By Geoff Hobson
Her name was Jacqueline and they called her Jackie. But for Willie Anderson, she almost could have been Mom because of the age difference and the hours they spent together before the car killed her at age 17.
"My Mom was working two jobs, so my sister was with me 24 and 7," says Anderson today, the ache as deep as it was 15 years ago.
It may be hard to believe, but Anderson, the Bengals' mammoth 6-foot-6, 340-or-so-pound right tackle, was once a little kid. He was 9 that day when he
was the first one from the family to see Jackie lying on the ground.
"I was riding my go-kart up at a park and she came up to get me. She wanted to ride it, too," Anderson says. "I wouldn't let her. But then I asked my friend to let me ride his home and she was in mine. I got there first and then the kid comes running into the house and says she got hit by a car. I ran out and it was just around the corner. For a 9-year-old kid to see that. . ."
Anderson walked out of Spinney Field Wednesday with about a $4 million check in his pocket, part of his $7.5 million signing bonus. He'll get another $1 million for his name just showing up on the roster in July. He'll make $490,000 in salary this season, get the rest of his bonus check in January, and then make $2.25 million in salary next season.
Throw in some more roster bonuses ($200,000 next season) and an annual workout incentive and weight clause (figure about $500,000 combined), and Willie Aaron Anderson is set for life.
But isn't life always more complicated than that?
If Jackie hadn't died, Anderson muses now, he doubts he ever would have been a football player. Probably wouldn't have ever made even 10 percent of that $31 million he'll now make by the time he's 30. Definitely wouldn't have closeted himself in his room those days and weeks and months after Jackie died, lying on his bed, tossing a football or basketball in the air, playing catch with hurt.
He thinks the shock gave him a terrific stutter. It was hard for him to get through a sentence without kids laughing.
"I went into a shell. For a long time I thought it was my fault," Anderson says. "I'd go into my room and act out fantasies. That way, I could be anybody but myself. I could be Michael Jordan at North Carolina, Walter Payton playing for the Bears, winning the game.
"I went to football practice when I was 10," Anderson says. "It was something she had never seen me do. Maybe that had something to do with it. But I had nothing to do. My kid sister was only 5. My other sister and my brother were out of the house. I went to the field."
Anderson's mother feared for her son after Jackie passed. She saw him withdrawing from the family, shutting people out. On Wednesday, as Anderson met the Cincinnati media, Mary Steele looked on almost in amazement as her shell-shocked, stuttering 9-year-old was part salesman, part politician, part comedian for the mini-cams.
He lobbied to be captain. He rolled out a preseason sound byte about how many young stars the Bengals have (Akili Smith, Corey Dillon, Takeo Spikes, Brian Simmons, Peter Warrick) and the opportunity to play in a new stadium. He picked up his two-year-old son, thanked his former and current teammates and joshed with the Bengals executive vice president.
At 48 days shy of 25 years old, the transformation was complete. NFL team spokesman. Richest lineman in the game. Poised for a Pro Bowl run.
"I always told Willie I was proud of him when he was little," Mary Steele remembered. "Finally, he asked me once, "Mom, why do you say that? I haven't done anything." I told him, "You don't get into trouble at school. You do what you're supposed to do.' Willie was always an obedient child. He was quiet. But I think it was more out of courtesy than anything."
He may have been obedient. But it was tough being the biggest kid in middle school. What does a 6-foot-4, 260-pound 12-year-old look like? He felt like a clown with that big body, size 18 shoes and that savage stutter.
Sports. That's what probably saved him.
"When I was in my room pretending, I figured it would never happen," Anderson says. "Then I started playing and I began to think, "Maybe I can do those things.' I was a No. 1 lineman coming out of high school. The college recruiters were always at my door. Press always calling. Same thing with agents when I was 20. I would think back and say, "Damn, it was only five, six, seven years ago I was like that.' That's what I tell kids.
"Right now, there's some big kid in school getting jerked around," Anderson says. "Somewhere there's a 9-year-old kid having a problem. A divorce, somebody died. But look what can happen."
Sure, it's a big money story. But not the whole story.
You can be set for life.
But maybe how life sets you up is more important.