The silver anniversary of Willie Anderson's draft finds the NFL's best turn-of-the-century right tackle going full circle.
When he was 13 and both a football and basketball prodigy, the fast break Bengals of 1988 helped lure him into following the NFL. Now 13 seasons after taking his last NFL snap, Anderson is becoming an even more familiar figure in Cincinnati in his role as the offensive line's roaming youth national ambassador.
As one of the 17 nominees for the Bengals inaugural Ring of Honor class, he also wants to be more engaged with the team that took him with the 10th pick in the 1996 draft.
"It's nice to see them reaching out to guys," Anderson says. "I remember the Bengals saying that year, 'We're not moving up or down. We're staying put and taking Willie Anderson.'"
Anderson came back into town last week to check on old friends and his old team as well as some new and old recruits. It's not only the home of his dozen seasons of Hall-of-Fame play, but the city of a growing list of blue-chip scholastic linemen he's helping get to the next level.
"I always wished as a kid that somebody would come back to our neighborhood," says Anderson, who grew up in Alabama's pro sports desert that he recalls, dryly, had no YouTube in the '80s or '90s.
"I always wondered why Oprah Winfrey or Michael Jordan didn't come to Mobile and showed us how they made it. Kids like Paris, Zeke, Jackson, that's why I started my academy. To not only help them as football players but in life, too. The NFL doesn't care about a former guy working with high school kids until the high school kid goes to the pros. My goal is to impact young men," whether they go to the NFL or not.
Anderson's portable all-purpose Atlanta-based Willie Anderson Offensive Line Academy that is also a recruiting service has taken off the past couple of years and grabbed some Cincinnati schoolboys along the way.
He took Princeton High School's Paris Johnson under his wing and guided him to such a perch that when Ohio State signed him last year they were credited with adding the nation's top lineman. He also had a hand in developing Clemson's Jackson Carman and the Bengals made sure they talked to Anderson before they drafted the Fairfield High School grad in the second round five weeks ago.
He tried to hook up with Carman and the Bengals last week during practice (where he also hoped to give an encouraging word to left tackle Jonah Williams), but when he called head coach Zac Taylor he was told that COVID protocols still banned visitors from Paul Brown Stadium. So he shot over to Loveland to work with old friend Zeke Correll, the Anderson High School product coming off a spring he was named Notre Dame's starting center.
"When I was going into my junior year in high school I got in touch with Willie through a family friend and he worked me out at Anderson," Correll says. "It absolutely helped me. Some of the stuff he taught, like foot work, you're just not going to get at the high school level. Even just getting into my stance. Just being able to load up my weight in a beneficial way helped me a bunch."
Correll didn't work with Anderson again until last week, but they've kept in touch over the years. He follows Anderson's how-to videos on Twitter and he reached out to him a few times with questions. Now that he's been promoted, he expects to do more of that, realizing Anderson has overflowing resources for a guy harboring pro dreams.
"Willie was such a great player, allowing something like a sack every year and none for three years is unheard of," says Correll, who has done his homework. "And he's such a good offensive line coach. I'm sure I'll be talking to him more now that I'm at this level. Just being able to keep in touch picking his mind, just learning some of the stuff he knows would be awesome for me."
Twitter has taken Anderson far and wide dispensing a myriad of advice. But he stayed at home to have one of those moments he craves. It used to be stoning a Pro Bowl pass rusher like Julius Peppers. Now it's meeting a kid like Ben Everett.
Everett was a high school teammate of Anderson's son Jair in John's Creek, Ga., and had no offers after his junior year. Anderson told Everett if he listened to him every day in practice he would teach him what college coaches want to see in a player.
"He ended up getting 30 scholarships his senior year. No camps. Off senior film," Anderson says. "His dream schools were Navy and Georgia Tech. Tech didn't offer, Navy did and he's an officer now. That's the kind of impact I want to have with my academy."
As he was once the spokesman for the Bengals locker room, Anderson gives voice to faceless linemen of all ages and their fate of pursuing excellence in trench obscurity.
"Everyone throws a ball. Everyone plays catch. Everybody considers themselves a Ray Lewis or a great defensive end causing a sack-fumble on the quarterback," Anderson says. "They all go outside doing that. No one goes outside to play offensive line. The mom and dad have no clue of what you have to do on the offensive line."
