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Longshot Anderson Now a Favorite : Raiders: Signed as a replacement player during the 1987 strike, he leads a secondary that leads the NFL in pass defense.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 110 consecutive games, Eddie Anderson has been a hitter in the Raider secondary. With 17 interceptions, his average of 27.8 yards per return rates among the best in NFL history.

Not bad for someone who six years ago was considered not good enough by the Seattle Seahawks.

“Seattle never gave me an opportunity to play there,” said Anderson, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Seahawks in 1986 and was released before the 1987 season. “They said I was a two-year project but they cut me after one year . . . before I ever had a chance to play.”

What prompted then-Seattle coach Chuck Knox to release Anderson was a combination of the young safety’s testiness and a question about his leadership ability.

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They are reasons why the Raiders quickly signed him as a replacement player during the 1987 NFL strike.

“Being a young player at the time, I questioned Knox for not giving me playing time during the preseason,” said Anderson, who was a four-year starter at Division II Ft. Valley State in Georgia. “The day after I did that, Knox called me into his office and said that I was released. I told him then that he’d regret his decision because the next time he’d see me, I’d be wearing a Raider uniform.”

At that time, neither the Raiders nor any other NFL team were in contact with him. So, for weeks, he waited at his Warner Robins, Ga., home with his pregnant fiancee, anticipating a call.

“I waited and waited, then the strike came,” Anderson said. “At first I wasn’t going to play, but I weighed the pros and cons and realized that I needed the income. I figured that this would be my last shot to show people what I could do.”

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Despite having told Knox that he would someday be a Raider, Anderson was skeptical about joining the team.

That’s because a day before the 1986 draft, then-defensive backs coach Willie Brown had told Anderson that the Raiders would draft him within the top three rounds. Instead, they drafted Michigan safety Brad Cochran, who never played a down for them, in the third round.

Anderson went on to start all three strike games at free safety and neither he nor the Raiders have looked back since.

“Eddie has been a great player for us ever since he came here,” Raider Coach Art Shell said. “We liked him when he came out of (Ft. Valley State). He could run, he could hit and he could cover.”

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At 6 feet 1, 210 pounds, Anderson has all the tools for an NFL safety. The Raiders quickly realized that and made room for him by getting rid of veteran Vann McElroy.

By 1989, Anderson was a full-time starter and made his mark with big hits and timely interceptions.

“It’s true that I try to be intimidating,” Anderson said. “I like to take control on the field with my presence and ability to make the big play.”

In his seven seasons with the Raiders, Anderson’s hitting has never been questioned. His catching ability is a different story.

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“He has to have the worst hands that I know of,” Shell said with a smile.

It’s ironic that Shell’s only criticism of Anderson is a quality that helped Shell win his first game as an NFL coach, against the New York Jets in 1989.

That’s when Anderson intercepted a pass late in the game and returned it 87 yards for the winning touchdown.

“That’s Art talking there and that’s his opinion,” said Anderson, who had 26 interceptions in college. “All I can say is that I’m 12th on the all-time Raider career list in interceptions, and my average per return is probably the best ever. If they really felt that way, I know they wouldn’t still have me out there.”

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Once Anderson intercepts, what he does with the ball has never been an issue. In 1989 he returned five interceptions for 233 yards and two touchdowns. Last season, he intercepted three passes and returned them 131 yards. This year he has two for 52 yards.

“I’m just happy he’s on our team,” Raider fullback Steve Smith said. “To think how he stuck with the team basically as a longshot from being a replacement player, we’re very blessed to have him here. He’s worked very hard at it and has gotten everything he deserves.”

Early in his career, Anderson was a leader by example. Over the last couple of seasons, however, he has spoken out while spearheading a secondary that leads the NFL in pass defense and has 13 interceptions. When a big play has been needed, a defensive back often has stepped forward, as Anderson did two weeks ago when he recovered Thurman Thomas’ fumble in the waning moments of the Raiders’ 25-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

“Eddie doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but other offenses know what he does,” Raider cornerback Terry McDaniel said. “He’s one of those players who has consistently played well.”

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Anderson, whose contract expires at the end of the season, would like to play three or four more seasons with the Raiders, but does not rule out moving.

“I have to look out for my family’s financial security, and you have to keep all the avenues open for yourself,” Anderson said. “People know that I’ll give 110% every time I play, and whether I’m hurt or not, I’ll show up on Sunday and give whatever I got.”


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