It is one of the first things you notice about Atlanta Falcons
running back Jamal Anderson, after you get past his penchant for
baggy suits ("He looks like one of the Oompa-Loompas," Falcons
free safety Eugene Robinson says), his abundant nicknames (Jam,
Jam 32, Trey Deuce, Jam the Juggernaut) and his curiously retro
hairdo ("I think he's trying to bring back the jheri curl," says
defensive end Chuck Smith). The man is preoccupied with status.
Last spring Anderson and his left tackle, Bob Whitfield, took in
an Atlanta Braves game. As the two friends strolled through
Turner Field, several fans acknowledged the running back, who
turned to the 6'5", 310-pound lineman and said, smugly, "You see
how large I am in this town."
In hopes of bringing Anderson back down to size, Whitfield kept
track of how many people recognized Anderson and how many
recognized him. Anderson won on the basis of his popularity with
"white guys over 45," says Whitfield. "That's his demographic.
Kids had no idea who he was. Women didn't look at him."
They didn't then, but they do now. The Falcons are 13-2,
champions of the NFC West and playoff-bound for only the sixth
time in their 32-year history. At long last Anderson has closed
the gap between his robust opinion of himself and his feats on
the field. He has, in the parlance of the players, blown up.
Serving as the primary bludgeon in coach Dan Reeves's medieval
but effective ball-control attack, the 26-year-old Anderson has
rushed for a team-record 1,743 yards this season (second in the
NFL only to the Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis, who had 1,830)
and 13 touchdowns. Not bad for a guy out of Utah who lasted
until the seventh round of the '94 draft, then found himself
fifth on the Atlanta depth chart when he reported to training
camp. Upon entering a coach's office that spring and seeing his
name at the bottom of a list of running backs, Anderson picked
up a marker and drew an arrow from his name to the top.
"He's been cocky like that since the day he got here," says
Whitfield, who is only too happy to point out that this
self-assurance was sometimes misplaced. As a rookie backing up
Craig Heyward, Anderson had two carries for minus-one yard. "And
it wasn't 'cause there was no blocking," says Whitfield. "He just
missed the holes."
After another season behind Heyward, Anderson served as a
secondary option in the run-and-shoot scheme of then coach June
Jones, rushing for a respectable 1,055 yards in 1996. The firing
of Jones after the '96 season and the hiring of Reeves--who
favors more of a run-run-run-and-shoot offense--portended bigger
numbers for Anderson. So did the signing of bulldozing fullback
Bob Christian, a free agent from the Carolina Panthers whom the
Falcons brought in to clear holes for him. Anderson, who goes
5'11" and 234 pounds, took one look at the 5'11", 230-pound
Christian and said, "You need to eat more."
"Before I got to know Jamal, I was thinking, I'm supposed to put
my butt on the line for this guy?" says Christian, who injured
his left knee on Dec. 13 and is out for the season. "But when
you get to know him, you realize that [trash talk] is just his
shtick. He knows we know that's not really him."
Even with a bum right ankle and an offensive line unaccustomed
to Reeves's smash-mouth style, Anderson picked up 1,002 yards in
1997. But once his blockers got the hang of the system, Anderson
responded with a breakout season that has been the most
successful in the history of this often sad-sack franchise. His
147 yards in Sunday's title-clinching 24-17 victory at Detroit
marked the 11th time Anderson has rushed for more than 100 yards
in '98, and his 392 carries lead the league. Due in large part
to him, Atlanta's average time of possession, 33:31, was the
NFL's best through Sunday's games. Thus does Anderson help keep
the Falcons' defense fresh and their quarterback conscious. When
number 32 is in a rhythm, opposing defenders can't zero in on
Chris Chandler, the team's talented but brittle signal-caller.
"He's got great feet," says St. Louis Rams linebacker Roman
Phifer. "If he has room, he'll make a move, but when it's tight,
he puts his head down. With his power"--Anderson squats 670
pounds--"he always goes forward." Never quite so far forward, it
seems, as when the opponent is St. Louis: In two games against
the Rams this season, Anderson rushed for 360 yards.
When Anderson describes his versatility--"I may put a move on you,
I may stiff-arm you, I may run you over"--Whitfield feels the need
to interject. "I tell you one thing his big ass won't do: He
won't run away from anybody," Whitfield says. "He'll make some
nice cuts, but the speed factor? S---, I ran him down last week."
"Jamal isn't overly fast," agrees New Orleans Saints linebacker
Mark Fields, who helped vote Anderson into his first Pro Bowl
this year, "but he's a tough, smart runner. You think you've got
him tackled and he'll stick a hand down, catch himself and crawl
and scratch for a few more yards."
Now that he is walking the walk, is there any chance that
Anderson might feel less need to talk the talk? Not likely.
