As he walked into the doctor's office, Mike Anderson was thinking that he was in the best shape of his life. It was the summer of 1987, and Anderson had been called into the student health center, along with a few of his Maryland football teammates, to take a routine physical examination. As a sophomore the previous fall, Anderson had become the leader of the Terps' special teams, returning kickoffs for an 18.6-yard average and punts for a 15.5-yard average. He was looking forward to the '87 season, when he would be given a chance to run the ball from scrimmage and show why he had been a two-time all-Met tailback at DeMatha Catholic High in Hyattsville, Md.
Then, as is his wont, Anderson made conversation. "As I was getting ready to leave, I told the nurse that I was feeling great except for my anemia," says Anderson. The nurse, Judy Edwards, summoned him back into the office. He had not taken a blood test while at Maryland, and there was no record of anemia in his file. She asked him to take a blood test.
That same evening, July 10, Anderson received a phone call from Edwards, asking him to return to the health center for further tests. The following day, Anderson learned that he had leukemia. "I was devastated," says Anderson, now 22. "I couldn't believe it because I didn't feel sick at all. All I thought was leukemia, wow, I'm going to die."
Nearly 2½ years later, Anderson received another telephone call. This time the call was from Maryland volunteer basketball coach Mike Gielen. In 1984 and '85 Gielen and Anderson shared time in the backcourt of one of coach Morgan Wootten's legendary DeMatha teams. Over the phone, Gielen explained that Terp basketball coach Gary Williams was searching for a backup point guard. Anderson, who is 5'10" on tiptoes and 191 pounds, hadn't played organized basketball in almost five years. He thought his friend must be kidding. Anderson's first basketball practice at Maryland was last Dec. 11. He played his first game for the varsity on Dec. 12.
March 5, 1990
Terp football coach Joe Krivak was among the first people to see him after Anderson received the frightening news in 1987. Anderson's condition was diagnosed as chronic myelogenous leukemia. With conventional treatment, the median life expectancy for a CML patient is 3½ years after discovery. Says Krivak, "The first thing Mike said to me was, 'Coach, I'm going to beat this.' " Krivak had his doubts, but he told Anderson that when he was ready there would be a spot waiting for him in the Maryland backfield.
By the third week of the '87 football season, Anderson was back in uniform. His condition had become generally known, and when he trotted onto the field at Maryland's Byrd Stadium to return a punt against West Virginia, the 40,125 fans gave him a standing ovation. "It was an emotional moment," says senior tailback Bren Lowery. "They were cheering so loud for Mike that I think it inspired all of us."
The Terps came from one point behind in the fourth quarter to beat the Mountaineers 25-20, and Anderson was given the game ball. Afterward, he was sought out by reporters. "I told them to go talk to Bren, because he scored the winning touchdown," recalls Anderson. "I didn't understand the fuss. As far as I was concerned, it was business as usual."
Anderson took a businesslike approach to his treatment, as well. The doctors had presented him with two options. The first was a bone-marrow transplant, a procedure with a 60% cure rate but one requiring a donor who has compatible marrow. The most common match is found between siblings, but Anderson is an only child. He has been listed with the National Marrow Donor Program since October 1987, but no suitable donor has been located.
By default, Anderson chose the only available treatment with the potential to cure him, alpha interferon, an experimental drug. Alpha interferon is a biological-response modifier, and though the mechanism by which it works on leukemic cells is still not understood, clinical observation has shown that it can control blood counts and symptoms related to the disease. Anderson, who at one time couldn't stand the sight of a needle, in August 1987 began injecting himself with interferon every day. The results were dramatic. Whereas at one time all of Anderson's blood cells could be identified as being part of the leukemic process, within a month apparently normal cells began to be detected in significant numbers.
He saw action in six football games during the '87 season before the pace of his recovery seemed to catch up with him. Fatigue and bouts of nausea are side effects of the alpha interferon treatment. "During practice he would go over behind the team house and throw up," says Krivak. "He was completely exhausted." Anderson didn't dress for the final three games.
The next spring was to be a new start for Anderson, but it became a nightmare. Over the winter, while continuing the injections, he had worked out in the weight room, and by spring he felt refreshed and strong. However, only a week into spring practice he began to feel the same kind of weakness he had experienced in the '87 season. "I hit bottom that spring," Anderson says. "All of a sudden I thought I was never going to play again, that I wasn't an athlete anymore. That was very depressing."
Back home in Capitol Heights, Md., he sought advice from his mother, Elois, his father, Norman, a guidance counselor at Foulois Middle School in Morning-side, Md., and his best friend, Ricky Byrd. Anderson decided to redshirt for the 1988 season and concentrate on recuperating and pursuing his degree in speech communications.
