan you get. I think you can have fun with them both. You can sit there and have a conversation with the calm, cool, collected one. Then you can have fun with the crazed one. You know, the one that’s crying when you’re talking to them. You give them hugs and shake their hands, stuff like that, to just kind of send them over the edge. It’s definitely fun to mess with both. It’s something they’ll probably remember forever.
In Buffalo, you obviously have a lot of extremely dedicated fans. They’re not afraid to come out in freezing cold weather.
Without a doubt, yeah. I think that for you to come out and sit in some of the weather that we play in, you have to be a die-hard fan. To have them come out there and be a part of us playing in that and cheering us on during the games and getting loud for us when it’s 10 degrees outside and snowing, it definitely makes it worth it to go out there and play.
You’ve also played overseas. How are those fans different than ones here in the U.S.?
They’re passionate, too, but they’re loud in different ways. They’re allowed to bring different instruments into stadiums to be loud for their home team. The two things I can remember the best are the vuvuzelas and the fact that everybody has a whistle. Blowing the whistle over there is like booing the other team.
Does it make it difficult to hear the referee’s whistles in that environment?
It does. It definitely made the game complicated. You have to learn to play extra, even after you hear the whistle. You have to keep playing until the ref comes in and pulls you apart, just because you don’t know if it’s the ref’s whistle you’re hearing.
Is there anything that you wish a fan would do? Did you ever want one to just cook you some dinner or something?
Our fans do crazy stuff like that. At different appearances, our fans do a tremendous job showing their passion by bringing you pictures that they’ve taken. You know, walking around town with your son or something, they’ll bring you a picture, have you autograph one for them and they’ll give you one. I recently had a guy make a poster of me as the Hulk because he found out my favorite Marvel comic was "The Incredible Hulk." They do crazy things like that. It’s awesome.
Jaguars fullback Greg Jones mentioned that some of their fans will get players to sign their body parts, and then they’ll get them tattooed. Have you signed a lot of different body parts?
I’ve signed legs, arms, chests, necks and things like that. And, just like you said, they go get it tattooed. I guess you could say you’ll always be a part of somebody that way. It’s cool to be able to say that.
So it’s safe to assume that’s what you’ll do when you meet Emmitt for the first time?
Yeah, I’ll go get his name tattooed on my arm or something.