Henry Ellard and Willie (Flipper) Anderson may produce more electricity than the Hoover Dam when it comes to catching a football. But off the field, these two Los Angeles Rams don't generate enough juice to jump-start a toaster. Low voltage? Anderson, who at least has a nickname, is so far out of touch with his celebrity that on the rare occasions when he indulges in nightlife he sallies forth to sleepy San Bernardino, not Los Angeles. Mostly he hangs out in Chino Hills—a development so thoroughly suburban it could be from the Nick at Nite lineup—and trades Nintendo games with the neighborhood kids. Ellard, who once had a tag (he was known as Grasshopper at Fresno State), likes to cap a perfect day with a stop at a fast-food restaurant. Actually, a perfect day for Ellard would be making a fast-food pickup without stopping, as he speeds home to Fresno, Calif., in his fast car.
Flipper and Grasshopper. Remember when players were known by their urban street names? Apparently, these are less flamboyant times in the NFL. Now our heroes are likened to helpful porpoises and athletic insects. But forgive these two guys for their astonishing ordinariness. They are, by their own admission, both mama's boys; Anderson is as likely to check with "Mom-Mom" on the relative merits of Bible translations ("Just stick with the King James, baby," she tells him) as Ellard is to surprise his mother with an Eldorado. There is not much that can be done with mama's boys. Nor, in this case, much that needs to be.
"Mama did good," says Rams quarterback Jim Everett. "Besides, they've got great hands."
They've got great hands, legs, feet, hearts—all the parts necessary for world-class pass catching. Last season, Anderson's second and Ellard's seventh with the team, they combined for 2,528 yards receiving. The idea that two Ram wide-outs could have topped 1,000 yards in the same season, first time ever on this club, ought to alarm the rest of the league, which had its hands full when L.A. coach John Robinson was doing his Woody Hayes impression. But now, Ellard and Anderson give a team long known for Eric Dickerson running off tackle—about 38 times a game—a quick-strike offense. Anderson, who caught 44 passes for 1,146 yards, led the NFL with an average of 26 yards per catch in '89. Ellard, with 70 receptions for 1,382 yards, ranked second with a 19.7 average, a career high.
September 9, 1990
These numbers do not suggest blandness to opposing cornerbacks. San Francisco 49er Ronnie Lott, one of the best at defending the likes of Anderson and Ellard, knows what he's going to do if Anderson ever appears to be duplicating his performance against the New Orleans Saints last season, when he caught 15 passes for an NFL-record 336 yards. "I'm going to call timeout, walk off the field, out of the stadium and into the parking lot," says Lott.
That Ellard and Anderson are causing such excitement in the league is not entirely their doing. Robinson, who was known as "28-sweep" when he was producing tailbacks at Southern Cal, and as "47-gap" when he was calling Dickerson's number at Anaheim, had long ago decided the Rams needed to pass in order to win. He just didn't have the passer.
So Robinson landed Everett—he was the third player chosen in the '86 draft but couldn't come to terms with the Houston Oilers—in one of the biggest trades in club history. And in '87 he hired offensive coordinator Ernie Zampese from San Diego to update the Rams' passing game. Soon the 5'11", 182-pound Ellard, who made All-Pro in '84 as a punt returner, began getting reminders from Zampese that he had entered the league as a wide receiver.
"This Coach Zampese came into the film room one day," Ellard recalls, "and said, 'Henry, you're an All-Pro receiver. You got a chance to catch 60, 70, 80 balls.' " In reply, Ellard did his Travis Bickle impersonation ("You talkin' to me? You talkin' to me? Cause there's no one else in the room.") and finally said, as gently as he could, "I don't know, Coach. I just don't see how that can be done."
By the '88 season—with Zampese's system in place, with Everett's beginning to flower and with Dickerson's carrying the ball for the Indianapolis Colts—Ellard caught a team-record 86 passes. The Rams were forever changed, but Robinson is not without a lingering regret. "Part of me still wants Henry returning punts," he says.
Ellard was 1988's surprise. Anderson was 1989's. Although he had caught Troy Aikman's passes at UCLA, which should have qualified him for some extra attention in the '88 draft, Anderson was not considered to be much of a pro prospect. One service that rated college players for the draft had him 16th among wide receivers, behind even Don McPherson, who was a quarterback at Syracuse. Robinson claims to have coveted Anderson all along, but the fact is, Anderson was the Rams' fourth pick—and their second at wide receiver. "We thought he'd slide," Robinson says. "We didn't think Aaron Cox would." All the same, Cox, a first-round pick out of Arizona State, started ahead of Anderson their rookie year.
