Bittersweet family reunion awaits Bears' Anderson in Florida

September 08, 1991|By Fred Mitchell | Fred Mitchell,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Neal Anderson, in essence, has two families.

His immediate family in Grace-ville, Fla., will always come first. But his second family -- the Chicago Bears -- is the one with whom he spends most of his time these days.

The Bears' stellar running back will be especially mindful of both today when the Bears play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Tampa Stadium. For the past five years, a Bears game in Tampa meant a joyful reunion. The entire Anderson family -- two older sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins and parents -- would make the trek from Graceville, on the northern border of the state. They would congregate outside the Bears' locker room after the game, carrying signs and banners saluting Neal.

Today it will be different.

Neal's father, Tommy Anderson, 63, was charged last month with the murder of his 37-year-old fiance, Laura Mae Tyson. (Neal's mother died two years ago.)

In addition to the effect it has had on him as a son, Neal has been thrust into the spotlight of this domestic tragedy simply because of his national celebrity with the Bears.

He understands that. And he is certainly aware of the tribulations and horrible grief felt by the victim's family.

The legal proceedings that will determine the plight of his father force Anderson to keep quiet about details of the case.

But you have to wonder how this unfortunate incident might affect the concentration and performance of the team's most valuable offensive player.

"I will go out and do my job the same as always," Anderson said. "I approach this game basically the same as any other game.

"It's always good to go home. Most of my family will be there. My nieces and nephews look forward to that. It's a big day for them. They have always attended. I have a lot of friends from college and some from high school who will be there. There could be as many as 40 to 50 people.

"To me, it's always nice to go to Florida to play the Bucs. I have fared pretty well against them, so that makes it even better."

For Anderson, one of Florida's all-time favorite sons, this homecoming will be especially emotional. He has always been close to his father. After signing the richest contract in Bears history two years ago, he bought his a father a new car for Christmas.

"It's going to be emotional for Neal anyway, because it's in Florida, where he went to school," said Bears running backs coach Johnny Roland.

"His agent [Steve Rappenecker] is there, and Steve has been very supportive. And there are a lot of Florida alumni who I am sure have been rallying around him. How could you not? He's such a great guy."

Anderson had a brilliant career at the University of Florida, finishing as the school's all-time leading rusher with 3,234 yards, mark since broken by Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys.

As a senior, Anderson gained 1,034 yards, second in the Southeastern Conference to Auburn's Bo Jackson.

At Graceville High School, he was an all-state performer, rushing for 1,200 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior. In track, he won state championships in the 100, 220 and high jump.

"When you come from a small city like Graceville, it's like you're coming from an extended family," said Anderson. "Everybody looks at you and says, 'Yeah, that's our guy.' I'm everybody's son, it seems like, in Graceville. And that's the way they treat me."

Members of his Bears family have done their best to ease Anderson's emotional pain.

"Obviously, it's going to be tougher on him because his dad is not going to be there," said Roland.

"He will have the rest of his family members there. Myself and his teammates and the rest of the coaching staff will be a good support group. I'm always there if he needs somebody to talk to. I have a pretty good read on what his moods are most of the time. So far he has been fine."

Anderson missed a preseason game against the Raiders to be with his family in Florida after the incident.

"When he came back, he said, 'It's time to go to work.' He really means that," Roland said. "It is a distraction, but football is his main occupation, and he takes great pride in what he does.

"He's pretty strong mentally. He is able to put it aside in the sense that it is nothing directly associated with him. It's just that it's a family member, and he wants to wish the best for his dad and the rest of the family.

"I try to coach my guys the way I wanted to be coached as a player. I'm with them six or seven months out of the year, and we are all an extended family. So we know the days the guys are not feeling chipper. If need be, you try to cheer them up. I just tell them not to get too high or too low."

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