Anderson, Jamal 1972–
Jamal Anderson 1972–
Professional football player
As the steamroller running back for the Atlanta Falcons, Jamal Anderson is fast becoming a National Football League superstar. Finally hitting his full professional stride in the 1998 season, Anderson was a pivotal force in that historically hapless team’s most successful year ever. His 1,846 rushing yards was the seventh-best all-time tally, and he scored an NFL record with 410 carries. If he maintains such a level of achievement and stays healthy, Anderson easily could become one of the greatest runners in NFL history.
Anderson is nearly as well known for his personality as for his rushing power. Having grown up surrounded by many of the world’s most high-powered African American celebrities—including Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Mike Tyson, and Michael Jackson—he takes to the limelight like a natural entertainer. Supremely confident, talkative, friendly, cocky, and witty, Anderson is a journalist’s dream come true. Fortunately, he delivers his bluster with a pinch of self-parody, enough so he always remains likeable. As one of his teammates has said, the braggadocio is just Anderson’s “shtick.”
Anderson has gained notoriety for creating and popularizing (with some high-profile help from tight end O.J. Santiago) the Falcons’ ‘Dirty Bird’ celebration dance. Like many other NFL franchises, the Falcons now have a unique inspirational end zone move—which resembles a 1960’s Funky Chicken wearing shoulder pads and some 1990’s attitude.
But the star back has different facets. For example, Anderson was touched by the story of Daniel Huffington—the high school football player who donated a kidney to save his grandmother’s life, and thereby terminated his football prospects. So Anderson flew Daniel into Atlanta and showed the young man around for an entire weekend to experience an NFL game from the inside. He also readily agreed to appear at Daniel’s high school graduation, delighting the students with his down-to-earth yet serious speech there. ‘Dirty Bird’ or not, this player clearly has heart—as a relentless athlete and as a human being.
While Anderson does not possess breakaway speed, his low center of gravity and tremendous power—he can squat 670 pounds, and bench 465—makes him exceedingly tough, and damaging, to tackle. He has a brutally effective stiff-arm technique that can sledgehammer a defender or two in an instant. Moreover, he has surprisingly
Born Jamal Anderson September 30, 1972, in Or ange, New jersey. Son of James and Zenobta Anderson, who had eight children. James, a former Newark police officer, became prem ier security consultant for the African American and Muslim communities, specializing in sports and entertainment figures. Education: Attended Moorpark (CA) Coll, two years, then the Univ. of Utah (Salt Lake City) for his final two years of college.
Career: Captain of the football team at El Camino Real High School. As senior, was All-State, All-League, All-Region, All-Valley, LA Times All-Star choice, and Most Valuable Player, At Utah, was an All-WAC conference pick in 1993, averaging 5.7 yards per carry and gaining 242 yards on 35 pass receptions. Drafted in 1994 by the Atlanta Falcons in the seventh round. Became a starter in the 1996 season, and immediately proved to be one of the NFL’s dominant backs, running for over 1,000 yards that season and again in 1997—only the third Falcon running back to pass 1,000 in successive years, In 1998, rushed for 1,846 yards, caught for another 319, and was All-Pro for first time. Rushing yardage was second only to Denver’s Terrell Davis, who broke 2,000, Establ ished a new NFL record with his 410 carries. Seen by most as the central force in garnering the Falcons’ first division title in 18 years.
Awards: Picked as NFC Offensive Player of the Week in 1996. Named offensive MVP by coaches three times in 1997 season.
Addresses: Atlanta Falcons, One Falcon Place, Suwanee, GA 30024.
quick moves for a 5’11”, 234-pound juggernaut. And Anderson is a superb receiver. He is the type of runner who strikes fear in the souls of defenses.
As Atlanta head coach Dan Reeves—another major factor in the team’s miraculous turnaround from ’96 to ’98—told The Sporting News, “He’s an extremely powerful runner and he’s got great hands. He’s also got unbelievable confidence in himself.” Quoted in CNN Sports Illustrated, Reeves also said, “To combine the power he has with the quickness, well, there’s not many people that size who can make people miss. And when he does get tackled, he’s hard to bring down.”As Reeves put it in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “he doesn’t give you much of a target to hit. All you see is helmet, shoulder pads, and knees, and those things are no fun to hit.”
Obviously Anderson is a physical player—one who enjoys getting down and dirty and ending the game with some blood on his uniform. But when he wants to cut and evade, he can do that too. Anderson described his style in The Sporting News: “I pride myself on being able to run you over, [or] run around you and make you miss. Every time you face me, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You may get a shoulder in the mouth, you may get a stiff-arm, you may get shook.” In a CNN Sports Illustrated piece, Anderson gleefully related the impact his stiffarm has on opponents: “It’s very embarrassing for a defender. Imagine just walking into a jab. BAM! And then they’re thinking about it the rest of the game, every time they come over to you. It’s great.”