And you don't have to be a guy looking for a scholarship. Anderson is a big fan of Jonah Williams, a player with whom he's had minimal contact but a guy he has followed. He was delighted to read last week via Bengals.com that Williams has come out of his offseason looking "to take the fight" to the defense.
"I follow him on Instagram. People forget, when he came out I was on Twitter bragging on Jonah," Anderson says. "I watched him at Alabama when he was at right tackle and then switched over to left tackle and I watched him shut down guy after guy in that conference. I've always been high on Jonah. To be a great lineman, you have to have the right mentality. You have to be a thinker, which he is. I read where he wants to be more aggressive and I was really impressed with that. That's what I tell my linemen all the time.
"I don't condone violence," Anderson says. "The other guy has to know there's a chance I might hurt him. I don't want to hurt him, but I'm playing so aggressively, he's thinking, 'He might hurt me if he gets his hands on me.' If guys don't think that, they don't respect you. It was interesting to see Jonah say that because every play is a fight."
There you have it. That's the mentality that put Anderson on the semifinal list of the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year when the selectors whittled the field to 25 from all the players that have been retired more than five years and fewer than 25 years. He didn't crack the final 15 in a ballot that surprised many voters (of which Bengals.com is one), but his cause isn't forgotten.
"Bengal Jim" Foster, one of the most recognizable and active Bengals fans, is spearheading a June 19 tailgate at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as he summons members of the faithful to Canton. The rally is pushing all the great Bengals not yet enshrined next to Paul Brown and Anthony Muñoz, led by the bid of that senior quartet retired more than 25 years: cornerbacks Ken Riley and Lemar Parrish, quarterback Ken Anderson and wide receiver Isaac Curtis.
Willie Anderson, the Bengals all-time right tackle opposite Muñoz, leads modern era candidates such as running back Corey Dillon and wide receiver Chad Johnson.
"It's an honor to be nominated with guys like that," Anderson says of The Ring. "We all know guys like Ken Anderson and Ken Riley should be in (the Ring of Honor) and the Hall of Fame, too. Hopefully, the Ring brings the profile up for everyone."
A handful of players from that '88 team that wooed a junior high Anderson fittingly join him on the Ring ballot in a vote of season ticket holders that ends June 18. The future voice of offensive linemen was not yet aware of players such as Munoz and Pro Bowl right guard Max Montoya or defenders such as Tim Krumrie, David Fulcher and Reggie Williams.
But he was watching.
"I liked what every kid likes. Offense," Anderson says. "Two (basically) 1,000-yard rushers, a quarterback that threw the ball all over the field, a fast-paced offense, a good offensive line. At 13 years old, you're looking for fun and they were a fun team to watch. The league back then was a slow league and when you're going that fast in a no huddle offense throwing the ball like that and you're able to run the ball like that, that was fun."
Fast forward the no huddle eight years and the architect of 21st century football, Sam Wyche, had just been replaced in Tampa Bay by young defensive guru Tony Dungy. As Dungy prepared to make his first draft pick of a Hall of Fame coaching career, he phoned Anderson getting ready for his mother's draft day party. He took a break from mowing the lawn and heard Dungy asking him if he was ready to be a Buc.
"Yes sir," the 20-year-old Anderson said.
But Tampa was picking No. 12 and the Bengals weren't budging. They had staked out Anderson so early that at the NFL scouting combine two months before the draft, Bengals president Mike Brown informed The Cincinnati Enquirer as he was crossing an Indianapolis street that Anderson was their man.
"He was like Anthony in the sense that you knew he would block his guy and you didn't have to worry about it," Brown will say now.
Anderson is passing it on the best way he can. Hunched over the ground, his mind going as fast as his hands and feet, not to mention the Twitter feed he sends out the big-time advice he never had so readily.
"He was a great pass protector and not because he's a big guy, but because he was so efficient with his hands," says Zeke Correll, born the same year as Paul Brown Stadium. "That's what he focuses on a lot. Also his footwork in the run game and that gritty mindset of being able to take your man from point A to point B to get the ball moving."
Get used to seeing more of Anderson, because 25 years later he's still moving between points.