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Anderson Ends Up in Atlanta, Not in Limbo : Pro football: Nearly passed over in the draft, he knows he faces uphill battle--but that’s nothing new.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A long journey ended Monday for Jamal Anderson when the former El Camino Real High and Moorpark College running back was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons.

Anderson has climbed terrain some thought was too rugged for a 6-foot, 244-pound fullback who was much smaller in high school and who had to fight for playing time at Utah until the middle of his senior year.

“We’ve watched him go from the West Valley Eagles in Pop Warner to high school to junior college to college,” said James Anderson, Jamal’s father. “Now this is the end. This is the top of the line. This is the show.”

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As a former bodyguard for boxing champions Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson and a current bodyguard for the rap group Boyz 2 Men, James Anderson knows what it is like to be in the show. But nothing could match the thrill James got when the Falcons announced his son’s name in the seventh and final round of the draft Monday.

“That’s No. 1,” James said. “That’s my son. I’m part of that.”

But actually, this is yet another small beginning. As the 201st player taken in a draft of 222, Jamal once again will have to fight to earn his place--which James readily acknowledges.

“That’s fine,” James said. “That only made him eight times more determined than he would be if they drafted him where we expected.”

NFL coaches thought highly of Jamal, who rushed for 1,032 yards and 15 touchdowns at Utah last fall--most of it coming after the Utes switched to a one-back offense at midseason.

Jamal said he was rated among the top five fullbacks in the country by most publications, but an ankle injury after Utah’s regular-season finale with Brigham Young worried scouts.

Despite those worries, Anderson scored on a 35-yard run against USC in the Freedom Bowl and had two touchdown runs to lead the West to a come-from-behind victory in the East-West Shrine game.

But the ankle injury kept him out of some drills at the NFL Combine in March. When he returned to Indianapolis on April 8 for a physical, he was deemed healthy.

The Raiders, New Orleans Saints and Washington Redskins showed strong interest, but Anderson thought he would be chosen by the Kansas City Chiefs, who nabbed running backs Greg Hill of Texas A&M; and Donnell Bennett of Miami with their first two picks. A disappointed Anderson finally stopped watching the draft after the fourth round.

“I was sitting in front of the TV going, ‘Oh my God,’ ” Anderson said. “I was rated higher than guys who were getting picked. I didn’t know what to think.”

Finally, Anderson got a phone call from Falcon running backs coach Ollie Wilson, who said he couldn’t believe Anderson was still available.

Atlanta, with new coach June Jones and new quarterback Jeff George, is abandoning its run-and-shoot offense and switching to a more conventional offense, including the one-back set Anderson ran at Utah.

With his ability to block, catch and take off on a breakaway run, Anderson believes he compares favorably with the first fullback taken in the draft--Florida State’s William Floyd, selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 28th pick.

“He’s a great blocker, and that’s his No. 1 job,” Anderson said.

“He does that very well and I respect him for that. Personally, I think I’m a better runner than he is. But the one-back (set) is a different world. That’s when you really see what kind of ability we’ve got.”

Anderson will compete against Atlanta incumbents Erric Pegram and Steve Broussard.

But fighting for a job is nothing new to Anderson, who was injured his junior season at El Camino Real but set a school rushing record (1,153 yards) in his senior year. He was overshadowed by All-American Freddie Bradley his first season at Moorpark College but rushed for 1,163 yards as a sophomore.

“I had to fight my senior year of high school to get any type of accolades and at JC I was second fiddle,” Anderson said. “When I went to Utah, I was their No. 1 recruit. But they didn’t really do anything with me. I wallowed around here for a year. I’m used to this.”

James Anderson, a former all-state football player in New Jersey, is not disappointed.

“This is perfect for (Jamal),” he said. “Every time I think there’s an obstacle for him, he’ll go over it. He might not start for Atlanta, but eventually he’ll come to fruition and people will say, ‘Hold it. What have we here?’

“It might be this year.”


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