Big-game stage suits Anderson

Falcons: Fifth-year back Jamal Anderson, no stranger to celebrity, is quickly making a name for himself with his rushing exploits.

January 30, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- Jamal Anderson knows that a showman needs to keep coming up with new material.

That's why the fifth-year Atlanta Falcons running back is promising a new dance to top the Dirty Bird in Super Bowl XXXIII.

"Watch me when I score," he said.

Notice the word "when." Not if.

If ever a player were made for the Super Bowl, it's Anderson.

Not only is he good enough to be Atlanta's top offensive weapon, but he's also savvy enough to understand what kind of stage the Super Bowl is.

In an era when many athletes are uncomfortble in the spotlight, he relishes in it.

Celebrity is nothing new for him because his father, James Anderson, was a bodyguard for celebrities. His first client was Muhammad Ali.

Ali was in the hospital waiting room when Jamal was born. Sugar Ray Leonard sang at a birthday party. Donna Summer was a baby-sitter. Mike Tyson is a guy he talks to on the phone. Richard Pryor and Arsenio Hall were houseguests.

He learned his stiff-arm technique by watching Jim Brown on NFL Films and then practiced the technique in Pop Warner games with Jim Brown watching on the sideline.

His father was working for the Newark, N.J., police department in 1973 when he was assigned to work as a bodyguard for Ali.

There was an immediate chemistry.

"We got along well," James Anderson said. "So he called me and I thought it was a joke, so I hung up. And then he called me back and he was like. "

James Anderson then does his own Ali imitation, "I'm the greatest of all time, don't hang up on me, fool! What's wrong with you?' I was like, `Ooh, this is really Ali.'

"Jamal has been around greatness and I think it taught him humility," his father said. "If you see him [bragging], he's joking. He got that from Ali and Sugar Ray. It helps him to relax and it relaxes you. He doesn't want you uptight when you're talking to him."

Jamal said, "My dad was the one who always put everything in perspective with respect to Muhammad Ali's press conferences or Sugar Ray's or Mike Tyson's. He would explain everything to me and how to be natural and relaxed, how they were able to achieve not only athletic greatness, but the things they were able to do outside the athletic field."

For a long time, it looked as if Jamal, 26, would never be a celebrity himself.

Even though he rushed for 1,030 yards in his senior year at Utah, he lasted until the seventh round in the draft in 1994.

As the rounds passed without his name being mentioned, he said, "I was sitting in front of the TV going, `Oh my God.' "

At 234 pounds, Anderson looked too big to play halfback, but he was too quick and had too many moves to make it as a fullback.

"People did not understand my abilities and my talents," he said.

"It was difficult to assess where I belonged. I played I-formation fullback at Utah and then in the single-back formation. The Bus [Jerome Bettis] was just getting started in the NFL and there wasn't a trend toward big backs at the time. Maybe I was a tweener."

It didn't help that he was drafted in 1994 by the Falcons, who were then playing a run-and-shoot offense, so he saw little action his first two years.

In 1996, he got a chance to carry 232 times and gained 1,055 yards. When Dan Reeves arrived on the scene in 1997, he made Anderson the focus of the offense, and Anderson carried 290 times although his total of 1,002 was similar to the previous year.

This year, he set an NFL record by carrying 410 times for 1,846 yards. When Byron Hanspard was lost for the season with a knee injury in the final preseason game, Anderson became the running offense.

"You go from being a tweener to the prototype," he said. "I'm fortunate to be one of those guys. I like when teams have to prepare to try to shut me down. That's what I thrive on."

Reeves said, "With his combination of size and quickness, he breaks one tackle, and all you see is his helmet, shoulder pads and knees. That's not a great target."

Coach Mike Ditka of the New Orleans Saints had high praise as well.

"He's fast. He's powerful. He's strong. He's got good balance," Ditka said. "Most people look at him and say he's a power back and I guess he is. But he's a power back who can go the distance."

Anderson also knows how to keep his offensive linemen on his side. He ordered a truckload of 20-inch TV sets when he passed the thousand-yard mark. But when he set a franchise record, he knew he had to get something bigger.

He gave eight teammates state-of-the-art, 36-inch flat-screen TVs that cost more than $1,000 each.

"When he'd have a big game, we'd be going, `The box is getting bigger,' " left tackle Bob Whitfield said. "When I saw the box, I said, `He's the greatest runner back ever.' "

Now he's on the biggest stage and enjoying himself.

"I've been a spectator for so many Super Bowls," he said. "I'm happy to be part of the game, and you're going to see happiness in everything I do. There are no bad days for Jamal Anderson. It's the greatest athletic stage there is."

For all of his success, though, Anderson keeps it all in perspective. When he's asked to name the NFL's top running backs, he doesn't include himself.

"Barry Sanders. Then Terrell [Davis]. As for third, you've got to go with either Jerome Bettis or Eddie George," Anderson said. "I'm getting up there. I don't think I'm in the top five yet. If I can do 1,400 or 1,500 yards again next year, maybe I'll move up a little more."

He also has a chance to move up with a big game in the Super Bowl tomorrow.

Pub Date: 1/30/99

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