Anderson didn't much care, though. "I was in the NFL, just kind of amazed to be a professional," he says. "Practice every day, no school, money in your pocket." Do you have the picture of a guy wandering around Anaheim with a goofy grin on his face? Everett remembers Anderson in his rookie year this way: "A guy learning to talk and chew gum at the same time."
Last year Anderson worked so hard in the preseason that Zampese was using him as an example of team dedication. It was embarrassing, of course, but Anderson was well prepared when Cox hurt his hamstring in a preseason practice and Flipper became a starter opposite Ellard. Still, it was Ellard's show and Anderson didn't figure to catch too many more balls than the 11 he had pulled in the year before. "Henry was having a great year," Anderson says, "and I was only catching two, three balls a game." All the same, he allows, "Most were for big yardage, leading to scoring drives."
Anderson certainly wasn't as reliable as Ellard, whose precision routes, in a passing offense where timing is prized, remain a marvel. "Every step has a purpose," says Everett of Ellard. Anderson is six feet and 172 pounds, and his gift seemed to be speed, although it's a speed nobody can agree on. Everett calls it "a gangly speed." Steve Axman, who was UCLA's offensive coordinator, says, "It's a stiff kind of speed." Lott says: "Well, it's speed, but not burner-burner speed."
Whatever kind of speed, it was not a speed particularly impressive to Anderson's coaches or quarterbacks. And the fact that he was never exactly where he should be when he should be did not increase anybody's confidence in him. Yet Everett discovered that Anderson somehow got to the ball before anyone else. "He's got a Charles Barkley attitude," Everett says. "Every ball belongs to him." Robinson was impressed with "the enormous number of catches he made with the guy right on him. He has the speed to threaten the defensive back but more than that, he can time the ball and go up and get it."
The rest of the league got a good example of Anderson's timing last November, when the Rams played the Saints at the Superdome. The Friday before, Ellard had injured his hamstring, and the entire offense was plunged into doubt. "I mean, I'd been having some big games with Henry," Everett says. Ellard was, in fact, on a 100-catch pace. "So I'm wondering, Who's going to pick up the slack. But then we got into this rhythm."
There hasn't been so much syncopation in New Orleans since the arrival of Dixieland. Anderson, who had caught only 19 passes in the first 12 games of the season, says, "I felt like Michael Jordan scoring 60 points out there."
Late in the game, Ellard, an interested bystander, came by to tell Anderson he was approaching the NFL record for yardage in a game, which happened to be held by Henry's best friend and Fresno neighbor, Stephone Paige of the Kansas City Chiefs. "Some best friend," sniffs Paige, managing a laugh now.
"It's funny," says Everett, "but on the final play before the winning field goal, Aaron Cox and Flipper are running the exact same pattern. I throw to Flipper, he catches. Yet when I looked back at film of that game, I see that Aaron was 10 steps ahead of his man and Flipper was double-covered. Sometimes you feel like you're throwing a football through the tire of a Hyundai, but that day, with Flipper, it felt like throwing a ball through the tire of a John Deere tractor."
This is no longer the surprising development it once was. Both Ellard and Anderson are now, according to the hard-to-please Zampese, "legitimate," high praise indeed from Zampese. Everett, if he was skeptical at first, can now imagine himself throwing the ball into the Grand Canyon. Neither Ellard nor Anderson doubted their particular destinies. Both were raised to believe they were special, although Ellard has fallen somewhat short of the U.S. presidency his mother had predicted back in Fresno.
"Well, that's what she says she wanted," Ellard says, "but she always sensed something about me, always knew I'd end up doing something different. She picked up on that and kept me in line, kept me levelheaded, as if for a purpose."
Perhaps his mother, Margaret, didn't truly believe Henry would be president, but she was positive he wasn't going to play football. None of her boys—there were five (and three sisters) before Henry came along—were allowed to play any sports. Sam Lane, Henry's half brother, says his mother's involvement in The Church of God and Christ, "a holiness church, very strict," prohibited fun and games. "But when Henry was seven, I saw him do a gainer off this truck inner tube we used for a trampoline. I figured he had some athletic talent."
Lane, 15 years older, began working out with Henry, throwing a football to him in the street. Henry definitely had talent. Lane talked their mother into letting Henry play a little Pop Warner. Margaret, who had divorced Henry's father, Jeremiah, years before, worked a late-night shift as a registered nurse to hold the family together, and because she could not rule her kids the way she liked, it was successfully argued that Henry's reckless energy might be more safely harnessed at football practice. "She began to see the sense of it," Lane says.
Still, it was slow going. Henry remained so small that when the neighborhood kids saw him come home from practice, they assumed he was the equipment manager. He cried to his mother every day, certain he was going to be "a shrimp" all his life. In fact, though he did grow, he wasn't a starter on a team until his junior year in high school.
