From tithe to tradition

Posted: 1:15 p.m.

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Anderson helps make Thanksgiving special for this youngster.

Floyd Walker is wearing a Willie Anderson Pro Bowl jersey while putting on an All-Star performance.

Walker, an associate pastor at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, is helping hand out Anderson's 203 Thanksgiving dinners with a couple of sides of hope to go along with the corn and green beans as he comes across the eight-year-old kid named Marvin standing tentatively but tightly next to the man himself.

"Marvin is my man. That's the name of our coach," Anderson is saying as his mother asks Anderson to tell her son about playing football and the importance of school. "They won't let you play football without good grades. Got to listen to your mama. She knows best."

Anderson is listening the "mama" with three other children and beckons Walker with a list of youth activities at the church. "Mama" is hesitant. She is Catholic.

"It doesn't matter," Anderson says as Walker rubs Marvin's head softly, but with assurance. "We'll take care of him," and Walker tells him, "I'm going to see you in school in tomorrow."

A nice double team executed by Anderson, the Bengals Pro Bowl right tackle, on another Thanksgiving that has evolved from a tithe to a tradition. While Anderson provides dinners to the families of inner-city children from the area encircling New Jerusalem Tuesday night, his minister back home preps for Thursday afternoon's dinner at Whitestone Baptist.

"The calls started coming a month ago about these dinners," Albert Jackson is saying from down in Alabama. "They need it and they expect it now. I was on a radio station in Mobile and the lady doing the interview said, 'Pastor, we have come to expect this every year.' It's unbelievable what it does for the community."

The biggest of traditions start with the smallest of hopes. Just reach someone. Anybody. The Senior Bowl is played every year in Mobile, but Anderson's annual feed has also become a city classic.

"I think a church should be the centerpiece of the community," Anderson says. "So I don't mind my money going there."

Last year he donated 1,000 turkeys for giveaways. This year, Jackson and some of the 75 or so of his active members helped give away 500 Tuesday and Wednesday nights, and then they planned a catered dinner for anywhere between 75 to 200 needy people on Thursday afternoon.

How big of a deal? Jackson's wife works for the sheriff department and some of the guys volunteer to direct traffic.

Mary Steele, Anderson's mother, has always been one of the volunteers, even when Willie was young and she would take him across town from their house to the little church on Mobile Street.

"We do this for three days," Jackson says. "I was just talking to Willie's mother and she was saying what a rush it is and a thrill to serve knowing you're helping so many."

At New Jerusalem, where the bustling city church runs so seamlessly powered by the inviting charisma of one of Cincinnati city's towering ambassadors of unity, the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., the call for volunteers went out, too. Last Sunday, Lynch reminded the congregation that Brother Anderson's gift to the community would be handed out Tuesday night and he preached about people talking one way and walking another. As they always do, the flock responded to a smiling Lynch in the church basement.

"I guess I over did it, but thank you," says Lynch, with his contagious cackle, and one of those who answered is a Wednesday night Bible study classmate of Anderson. Jackie Tilford, fortyish, friendly and committed to the walk, has always been impressed by him.

"He's a special individual the way he thinks about and looks at other people," says Tilford, taking time out from her construction job to get her paralegal degree at Cincinnati State. "You think that athletes like that are so involved in themselves. At that time, learning about the word, there were certain points (in the Bible study), he would become just as involved as we were. He's a human being just like the rest of us, and he's got a good heart."

As Tilford handed out turkeys and two-liter sodas, as well as cake mix and sides of stuffing, corn and green beans, she noticed a teeming cross section. There were some church members, but many weren't. There many African-Americans, but there were also Hispanics and whites, and they didn't come just from the church's backyard in Carthage, but also from the hardscrabble communities ringing Interstate 75. Lincoln Heights. Lockland. Winton Terrace.

"When you're a kid growing up, you just assume everybody has somewhere to go or has something to eat," Anderson says. "I didn't really see it until I got to Cincinnati. I was young. I was 21, 22. You think everyone can get turkey and food. Was I saved before I got here? Yeah. Was I doing different acts? No, because I really didn't know what it meant to care for others, and to put others above you. Let yourself be used as an instrument of God. We're blessed to be able to give back."

Anderson wanted to do it differently this year. He went to Walker, one of his spiritual advisors and a guy he took to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl last year. This would be a different trip. He asked Walker to go into the inner-city schools and find families that truly needed the dinners. Those families with three or four children with single parents or unemployed parents, or whoever just flat out needed help.

People like Yolnaya Brewster, whose four kids lost everything but their clothes in a Lincoln Heights apartment fire back on Oct. 4. She is a single mom, works at McDonalds and has kids nine, eight, seven, and five. She is living with her parents, getting help from her grandparents, and it wouldn't have been much of a Thanksgiving without the bag she is holding.

"We don't do much on holidays. We give thanks every day," she says. "This is a blessing."

Antunet Nelson of Roselawn is a member here. She is a medical assistant going back to school to get her registered nurse's license. She's a single mom with a seven-year-old, an 18-month old, and a baby, and there would have been nothing Thursday in the apartment if not for Willie Anderson's bag.

"I mean, I would have tried to go back south to be with my grandparents, and that would have been tough with the gas prices," Nelson says. "But it's important to me that I have dinner with my children at home. I'm thankful that it can happen."

Walker, who has clearly done his job well scouring the schools, plans to eat his turkey at Anderson's home, but Floyd's mother will cook it. Then Anderson may stop by teammate Brian Simmons's home close by to say hello to Simmons's two girls, wife Rachel and daughter Brianna.

Down in Mobile, Albert Jackson just gave a turkey to a family of three with twin teen-aged daughters and their eight-year-old brother burned out of their home. Thanks to the guy that Albert Jackson has always called "a gentle giant."

"Willie was always bigger than most kids. Always a big boy," says Jackson, 45, who has known Anderson his whole life. "He was always respectful. Yes sir. No sir. He would always defend the smaller people, no matter how old they were and no matter how old he was."

Now Anderson is looking down at little Marvin chewing a lollipop stick, not quite sure he wants to stare all the way up at the big man he has heard about, but not wanting to leave, either. Running back, he says, is what he plays.

"Like Rudi Johnson," Anderson says.

"He's admiring you," the mother says. "Can you give him your autograph?"

The handiest piece of paper is the list of Walker's youth activities that take place in the Barbara J. Lynch Educational Wing, of which Anderson is a donor. He writes carefully, "To Marvin," and after the kid walks away with a mother maybe not as hesitant, Anderson says to Walker, "He's going to be one of our kids. I want to make sure of that."

Who knows?

Anderson, who has started two Thanksgiving traditions in two different towns, may have just opened a hole for another.

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