It hadn’t occurred to me until very recently that the Bills’ Fred Jackson and Kyle Williams had lived such distinctly parallel NFL lives.
Both Jackson and Williams came to Buffalo in 2006, underestimated and undeterred. Jackson, an undrafted free agent, had spent two years in the minor leagues. Marv Levy, in his first year as general manager, gave Jackson a look because they had both attended Coe College in Iowa.
Williams, a native Louisianan, was a fifth-round draft pick, despite playing for a national champion at LSU. They said he was too small, not enough of an athlete. But he became a starter in his rookie year. Jackson, a Texan, labored on the practice squad in ’06 and made the active roster the next season.
They’ve been fixtures ever since, the power runner and the penetrating defensive tackle, the two Bills with the longest continuous service. They’re two relentless competitors, captains who do most of their work in the interior of the field, battling multiple defenders.
Fred and Kyle have become what we call “Buffalo guys,” players who reflect the town’s modest, blue-collar ethos. Both are family men who married young and started families here. Each became a dad for the fourth time in the last few months.
“Mine was quieter than Fred,” Williams joked on Friday. “I’m not on Twitter like he is.”
Of course, they also share a burden. They have yet to appear in a playoff game. Two years ago, when the Bills seemed destined to snap the drought, both suffered season-ending injuries. Williams played only five games because of a heel injury. Jackson played 10 and went down with a broken leg. Not surprisingly, the team fell apart without them.
Neither has played on a winning Bills team, or one that was above .500 after 10 games.
Here they are again, veterans having bounceback seasons for a 3-7 team, facing the prospect of another non-playoff year. It’s tough to take. People are always there to remind you, even your loved ones.
Jackson’s 7-year-old son, Braeden, is a huge football fan. When he isn’t playing, he’s devouring NFL videos. He loves watching the playoffs, and he knows his history.
“He reminds me all the time,” Jackson said with a laugh. “Every time we lose a game, I come home and that’s the No. 1 thing he says to me. ‘I’m sick of you guys losing. I want you to play in a playoff game’.
“He takes it to heart, just like anybody else in this locker room,” Jackson said. “He cares about it that much. So in essence, I’m letting him down, too. I’m not doing my fatherly duties by getting him to a playoff game.”
Jackson and Williams take the playoff drought to heart, too. But part of being a leader is not letting anyone – fans, family or teammates – think it’s getting you down.
There’s a higher purpose that motivates them. Maybe it’s because people felt they weren’t worthy. But playing in the NFL is a privilege, one you never take for granted. You measure yourself not so much by wins, but the standard you set for your teammates.
“I’ve got a lot of pride in what I do,” said Williams, who needs one sack against the Jets today to establish a career high. “I don’t want to let my teammates down. Getting discouraged or disappointed isn’t going to help me play well or set an example for our younger guys. So I don’t let it pull me down or trap me.”
Doug Marrone uttered that word “discouraged” after the loss in Pittsburgh. The coach’s message this past week was fiery and optimistic. He said he talked to his team about the dangers of getting discouraged.
That’s why Williams and Jackson are vital figures right now. The playoffs are almost surely gone, for the 14th straight season. But their top leaders can’t show any signs of letdown. “Discouragement” can be a polite word for quit. The Bills haven’t quit this season, and they can’t start now.
“The number one thing guys have to do is realize we’re professionals,” Jackson said. “We play this game to win. You don’t play just to get a paycheck. You’re paid to win football games. Anytime you start accepting losing, you’re in the wrong business.”
There have been times in recent years when I felt the Bills grew accustomed to losing. It’s the responsibility of leaders to let the kids know it can’t happen.
“Yeah, and I think that starts with having a high standard of yourself,” said Williams. “And I do. We have to have a standard on how we work and how we play. You set that accountability high for these young guys. If they’re not living up to it or getting lackadaisical late in the year if things aren’t going well, you have to snatch them back in line and lead.”
Jackson said he can’t imagine getting used to losing.
“I let my anger out on the football field,” he said. “I think that’s why I run so hard sometimes.”
I can respect some fans’ desire for a high draft pick. But this team has a lot to gain by finishing strong. People say it “feels different.” That idea took a hit in Pittsburgh.
It’ll be an easier case to make if they go 4-2 the rest of the way. They need to separate themselves from previous regimes and affirm that this team really is different.
Youth needn’t be an excuse. The Jets were picked near the bottom of the NFL in almost every preseason publication. They’re 5-4 and in position for the last playoff spot in the AFC. They’re doing it with a rookie quarterback and 13 new starters. Evidently, Rex Ryan didn’t feel losing was inevitable.
So a win over the Jets today would be a nice steppingstone in this team’s development. The Bills could damage the Jets’ playoff hopes, win a second straight divisional game and reignite the belief that better things are ahead. It would be sad if Williams and Jackson didn’t reach the playoffs before leaving the league.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s before I ‘leave the league’,” Williams said. “It’s leaving Buffalo without doing it. Team, town, organization – that’s more what it is than my singular ambition to go to the playoffs. I would be much more upset that it wasn’t here.
“We started our family here,” Williams said. “I got drafted here; I have good relationships throughout the organization. That’s what drives me. At the end of my career, I want to look back and say we were able to turn it around. We were able to get in the playoffs, not only for my teammates but for the community that meant so much to us.”
To that, Fred Jackson would say amen.