Track seemed the more likely sport for him. By the eighth grade he could jump his height (5'6") and long-jump 17'2". At Fresno State, where he specialized in the triple jump, he bounded to a world record of 56'5½" into the wind—now do you know why he was called Grasshopper?—only to be topped a few days later by Willie Banks. Ellard still wonders what he could have achieved if he had devoted himself to the event. On the other hand, ever since he watched Bob Hayes fly down a sideline, he knew which sport was more important to him.
At the time, hardly anyone who dreamed of playing for the Dallas Cowboys thought of going to Fresno State. But it was important to Ellard to stay close to his mother. "Just hooked on my mama," he says. He lived at home, though he tried dormitory life for one semester. "Too crazy," he says. Fresno State was a wide receiver's delight, and Ellard got all the balls and attention and home cooking he needed to ensure his being drafted in 1983 by the pros.
And once he collected on his first NFL contract, Ellard tried to buy his mother a new house. She resisted, so he refurbished the old one. (He later talked his mother into moving into the first house he bought in Fresno.) Then he bought a new Eldorado and put it into her garage. "Her eyes lit up," he says happily. (Of course, he owed her a car; as a junior at Fresno State he had pointed out a 1972 Gran Torino and she had quickly produced the financing for his first automobile.) And all the while, he and the rest of Margaret's children conspired to marry their mother off to—guess who?—Jeremiah. "Storybook ending," Ellard says of the recent remarriage.
Henry and his wife, Lenora, have a five-year-old son, Henry Jr., and a three-year-old daughter, Whitney, but he has never really left his mother. He built a 5,000-square-foot house near his mother's house in Fresno, and during the season he travels the 250 miles between there and Anaheim in his customized Mercedes as if it were a local commute. He likes fast food and fast cars, his only weaknesses. "Three and a half hours," he says, of a drive that should take longer. "But I know where the patrol cars hide." When he's running his routes, nobody can touch him.
Anderson at least has moved away from home in Paulsboro, N.J. But he is no more removed from the influence of "Mom-Mom"—Helen Hamilton, the maternal grandmother who, with her husband, Robert, raised him—than Ellard is from his mother. "She worries about me out here," says Anderson, almost embarrassed. "She tells me to watch out for the women, and when I'm in a bar, to watch my drink. It's still funny when she talks to me about drinking. And Saturday nights it's always, 'You're going to be in church tomorrow?' "
Hamilton might well worry about any environment less holy than her household, or her Faith Tabernacle Church, where she is pastor to "100 faithfuls." Imagine her anxiety with Flipper in L.A. "You do hear so much of what goes on out there," she says.
But Anderson can adjust to any environment; just check out his childhood. Anderson's mother, Verna, was just 15 when he was born, and she had ambitions of going to college. As she pursued them, the family settled into an unusual arrangement: Flipper and Verna were closer to being brother and sister, while Helen, even then a pastor, assumed the role of mother. (Verna is now a devoted fan, who, through her job at an airline, has been able to travel to most of Flipper's games.) Anderson's father, Willie Anderson Sr., who is now a minister in nearby Camden, N.J., remains in close contact with the family. And Flipper, raised by grandparents in a stew of seven uncles, considers it all to be as ordinary as Ozzie and Harriet. For the record, none of these people nicknamed him Flipper. That was done by Aunt Pearl, a distant cousin of Flipper's, who thought his crying sounded just like the critter then popular on TV.
Church was less a problem for Anderson than it was for Ellard. His grandmother's charismatic faith allowed sports, providing they could be played in the few hours when Sunday school, church services or revival meetings weren't going on. At Paulsboro High, Anderson somehow fitted in wrestling, sprinting, basketball and, of course, football.
Anderson has tried to recreate this environment in a subdivision of starter homes well beyond the L.A. glamour that his grandmother worries about. There isn't so much church, and only his three-year-old daughter, Shardae, by a former girlfriend, visits regularly. Otherwise, his life is as wholesome as his grandmother could hope for. After workouts, Anderson blocks out the hours from noon to two for All My Children and One Life to Live ("Got to see my stories," he says), naps and then plays golf, a sport he has become addicted to in just three months. He returns home to cook, using recipes he learned in his grandmother's kitchen.
Reports of this modest life, relayed back to Paulsboro, reassure his grandmother, who can't help worrying whenever the kids are out of sight. And there are so many to keep track of. Hamilton is the natural mother of 13 and has raised nine other children who were family or somehow wandered into her care. A boy with a "bad break" had dropped by that morning. He may or may not stay; it's up to him. "I wish I had a house with 20 rooms," she says. One "bad boy" she took in is now a youth minister. Others, from broken homes, "kids nobody cared about," have come and gone on to college or become successes in one way or another.
For example, Flipper. "All my children made me proud," she says. Mama's boys always do.