(with interviews by Robin Carlin)
“Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go! Gotta go!”
C.J. Anderson zigs and zags; he ducks and darts.
But he’s not on the football field. He’s coming off of it.
Just as he does between the lines, Anderson is making his way through a wall of people – his legs and his mouth in constant motion.
He’s ducking and darting because everyone wants a piece of him. Like hole-plugging linemen, lunging linebackers or surging safeties, they’re all rushing at Anderson. But they don’t wear helmets. Nor do they sport pads, other than the ones they’re holding in their hands – as in note pads. There is no end zone, but there is a goal: Get to the doors of the Paul D. Bowlen Memorial Broncos Centre, the state of the art facility of the Denver Broncos.
Now the first-string running back – a moniker worn since Week 12 of the 2014 season – the media would like a word with Anderson. Or two. Or 10 minutes. Maybe 15, if he’s willing.
He is not.
“Ain’t got time for ya’ll today!” he chirps, focused but still sporting his signature grin.
They need a quote. They’d like him for a short segment. They’ve got questions – “It will only take a minute, C.J.!”
“Can’t! Gotta go!”
The dance is as old as training camp itself. The media needs players – for stories and sound bites. And the players need to go to work – lifting, meetings, physical therapy. Fans want to know and deadlines are approaching. But there’s a spot to be earned, a game to be played.
It’s all still new to Anderson. Last August and the August before, if he wasn’t wearing a Denver Broncos practice jersey, he could have slipped quietly from the field at Dove Valley and into the locker room without anyone noticing. He might has well have been an equipment manager, a low-ranking assistant coach, just a guy.
As an undrafted free agent out of Cal, Anderson arrived in Denver – an odd choice for a running back, given the already crowded backfield, which included, most importantly, the most prolific passer in the NFL – in the spring of 2013. A long shot at best, he went to work at Dove Valley with a “whopping” $12,500 signing bonus in hand.
He shined briefly that first year in Denver – a solid effort in a preseason game against the 49ers – but hurt his knee two days later in camp. The performance somehow earned him a spot on the roster, but he only posted carries in two games – four against Washington in Week 9, and three against the Patriots in Week 12. He touched the ball three times in the Super Bowl.
Nothing that happened in the 2013 season, however, moved him up the depth chart last August. Heading into, and coming out of, last year’s training camp, he was the team’s No. 3 back behind second-year, second-round pick Montee Ball, and third-year, third-rounder Ronnie Hillman. Still, Anderson was not exactly someone being swarmed by the media.
That’s all changed.
“C.J. has earned the opportunity to be our starter as we go into camp,” new head coach Gary Kubiak told the media on the eve of training camp.
Of course, the media already knew this. Anderson’s stellar performance to close out the 2014 season, albeit a campaign that ended in an unceremonious and unexpected thud at Sports Authority Field, suggested as much. Anderson saw action in 14 regular season games last season and started in the final seven. He racked up 849 yards on the ground and tacked on another 324 catching the ball out of the backfield. There were 23 running backs selected in the 2013 NFL Draft; despite his relatively limited number of games, only three of them – Eddie Lacy (2,317), Le’Veon Bell (2,221) and Giovani Bernard (1,375) – have more rushing yards than Anderson. With two more games as the Bengals starter, Bernard tallied 169 fewer rushing yards than Anderson last season.
Anderson’s performance over the second half of the season was big time. And that’s why sneaky scribes and radio mouth breathers now desperately seek his comments. If the Broncos star running back says something noteworthy, it’s gold. If the backup’s backup provides a good clip, it’s nice, but something that’s generally filed away for later.
“Maybe tomorrow?” Anderson asks as he steps from the grass and onto the sidewalk that leads to that elusive locker room door.
But every media veteran knows that Anderson isn’t penciling them into his calendar; he’s not punching a “reminder” into his cell phone. It’s a deferral tactic, a stall game played by professional athletes from every sport. The game will be played again tomorrow, and again the next day, and the day after that. Some will eventually get him, others won’t.
It’s been murmured more than once, as reporters stand around and twiddle their thumbs before the final horn of practice, that Anderson is “big timing” the media these days. Big timing is media code for “blowing off,” subtly or not-so-subtly “dismissing.” It doesn’t take too many Can’t Do Its or Maybe Tomorrows for them to turn. Last August he was the cool guy that would come on the show. This season he’s too big time.
Or say they say. To be fair, a player of Anderson’s caliber can’t tell everyone “yes.” The demand – now – is simply too great.
“No, he’s just more focused,” says CBS4’s Vic Lombardi, who’s covered Anderson through his ascent up the ranks.
“He gets like this when he’s only thinking about football,” says Jana Smith, Anderson’s publicist.
And why wouldn’t he be focused on football. While a new and sometimes strange spotlight shines brightly, a glow he’s not necessarily used to, Anderson is still playing for his life. He’s in the third and final year of his rookie contract, making $585,000. That’s a lot of money to the average person, but it’s peanuts for an NFL player, especially one who had the season Anderson did last year. He’s got a tough act to follow, and if he doesn’t, it could spell disaster. One hit, one bad game, one anything, and these could be the last pennies he earns from the NFL.
He’s said publicly that he’s not about to be knocking on John Elway’s door any time soon. His job is to chew up yards and score touchdowns, not to renegotiate a contract that already exists.