St. Louis Rams linebacker Roman Phifer told a Sports Illustrated reporter, “He’s got great feet. If he has room, he’ll make a move, but when it’s tight he puts his head down. With his power, he also goes forward. “In the same article, New Orleans Saints linebacker Mark Fields said, “He’s a tough, smart runner. You think you’ve got him tackled, and he’ll stick a hand down, catch himself and crawl and scratch for a few more yards.” As quoted on the Falcons’ Website, Dallas defender George Teague said getting hit by Anderson “was like being run over by an entire convoy of trucks.”
As if this is not enough, Anderson also seems to gain strength in the second half. Just as the defense starts to flag from exhaustion, Anderson picks up steam. His hardhitting style keeps the ball in Atlanta’s hands, eating up the clock, as he helps propel the team toward the end zone. As Anderson said in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “In the first half of any game, I don’t even try to avoid people. You keep beating on folks like that for 30 minutes, and sooner or later they start that sashay-tackling, you know?” In another article in that paper, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss has this to say about Anderson after the Falcon runner blasted 147 yards of rushing one game: “There were numerous times when we were in a position to make a tackle in the backfield, and we weren’t able to wrap him up. [Anderson’s] a good enough back that he’s going to break a lot of those tackles. Plus, it’s late in the game, you’re tired and he’s a load.” In one game, Anderson carried the ball 11 times in the last six and a half minutes of the game to run out the clock on a 76-yard drive.
Jamal’s father, James Anderson, met Muhammad Ali in 1973 at a national Muslim convention in Chicago, where he had been assigned to provide security for the boxing great. Once Ali and Anderson—a former Newark police officer and a lieutenant at Mosque 25—bonded, Anderson began his illustrious career as security man to African American sports luminaries and entertainers. The family moved from New Jersey to Woodland Hills, California, in 1979, and James Anderson’s roster of clients over the years has included Sugar Ray Leonard, Donna Summer, Pryor, Jackson, Boyz II Men, and Tyson, among many others.
Growing up in such an environment was something of a modern fairy tale. ‘Uncle Muhammad’ would entertain Jamal and his seven siblings with magic tricks when he would visit. Donna Summer read him bedtime stories. Sugar Ray allowed him into the locker room after world championship bouts and sang at Jamal’s birthday parties. Jim Brown—Jamal’s greatest sports hero, to whom he paid permanent tribute by switching to jersey number 32 when he was ten years old—would show up at Jamal’s Pop Warner games. Byron Scott, the former Lakers guard, came by the house to cut his hair. Pryor let Jamal roller-skate on his tennis courts. Anderson’s was obviously not a typical childhood.
Having all these international superstars in his extended familyhad several effects on Anderson. Most important, perhaps, it instilled a belief that he himself was destined for greatness. In addition, Anderson developed ease with celebrity and the media, as well as a hunger. The Andersons have always interacted with their superstar clients and friends on a natural, down-to-earth level. Despite Anderson’s public display of ego, his family keeps him honest. His whole life he has known the truth about celebrities: they are just like everyone else.
In January 1999, a CNN Sports Illustrated reporter asked Anderson whether he was nervous during the countdown week for the Super Bowl.“I guess it really, really helps when you’ve been around the people I’ve been around,” he responded. “I’ve been around the fanfare, I’ve seen around the ups and downs. All along, I’ve known these people on a personal level, and they’ve always remained the same people.” In USA Today Anderson said, “I grew up around a lot of people who were called the greatest, but my family always treated them like anybody else. People tell me, ‘You saw those superstars when they were being real.’ But I prefer to say I saw them when they were just genuine people.”
While Anderson’s home life instilled a sense of humility in him, it also fostered the drive to aim as high as possible, to shoot for supremacy. With such extreme standards of achievement all around them, Jamal and his siblings were fiercely competitive. Second best was not a respected outcome. In the AtlantaJournal and Constitution, Anderson said, “From watching all those [football]films and being around all those celebrities, I learned that if you’re going to play, you’ve got to be the best. Always be No. 1— win, win, win. And the competition among my [four] brothers and [three] sisters was fierce.”
There were plenty of other people around to reinforce that notion. As the USA Today piece described, Anderson received a call from ‘Iron Mike’—who has been a big brother figure to Jamal—in the middle of the 1998 season:“’You’re doing good, but you need to be No. 1!’ Tyson bellowed. ’You’ve got to gain 2,000 yards this season! You’ve got to be the best!”‘
Anderson was obsessed with NFL films when other kids were getting off on Rocky and Bullwinkle. From the get-go, he knew that football was going to be his Big Thing. His first hero—and still the greatest—was Jim Brown. Anderson played in the Pop Warner league, and then went on play hard at EI Camino Real High School, where he was an All-League, All-Region, and All-Valley selection. As a senior, he was team captain, an All-State and LA Times All-Star choice, and Most Valuable Player. But he played in other ways too, completely neglecting the academic side of things. After spending a couple of years at Moorpark College(CA), Anderson was recruited by many of the big schools: USC, UCLA, and Arizona. But he chose the University of Utah, because he liked the fact that theschool stressed academics as much as athletics for its players.
