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Bills' Jackson, Redskins' Fletcher followed unusual paths to NFL

When Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher and Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jacksonface each other Sunday at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, the game will be another international milestone on their unlikely journey to the NFL.

The former NCAA Division III standouts will line up in Canada having won starting jobs ion the NFL by plying their trade in Germany, Mexico and indoor football leagues, not to mention the unlikely proving grounds of John Carroll University and Coe College.

Players from D-III schools expect to remain undrafted when the year's most heralded college stars are selected to stock NFL rosters. To then become a staple among the sport's household names is unusual, but Fletcher and Jackson are two such undrafted success stories who have bucked the trend.

The former small-college standouts share another bond with an international flavor having both made an impact on the Aztec Bowl, the predecessor to the Tazón de Estrellas (Bowl of the Stars) played annually in Mexico.

Jackson is now the Bills' top offensive weapon with 601 yards and six touchdowns rushing and 24 catches for 279 yards, while Fletcher, the Redskins middle linebacker, has posted 43 total tackles and an interception so far in 2011.

As expected, Fletcher went undrafted in 1998 and signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams after a stellar career at Division III John Carroll University, where he has school records for tackles in a season (202) and a game (29). At 5-foot-10 and 245 pounds, he has been one of the NFL's most durable linebackers. Fletcher has never missed a game, having played 214 to date and has started every game for 11 years.

"He always had a great attitude and he pretty much did everything we asked him to do," said Ron Dolciato, John Carroll's offensive coordinator, who was the team's running backs coach when Fletcher played there.

"We put him at running back, we had him return kicks at times. Very intense. What you see in the NFL is what he was here. His motor was always going. He was a team captain and a team player all the way through.

"We thought here that he would get to the NFL, probably make a career of special teams. We were always hoping it would be more than that. The sentiment here was if somebody gave him a chance to play, he'd play. Dick Vermeil was huge in that -- he gave him a chance. I think he's far exceeded everybody's expectations. He's a special person, obviously. I think he's a Hall of Famer."

Living up to that billing, Fletcher has made 1,423 total tackles since 2001, and his career totals include 33 sacks, 17 interceptions, 15 forced fumbles, two Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl championship with the Rams in his second season.

Jackson was also undrafted in 2003 out of Coe College, where he ran for 1,702 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. He certainly paid his dues in becoming the NFL's sixth-leading rusher this season through seven weeks.

Jackson played with the Sioux City Bandits of the National Indoor Football League in 2004 and the United Indoor Football League in 2005, putting up 3,004 all-purpose yards and scoring 48 touchdowns in the latter season while earning league Most Valuable Player and Offensive Player of the Year honors. Jackson then played for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe in 2006, leading the team in rushing with 731 yards. His five-year NFL career now includes 3,461 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.

Before both Fletcher and Jackson made it big in the NFL, they played in the Aztec Bowl, now known as the Tazon de Estrellas, a competitive annual rivalry between an American all-star team drawn from D-III standouts and their counterparts selected from the CONADEIP national conference of private schools in Mexico. In 2002, Jackson was named the MVP of the game after scoring on a 60-yard touchdown run in a 15-9 win over the Mexicans.

"The number one thing I remember about it is how tired I was afterwards," Jackson said of his long touchdown jaunt. "We were playing so far up in the mountains, and the air was really thin."

He told D-III players who have been invited to play in the 2011 event: "It is a great opportunity. It is something you will always remember, so definitely, if you get the opportunity, take part in it. We played against the national champion team mixed with other all-star players. It was a really good team. I remember how crazy the crowd was and it being a bunch of college guys down in Mexico. There is always going to be great camaraderie with that."

In 1997, Fletcher captained and led the team with nine tackles in the Aztec Bowl, as the Americans won a 42-41 thriller over the Mexicans.

This year's Tazón de Estrellas will be on Saturday, December 17 at El Tempo del Dolor (The Temple of Pain) in Puebla, Mexico.

Fletcher and Jackson will be busy preparing to face the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins respectively, but perhaps another Division III future undrafted NFL success story might be making his mark south of the border and preparing to follow their trail.

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