Still, he remained part of the team, wearing his game jersey with street clothes on the sideline for every game, and dividing his time between cheer-leading and helping Krivak. The coach remembers one Saturday at Duke when Anderson overstepped his bounds. "We were behind 16-14 in the second half and [wide receiver] Barry Johnson made a touchdown catch to put us ahead," says Krivak. "All the players ran down to the end zone to congratulate Barry. Mike was wearing his jersey and sweats and taking care of my phone cord, but all of a sudden I turn around, and who's on the top of the pile but Mike. We got an unsportsmanlike conduct call because Mike was on the field, but that's the kind of guy he is."
The next season Anderson had improved to the extent that he played 10 games in '89 and was the Terps' fourth-leading rusher, with 187 yards on 56 carries. Maryland finished a disappointing 3-7-1, but Anderson was the catalyst in removing a monkey from the team's back. Maryland had lost 24 straight games to Penn State when it took the field against the Nittany Lions at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore on Nov. 11. Late in the first half, Anderson sneaked out of the backfield and caught a swing pass for the first touchdown of the game. "He had tears in his eyes after the touchdown," says Lowery. "He knew he was back." The game ended in a 13-13 tie, a moral victory for Maryland but an enormous personal triumph for Anderson.
Meanwhile, back in Cole Field House on the Maryland campus, Williams was starting to worry about his basketball team. Talent was not the problem. Tony Massenburg, Jerrod Mustaf and Walt Williams were All-ACC material. What worried Williams was more subtle. He was in charge of a program in turmoil. The psychological residue of Len Bias's death in 1986 and the subsequent resignations under fire by Williams's predecessors, Lefty Driesell (in 1986) and Bob Wade ('89), had left the players drained. That's why Gielen mentioned Anderson to Williams.
"With all that has gone on around this team the last few years, our guys had a tendency to go into shells," says Williams. "As soon as Mike Anderson came out, he made it O.K. to show emotion. He has showed them the way."
Anderson's way is to dive for loose balls during warmups. To high-five the water boy. To set picks that induce emergency orthodontia. And to laugh at himself when he dribbles the ball out of bounds off his foot. The team has embraced him and dubbed him with the inevitable nickname for a two-sport athlete: Bo. "Everything Mike does the guys say, 'Bo knows this' and 'Bo knows that,' " says Gielen. "He keeps everybody loose."
The Terps immediately rallied around Anderson, running off five wins in the first six games he was with the squad. Anderson played only briefly in those games, but his presence uplifted his teammates. "I've thrown him out there whenever there is a lull," says Williams. "Sometimes you have to hide your eyes, but you know he'll make something happen."
Take what appeared to be, in the final stats, a simple assist by Anderson in the Terps' Jan. 4 win over Wake Forest. He fired a perfect pass to Massenburg, who took it moving under the hoop and jammed in a tomahawk slam. The running back-turned-guard then sprinted to his teammate for a high five, and all the Terps joined in a spontaneous love-fest. "That play was when basketball became a student activity that people could enjoy again," says Maryland sports information director Herb Hartnett. Anderson's role expanded to the point where he has become the first guard off Williams's bench. His numbers are puny, but the Terps, who struggled early in the season, have jelled with Anderson in the fold. "His stats don't matter much," says Massenburg. "Just having him out there picks everybody up."
Anderson shrugs off his image as some kind of Moses in hightops. "I just put my mind to something, and I feel I can follow through," he says. "That's the way I attack it on the court and with my leukemia."
At the time of Anderson's most recent bone-marrow test, in October, the presence of apparently normal cells in his body had steadied at more than 90%. In his latest blood test, on Jan. 25, a DNA analysis failed to detect any of the banding typical of leukemic cells. "Mike's response to the interferon treatment has been superb," says Dr. Edward Lee, who has been treating Anderson at the University of Maryland Cancer Center in Baltimore. "But what we don't know is whether interferon will cure him. Interferon has only been used to combat this disease for six years, and some patients can live for 10 years or more without the drug. So we don't have the long-term data to prove that interferon is a cure, but that's possible."
Anderson leaves the data analysis to the doctors and concentrates on his future. He plans to graduate in December, after which he would like to follow in the footsteps of James Brown, a friend and fellow DeMatha hoopster, who's now a broadcaster with CBS Sports.
Anderson has displayed his speaking ability at high schools all over the Washington, D.C., area. In the fall of 1988 he gave a speech before an SRO crowd in DeMatha's gym. "Michael told the kids there's no such thing as a bad break, that out of adversity he has realized an inner strength," says Wootten. "He is such a powerful speaker that he got me choked up, and then I noticed there wasn't a dry eye in the gym."
Clearly, Anderson knows what he's talking about. "This Bo knows fighting to the end," says Anderson. "I'll never give up."