Making an NFL roster is no easy task. There are a limited number of opportunities at the pro level and there are no guarantees. Some players benefit from big time college success and are able to use it as a springboard to NFL success.
That wasn't the case for Fred Jackson and George Wilson. That's why making the 53-man roster for the Buffalo Bills was a fulfilling day that both found difficult to describe Saturday.
"It's been a long time coming for me and a while to get here," said Jackson. "But I'm looking forward to the opportunity now that I've made the team and I'm ready to help the team in any way I can."
For Jackson it was far from an immediate leap to the NFL from his college days. Jackson first played in the United Indoor Football League out of college. He moved on to NFL Europe and then Buffalo's practice squad in 2006. After a strenuous offseason which included adding five pounds of muscle to his frame Jackson parlayed it into a roster spot in 2007.
"It's definitely fulfilling," said Jackson. "It was a long road traveled and not the most common road traveled but it was definitely worth it to put in the work. I met a lot of great people along the way and I'm glad about the opportunity I'll have now."
For Wilson the road was even more unusual. After being unable to make the 53-man roster as a receiver, Wilson finally decided to take the biggest risk of his career and flipped over to the defensive side of the ball to play safety. But it was a decision that was a year in the making.
"When coach Jauron first came in last year he and I had a conversation about it," admitted Wilson. "I really wasn't comfortable with the move at the time and then this past offseason came and we had another conversation about it and I spoke to (pro personnel director) John Guy as well. After putting a lot of thought into it and after two years of not seeing time at wide receiver I thought change may be good. It may get me on the field which is where I wanted to be. I love football. I just wanted to get on the field and it called for me to switch sides of the ball."
Wilson knew it was going to be a struggle and a lot of hard work to make the switch at the highest level of football having not played defense since he was in high school. I believe in myself and believed this staff would give him the opportunity.
And Wilson as is his trademark put his nose to the grindstone. He worked throughout the offseason in the classroom with fellow safety Jim Leonhard at his side schooling him on the nuances of the position. Wilson also credited defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and defensive backs coach George Catavolos with his development thus far.
"Once I made the decision I sat down with coach Fewell and coach Catavolos and we were off and running," said Wilson. "It was either sink or swim. I'm still alive so I guess I swam."
But by no means are Jackson or Wilson taking the jobs they've been handed for granted knowing NFL rosters can change in a minute.
"I did some good work in the preseason and I know I have to prove myself if I want to stick around," Jackson said.
"I have to continue to push the envelope and get better," said Wilson. "I'm not satisfied. I have to continue to be ready if I'm called on to play defense. I have to continue to strive on defense so the staff doesn't worry about me if they have to put me in the game. I have to continue to work on my craft and better myself. It's not time to celebrate. It's time to reflect and be appreciative, but also to be confident in my approach and my teammates."
And even though Wilson has been down that tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium as an active player before, it's been almost two years since he's done it. It will also be the first time he does it as a defensive player.
"It will be very fulfilling," he said.
For Jackson, who first spoke to his mom by phone after getting word that he made the team followed by a host of family and friends by phone has never made that trip down that tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium on a Sunday as a true NFL player.
So while Saturday Sept. 1 was a very good day for Jackson, he knows the day he walks down that tunnel dressed for football on a Sunday will be the best in his career to date.
"It's going to be the greatest feeling in the world," said Jackson. "A lot of people have that goal and dream about that as a little kid and I was one of them. I think I'm going to be almost teary eyed when I go down that tunnel because I know all the work I had to put in to get there."