Truth be told, if he goes out and does what he did last winter, all will be forgiven. And he will get paid, handsomely. Most any member of the media with gripes in August will swallow their pride and still want to talk to him come playoff time. They’ll still need that ever so precious comment. Besides, Anderson is still Anderson.
Still the kid who grew up in the tough Country Club Crest neighborhood of Vallejo, Calif., often sleeping under his bed for fear of what might take place inside the home at night.
Still the nephew who hangs his uncle’s pendant – a charm that signifies six years of being clean – in his locker at Dove Valley. “My uncle never let me down,” says Anderson of the man who used to use and sell drugs. “He always said that he acted that way so we won’t act that way. And now I believe that ‘s true. None of my brothers are into drugs or in the streets.”
Still the high school recruit who was initially told he’d have to wait for Cal because his grades weren’t up to par. He eventually made his way there and became a philosophy major. Now he reads anything he can get his hands on.
Still the college running back who had to split carries with fellow senior Isi Sofele. Neither was drafted. Sofele got a look from the 49ers, but ultimately wound up in the CFL.
Still has the same girlfriend. In fact, she recently moved from California to Denver, where she now plays basketball for Metro State.
Still enjoys family more than anything. He had them all out to Denver for his breakout game against the Dolphins, a three-point win that was highlighted by Anderson’s 167 rushing yards and a 10-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter that gave the Broncos their first lead of the game. The family stayed for Thanksgiving – he got the groceries and mom did the cooking – and then three days later he ran over the Kansas City Chiefs – literally – for 168 yards.
Still the same guy who’s always been “shorter” and “chubbier” than his counterparts, no matter the level. That didn’t stop him from wedging himself between 330-pound Orlando Franklin and a would-be 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Colts in the playoffs. The Broncos were dead anyway, but Anderson wasn’t quitting.
Still wonders – after all that’s happened – if anyone will show up when he has an appearance. “You think anyone will come?” he often asks Smith before a charity event or signing. The kids from DPS’s Cory Elementary were there this spring when he told them, “Get a great education, listen to your teachers and listen to your parents… Dreams don’t die until you decide to give up on them.” Hundreds were on hand for another appearance over the summer, a charity event that featured plenty of well-to-do guests and a C.J. Anderson signed football that fetched thousands of dollars. The auctioneer was a kid and a fan of Anderson’s. After the event, Anderson quietly sought out the youngster and gave him a ball like the one that had just been auctioned off – real and signed, but absolutely free.
And Anderson is still the kid who promised his grandmother that one day, when he made it as a professional football player, he’d buy her a car. This summer he came through.
“Everything she’s done for me?” he says, just steps from the locker room door he’s dying to enter. “I’m not saying that I’m paying my dues; it’s just the right thing to do. As an athlete, you should help your family, especially the family situation I was in. We didn’t have too much money. I’m in a position to help them, to try to keep them above water, where they can be worry free.
“That just feels good in my heart.”
“He’s got a big heart,” says Smith. “Huge.”
Still, those grouchy media guys need him. The good that he’s done, everything he’s overcome – it’s all in the past. It’s already been reported. It’s yesterday’s news. And their deadline is rapidly approaching. Whether he’s focused or not – whether he likes it or not – he is the story when it comes to the Broncos backfield. They want their sound. They need that one, perfect quote.
After a Monday night loss to Cincinnati last season, Anderson took heat for offering up an irritated, “Marshawn Lynch-like” postgame interview with the media. He repeated the same answer, no matter the question: “We just played terrible tonight. All we can do is try to get better next week.”
Over and over again.
It might have been the first time that Anderson realized the whole world was watching. Anderson later apologized to KUSA’s Rod Mackey, but it’s what former Cal Bear and good friend Marshawn Lynch likely warned him about – you gotta watch the media.
“He calls me son all the time,” Anderson says of Seattle’s Lynch. “I look at him as a big brother. He’s just a good dude. You can learn a lot from him. That’s what people don’t get to see, because he gets tagged so much in the media. If you really get to know him, you know, show up to events and (see) what he’s done for the city of Oakland, it’s just amazing.”
Perhaps Anderson has taken more than just tips on handling the media from Lynch. Clearly, he’s found the good.
It’s just that he’s still new to this whole spotlight thing. He’s never been the “1A” – a term that evolved over training camp, a title that suggests the starting running back job is his to lose, but laced with the reminder that 1B, or even 2, is ever-poised and ready to take it at a moment’s notice. He’s never been “1A.” Never.
It would seem he’s always been more comfortable as the underdog. Defying the naysayers? Beating the odds? No problem. That’s what he’s always done best.
But what happens now that he’s The Man? Now that he’s Big Time.
That’s what the reporter wants to know.
“Tomorrow. Catch me tomorrow,” Anderson says, his hand dripping with sweat and reaching for the door.
He opens it and he’s gone.
Twenty feet from the door in which Anderson has just escaped, there’s a gaggle of writers, reporters and radiomen. They’re laughing and yucking it up, happily jotting down notes.
In their midst stands another underdog, an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Southern State. Twenty years ago this September, this same player made his mark on the NFL. He caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from John Elway in front of 78,000 screaming fans in the back of south end zone at Mile High Stadium. The catch gave Denver a 38-31 win over Washington.
A dozen years later he retired as the greatest Broncos receiver to ever play.
Rod Smith knows what it’s like to be the underdog. He remembers what it’s like to truly earn a job. And he probably knows a little about what it’s like to be C.J. Anderson right about now.
20 years from now will Anderson know what it’s like to be Rod Smith? That’s a big time question.