Oklahoma State Tailback Ernest (Plug) Anderson fits his nickname in so many ways that Cowboy fans who eagerly try to explain them to you—generally over pitchers of their state's 3.2 beer—can wind up fairly plugged themselves before they finish. Let us count the ways: At a bowlegged 5'10" and 189 pounds, Plug is built like a hydrant...he squeezes through the narrow neck of a bottled-up defense like a...he hits linebackers in the belly like a shot of lead, and they drop like they've been...he provides spark...he shills for his coaches and offensive linemen like Rancher Bob selling late-model Fords. And Anderson brings to mind former OSU and Dallas Cowboy Fullback Walt Garrison, who, of course, was Just A Pinch Between the Cheek and Gum.
By gaining 205 yards in the Cowboys' 25-25 tie with Colorado last Saturday in Stillwater, Anderson, a junior, also plugged himself into the record book: He became only the fourth runner in college football history to gain 1,000 or more yards in the first five games of a season. His 1,042 in 174 carries this fall put him alongside Cornell's Ed Marinaro (1,026 in 1971) and Southern Cal's Ricky Bell (1,008 in '76) and Marcus Allen (1,136 in '81) in the 1,000-in-five club, and make him far and away the nation's leading rusher. At 208.4 yards per game, Anderson is averaging 41.6 yards more than his closest pursuer, Tailback Eric Dickerson of SMU, who has 1,001 yards in six games. As one NFL scout put it, "That's a lot of yards against air."
Anderson, a blocking back until late last season, started piling up stats on the Cowboys' first play from scrimmage this fall when he broke off-tackle for a 74-yard touchdown against North Texas State. He finished that game, a 27-6 Oklahoma State victory, with 220 yards on 26 carries and followed it with 152 yards against Tulsa, 195 against Louisville, 270 against Kansas—surpassing Terry Miller's 1977 single-game school record of 246—and last Saturday's 205. "Anderson is in the backfield one second and 10 yards downfield the next time you see him," said Louisville Linebacker Darrell Wimberly after the Cardinals beat OSU 28-22 last month. Last Saturday, Colorado found out about Anderson's durability—Plug carried 39 times—and discovered the power he packs in his 23-inch thighs. "Ernest is no jitterbug runner," says Cowboy Coach Jimmy Johnson. "He runs smack over people."
Anderson was smack unknown until this season, when Johnson shifted him from fullback to tailback in the Cowboys' I formation and he began carrying the ball twice as often. "We knew last year that Ernest was our best runner," says Oklahoma State Running Back Coach Frank Falks. "Unfortunately, he was also our best fullback, and we needed him there to block."
But no one dreamed that Anderson, who gained a total of 1,116 yards in his first two full seasons, would be as good a tailback as he is. Even while in high school in Orange, Texas he never rushed for 1,000 yards in a season or 200 in a game. This year, however, not only has he run and blocked well, but he has caught 10 passes and fumbled just once. NFL teams have taken notice. At a recent practice, Dallas Vice-President for Personnel Development Gil Brandt overheard a mild argument about whether Anderson's size would keep him out of the pros. "Except for an inch in height he's as big as Tony Dorsett," said Brandt. End of argument.
Plug was only 5'8" and 165 pounds when he showed up for his freshman year at OSU in 1979, and at the time only the OSU coaches thought he'd ever play much Big Eight football. They knew that Anderson had been the outstanding high school back in the talent-rich Golden Triangle (Beaumont, Orange, Port Arthur) of southeastern Texas, an area that has produced, among others, Bubba Smith, Mel Farr and Joe Washington. They also knew that when Garrison came to Stillwater in 1962, he, too, was a modestly recruited, relatively scrawny Texan. Their plan for Anderson, who had never lifted weights, was to build him up.
But first he broke down. In the opening game of 1979, against North Texas State, Anderson bruised a knee ligament so badly that he had to sit out the entire season. He was subsequently ruled a hardship case and given another year of eligibility. "That freshman year was tough," he recalls. "I had my bags packed on several occasions." At the time, Anderson, the fourth of eight children (a ninth child drowned in the Gulf of Mexico before Ernest was born) in a poor but close-knit family, was upset by the recent death of his grandfather and by a mysterious series of blackouts and headaches his mother, Leola, was suffering. Besides being 650 miles from home—he had never been north of Dallas or west of Houston before going to Oklahoma State—Anderson wasn't sure he belonged in college. "I was just planning on getting a job until my older brothers talked me into going on in school," he says.
His family and coaches persuaded him to stay in Stillwater, and with the help of the Cowboys' Swedish-born strength coach, Bert Jacobson, and regular deliveries of Leola Anderson's hams and barbecue, Ernest added thick slabs of muscle. He increased his bench press from 185 pounds to nearly 400, and though his speed in the 40 went from 4.4 to 4.5, he started making, so to speak, a greater impact. As a result, he now has to wear special $700 air-filled shoulder pads to protect himself on his low-to-the-ground rumbles up the middle. And though he's too self-effacing to talk about his own accomplishments, he's obviously a much happier young man.
Anderson's biggest boosters are his offensive linemen, who walk around in T shirts that read: I KNOCK 'EM OUT FOR ERNEST. "Hey, you guys just get to block for him," says Tackle John Cegielski to his four colleagues. "I get to stand next to him in the huddle." For one thing, they respect Anderson for his hard work: Last summer he spent three hours each day lifting weights and 45 minutes running—after he put in nine hours of construction work alongside his father, Elvin, at a chemical plant in Orange. Anderson is also completely dedicated to the team. He was so down after the Cowboys' disappointing 24-24 tie with Kansas, despite his 270-yard rushing performance, that Guard Kevin Igo had to console him. "I told him I loved him and that that goes for all the offensive linemen," says Igo. "Those guys are some pretty nice people," says Anderson.
Anderson's following extends to the Orange Crush—a dozen or so friends and family members who make the 14-hour drive north from Orange to watch OSU home games in Stillwater. Sixteen made the trip last weekend, including Anderson's mother, his brothers and his girl friend, Texas Southern sophomore Cynthia Johnson. "Twenty people told me to bring back Oklahoma newspapers on Sunday," said older brother Jesse, 24. "They want to read about their Plug."
Anderson's life off the field is usually about as exciting as the Interstate between Orange and Stillwater. On a big night he and a few teammates will play dominoes in the dorm and fry up chicken and potatoes in Anderson's electric skillet. On weekends during the summer he hangs out at Port Arthur radio station KYHS-FM, where his disc jockey friend Ishmael (a.k.a. L.J. Jack) lets him cue up soul records. "He put together a tape that we play during our weight workouts," says Anderson. "He talks about OSU football, then plays Outstanding by Rick James. When I put that on, the guys go wild." But Plug himself only goes wild on the gridiron. For example, on Tuesday night of last week, when 1,745 student couples gathered on OSU's baseball diamond to break the world record for group kissing, he didn't dare leave the stands. "Well, you know, my girl friend would not have been too happy," he says.
As for Anderson's nickname, only his brothers know the true story of its origin. "It was a long time ago—seventh, eighth grade maybe," says Jesse. "We'd be playing in the park and we'd try picking up Ernest and throwing him down. Somehow he'd always land on his feet. He was just a plug. You could do anything and the Plug would always land on his feet." Big Eight linebackers will tell you that he hasn't changed one bit.