Anderson Epitomizes Bears’ Tradition
The gesture was a casual one totally lacking in fanfare of any sort. One day in training camp last summer, Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka called running back Neal Anderson up from the back row of players doing calisthenics and told him to move to the front row. Anderson came forward, but when he stopped in the first row of the main body of players, Ditka pointed toward the row of team captains leading the workout and said, “No, no, no, I want you up there.”
It was a moment full of symbolism. Neal Anderson, who came into the NFL faced with the daunting task of replacing Walter Payton, the league’s all-time leading rusher, had proven himself big enough to fill those shoes without missing a beat.
Reacting to the significance of being named one of the captains of the Bears, a team with a rich and valued tradition, Anderson said, “Now, I have to make sure I do all my calisthenics.”
That remark is typical of Anderson’s infectious good humor. The compact 5-11, 210-pound runner has a kind of indefatigable quality about him, a buoyancy that can lift a team and carry it to victory. He did it again last Sunday when he caught a 50-yard touchdown pass from Jim Harbaugh with 4:03 left in overtime to beat Detroit, 23-17. “I told Harbaugh to just throw it up, and I’ll go get it,” Anderson said.
Anderson has been bothered all season by painful rib and hamstring injuries, but when his teammates needed a winning play, he made it. “The way he comes out every week and plays over injuries is a real inspiration,” said Harbaugh, who has persevered despite his own assortment of hurts. “He’s a great one.”
Two weeks earlier in the season, it seemed as if Anderson’s hamstring injury was too severe to allow him to play in a game at Denver. But Anderson badgered Ditka into letting him play, and he wound up carrying the ball a career-high 28 times for 111 yards to help the Bears grind out a 16-13 overtime victory.
“It’s not that I’m trying to please Ditka or fit the Bears organization,” Anderson said. “I’ve been the same type of player no matter where I was. But Ditka thinks the toughest guy should win. I kid the guys in the locker room and tell them I’m from the old school.”
During his Hall of Fame career as a tight end, Ditka epitomized the Bears’ rugged image. Above all else, Ditka respects a player who has the ability to handle the pain associated with the football business and show up for work on a regular basis. That’s why he loves Anderson.
When Ditka was asked if he was amazed Anderson played so well with the hamstring injury, he said, “I’m not amazed he played because he almost drove me nuts saying he was going to play. I’m amazed I called his number so many times.”
In this season of their revival following the 6-10 collapse of 1989, the 10-2 Bears have run the ball more than any team in the NFL. They have taken to pounding away with Anderson and fullback Brad Muster and letting their defense do the rest. If the Bears can win in Washington Sunday, it may be tough for the 10-2 New York Giants to keep pace with them and the San Francisco 49ers in the race to gain one of two first-round playoff byes.
“Our defense is allowing us to stick with running the ball,” center Jay Hilgenberg said. “That’s the whole key. The defense is healthy now.”
Injuries ruined the defense a year ago after the Bears got off to a 4-0 start. Uncertainty at quarterback hurt them on offense, but now, Harbaugh has won out over Mike Tomczak as the successor to Jim McMahon, who was traded away last season. He may lack McMahon’s flair for the bizarre, but Harbaugh has shown greater durability.
Toughness is a big part of what it means to be a Bear, and Anderson has typified that competitive spirit as much as anyone this season. “He played under a guy who missed one game in 13 years,” noted tackle Jim Covert, referring to Payton’s remarkable record of durability. “I think he got an idea Bear running backs are tough.”
In his first two seasons as the full-time starter following Payton’s retirement at the end of the 1987 season, Anderson rushed for 1,106 and 1,275 yards, respectively, and was named to the Pro Bowl both times. When he came out of Florida, Anderson was downgraded in the 1986 draft because the scouts believed he was a poor receiver, but he has led the Bears in receiving twice. This season, Anderson leads the Bears with 853 yards rushing and 37 receptions.
Beyond the stats, Anderson’s example is what means most to the Bears. There was a game earlier this season against Green Bay in which Anderson suffered a concussion and then had to take a painkilling shot for a rib injury at halftime but still was able to rush for 141 yards and break a 52-yard run late in the game that helped secure a 27-13 victory.
“I’ve always had a high tolerance for pain, especially once I’m in a game,” said Anderson, who has practiced self-hypnosis in the past as a means of blocking out the pain. “I’m not going to jeopardize my career or the team, but anything short of that, I line up and play.”
The use of painkilling drugs is fairly common throughout the NFL, but care must be taken not to mask pain and risk further injury. While Anderson has taken injections for the rib injury and a broken left index finger, he never considered taking a painkiller for his hamstring injury because of the danger it could tear if he couldn’t feel it and not know how far he could push it.
“It depends on the (injured) area,” Anderson said. “I have it checked through the medical people to make sure I’m not risking more damage.”
Part of the reason Anderson pushes himself so hard is because he loves any challenge, from playing cards to playing tennis, golf, Ping-Pong, pool, darts or Nintendo games. But he also has fought hard to free himself of the specter of Payton. There was some friction between the two in Payton’s last season when Anderson led the team in rushing while playing second team. And not long ago, Payton made the comment in an interview that the quality of NFL running backs “trickles off” after Eric Dickerson and Roger Craig.
“I’m not going to get into that,” Anderson said. “Everybody has their opinion as to who is considered the best running back in the league. Only Walter can answer why he said that.”
Maybe it had something to do with the way Anderson pushed him into retirement. He was not content to wait patiently for his turn until Payton retired. “I came in and wanted to play after one week,” Anderson recalled. “I met with Ditka and that’s how I got on special teams. I think I was supposed to say no when he said I could play special teams, but I said yes.”
“I wanted to play even when Walter was here. I admit he’s probably the greatest running back of all time, but I felt I was ready to play.”
Apparently, Anderson was ready. Payton never will be forgotten because he set the standard for toughness, but since Neal Anderson has been around, Payton hasn’t been missed either.