Anderson's urge to remind us of his prodigious gifts dates back
to a spring weekend five years ago, when his self-esteem got
clotheslined. On draft day in 1994 Anderson's parents threw a
party for family and friends at their home in Woodland Hills,
Calif. "We had hors d'oeuvres, I made a big bowl of pasta," says
Jamal's mother, Zenobia. "This was the day we'd been waiting
for. We were going to the Show! But the Show didn't show."
Jamal had a nice senior season at Utah, rushing for 1,030 yards.
But he was a classic 'tweener: a trifle slight--and averse to
blocking--to be a true fullback; a bit ponderous, it was thought,
to serve as a feature back. The first three rounds, on Saturday,
came and went. By Sunday, as rounds 4, 5 and 6 passed him by,
Jamal lay down on his parents' bed, depressed, embarrassed and
furious. That's when the Falcons called.
Anderson felt dissed and pissed, and vowed that someone would
have to pay. Four and a half years later, Falcons opponents are
still paying. "That isn't something you get over in a year or
two," Anderson says. "This is careerlong."
The '94 draft galled Anderson not just because he knew in the
marrow of his bones that he was better than most, if not all, of
the 24 backs taken before him. (Where have you gone, Robert
Strait, Anthony Daigle, Calvin Jones? How are you paying the
rent these days, Fred Lester, Tony Vinson, Sean Jackson?) It
also offended his sense of destiny. Having grown up in a
household where Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Michael Jackson, Sugar
Ray Leonard, Richard Pryor and numerous other sports and
entertainment luminaries were frequent visitors, young Jamal
simply assumed that great things lay in store for him, too.
His father, James, was a Newark policeman who met Ali at a
Muslim convention in Chicago in 1973. The two hit it off, and
Ali invited Anderson to work for him as a bodyguard. Six years
later James moved his family to Woodland Hills and, using the
connections he had made through Ali, set himself up as a
security consultant who soon had a top-notch reputation. Work
poured in. Now, James is in Scottsdale, Ariz., heading up Mike
Tyson's security operation.
Having grown up roller-skating on Pryor's tennis courts and
sleeping over at Donna Summer's place, Jamal and his seven
siblings are neither fazed by celebrities nor bashful around
them. After Ali lost a fight late in his career, the Anderson
kids begged "Uncle Muhammad" to retire. Not long after Roberto
Duran beat Leonard in Montreal in 1980, one of Jamal's sibs
greeted Sugar Ray with the question: "Uncle Ray, how could you
let him hit you like that?"
Recently, Jamal asked Leonard for advice on what sort of charity
work he ought to be doing. Talk to schoolkids, came the reply.
Anderson was way ahead of him. Two years ago he had read in SI
about Dan Huffman, a lineman at Rossville-Alvin High in
Rossville, Ill., who donated a kidney to save the life of his
diabetic grandmother and had to give up football. Anderson was
so touched by Huffman's courage and selflessness that he flew
the teenager to Atlanta to take in a Falcons game. They have
remained friends. In the spring of '97 Huffman asked Anderson if
he would give the commencement address at his graduation.
"I expected him to say, 'Uh, let me think about that,'" says
Huffman, now a student trainer on full scholarship at Florida
State. "Instead, he said, 'No problem.'"
Anderson did not exactly zip in and zip out. He flew into
Cleveland, then met the Rossville-Alvin seniors at the nearby
Cedar Point amusement park. He went on rides with them, sharing
their laughter and nausea. He endured the six-hour drive back to
Rossville, then spent two days there.
"He got to know all my friends," says Huffman, who still seems
slightly incredulous, a year and a half later. "He still asks
about 'em. He wants to know how everybody's doing. He actually
By the time Anderson delivered his speech--he has a video of it,
which he screens only reluctantly--he had met half the people in
the gym. He warmed up his audience with a couple of jokes at the
expense of superintendent Phil Smith and then dean of students
Mark Janesky. He advised the graduates to make lists and seize
the day. "Dreams are the backbone of reality's accomplishments,"
he told them. He could have read the ingredients off a Wheaties
box and gotten wild applause, but instead he gave a substantial
talk that had the added benefit of being brief.
Huffman followed Anderson to the lectern, thanking his friend
"for taking time out of his busy schedule...and also for being
just a great individual." The teenager's voice cracked with
Watching the video from the couch in his Suwanee, Ga., house,
Anderson is misty-eyed, too. "I gotta take this out," he says,
grabbing the remote and clicking off the VCR. He mumbles
something about how he's got to get to bed because it's already
after midnight and he's got practice tomorrow.
Jamal Anderson's heart isn't the first thing you notice about
him, but it's the last thing you forget. The Falcons are on a
roll, and Anderson is blowing up in Atlanta. In Rossville he
could not be any larger.
most, if not all, of the 24 backs taken before him.