His senior season was very strong; he rushed for 1,030 yards, averaging 5.7 a carry, and was picked for all-WAC conference. In the Freedom Bowl against Southern Cal Anderson turned in a fine performance, with 133 total yards.
Anderson expected to be plucked up in the first two or at most three rounds of the 1994 draft. His family organized a big celebration for the first draft day. But recruiters seriously mis-evaluated the running back, seeing him as a little too small and average as a blocker to play fullback, and not fleet enough to qualify as feature back. By the time he was nabbed in the seventh round, 200 players had been chosen ahead of him. The experience was a painful blow for Anderson, and not something he will soon forget.
As Anderson pronounced in Sports Illustrated, “That isn’t something you get over in a year or two. This is careerlong.’‘ No doubt his opponents will continue to pay for this slight. Meanwhile, Terrell Davis, the phenomenal Denver Bronco back that led the NFL in yardage in 1998, with 2,008, had been drafted 196th. Recruiters will admit that theirs is an inexact science, but many of them must feel downright foolish for passing up these two—arguably, the best backs in the game.
With Craig “Ironhead” Heyward playing Pro Bowl-quality ball for the Falcons, Anderson had to bide his time before he got to show what he could do. His rookie season he ran the ball all of two times, for a net one yard loss. In 1995, Anderson got to play in all the games, though not as the starter, and he rushed 39 times for a total of 161 yards—a 4.1 average. Plus another 42 yards from four pass receptions. However, he made a serious impression as a kickoff returner, with 24 runs totaling 541 yards—an impressive 22.5 average.
In 1996, Anderson got his chance at last to demonstrate what he knew he could do. He ended the season with 1,055 yards—only the seventh Falcon player to pop the 1,000-yard barrier and the eleventh best in the league. But he ran up some impressive comparative stats that season: his 4.55 yards per carry ranked second in the NFL; he was third for receptions by a running back, with 49; seventh in total yards from scrimmage, with 1,528; fourth in rushes of over 10 yards, with 30, and so on. He rushed over 100 yards in three games, and totaled over 100 yards all-purpose in seven. Jamal Anderson had arrived.
Unfortunately, the Falcons had not. The team finished the season with a miserable 3–13 record. But in 1997, the team started to gel, with Coach Dan Reeves moving away from the run-and-shoot strategy to a more run-based game. Chris Chandler, the veteran ourneyman quarter-back, had an excellent season. Blocking improved for Anderson, thanks largely to the efforts of Bob Christian. Despite a nasty ankle sprain, which squelched Anderson’s production in the first half of the season, he finished with another 1,000 yards plus season—only the third Falcon to achieve that feat.
Coach Reeves deserves a lot of the credit for turning the team around. Anderson’s talent has been an immeasurable weapon, but without the right strategist, talent itself rarely is enough. It took Reeves a little while to get the Falcons cruising: they lost the seven out of the first eight he coached. But then came an incredible 11-game winning streak. At the time of Superbowl XXXIII, they had won 22 of their last 26 games.
But the 1998 season was the true turning point. Anderson turned in one stunning game after another, excelling in the rush, at receiving, and as a blocker. Chandler threw better than he ever had in his long career, and Falcons receptions was superb. Atlanta astonished the league by turning in a 14–2 final record. They trounced the Dolphins 38–16 and then defeated the Vikings, who succeeded in shutting Anderson down but not Atlanta. Meanwhile, Anderson launched a good-natured but very public campaign to be elected NFL MVP.
Denver prevailed in the Super Bowl, snagging the coveted distinction of back-to-back championships. Anderson rushed for nearly 100 yards, close to Terrell Davis’ total. But Atlanta madecostly mistakes, and the Denver offense, driven by the elite veteran quarterback John Elway, was magnificent.
But the Falcons have become a formidable force, and another Super Bowl appearance is far from impossible. Anderson likely has many years of pro ball ahead of him, and at the rate he is going he will soon fit right in among his father’s clientele of world conquerors.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, August 25, 1994; November 6, 1998, p. E01.
Sports Illustrated, December 28, 1998, p. 50.
The Sporting News, November 30, 1998, p. 26.
USA Today, November 13, 1998, p. 3C.
CNN Sports Illustrated (online), November 4, 1998; January 12, 1999; January 23, 1999.
The Atlanta Falcons’ website: http://www.nfl.com/Falcons.
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