TRAINING CAMP 2008 INDEX: Features, news, notes, video, photos, schedule and more* * *
Posted: 5:30 a.m.
Just 48 hours away from his 13th training camp, Willie Anderson, who has had Cincinnati's biggest locker-room presence for years, is convinced the biggest pair of feet in Bengals history can still move with the quickness that has defined his Pro Bowl career.
"That's why it's so tough," Anderson said Thursday of his second spot on the depth chart at right tackle. "I know that I can still get down in a stance and beat the other guy across from me. It's just so emotional mentally."
Which is why a month after thinking about it, Anderson is prepared if the Bengals come to him after training camp and tell him he's not one of their five best offensive lineman.
"I was told, 'To be on this team, you'll be a backup,' " Anderson said of a jarring conversation back in June. "At first I was mad. The pride kicking in. But after thinking about it, if that's what they think ... if they want me to mentor the young guys, OK. If I play or don't play on Sundays, that doesn't change who I am."
With the Bengals unable to get a long-term deal for Andrews and Anderson looking healthy at the June mandatory minicamp just a year removed from his fourth Pro Bowl season, it looks to be much more of a training camp battle than it did a month ago. Head coach Marvin Lewis indicated this week he liked his preliminary look at Anderson.
And, Anderson reminds, he will be lining up to practice Monday. That's something he didn't do all last year until the week of the regular-season opener.
Anderson, who played just seven games last season, thinks people seem to forget. Before he hurt his knee in the third game of the season in Seattle with an injury that stopped his streak of 116 straight starts, he had played very little against Baltimore in the opener and 60 percent of the snaps against Cleveland and Seattle that amounted to his preseason games because of the foot injury that sidelined him all spring and summer.
Now, two weeks after turning 33, Anderson is as spry as ever as one of the rare Bengals who has camped at both old school Wilmington College and modern Georgetown and revels in stories like the training camp practice in Columbus on a field with grass four feet high.
He feels great physically, knowing it's been less than two years since he tore ligaments in his foot in pregame against the Raiders in December 2006 with an injury that began his woes but didn't prevent him from shutting out one of the AFC sack leaders in Derrick Burgess that day.
Anderson stayed in that playoff chase until the very end with the help of cortisone shots, but didn't feel really right until this past offseason.
"Of course my feet hurt. They've hurt since I was 18 years old," Anderson said of the 19 Triple Es. "Do I have aches and pains? Yes. But that's football. I can still bend and twist and make moves. That's all blocking is. I know I can still do it.
"I know I'm going to be a mess physically some days, but I want to practice and show them I can get through practices. I know the coaches don't want to hear you're not going to practice. And I want to practice. But I'm pretty sure I can still play if I don't get beat up physically."
After a dozen seasons and 181 games (the sixth most on the Bengals all-time list), Anderson has to laugh at much of it.
He just saw where Patriots coach Bill Belichick put about 10 veterans on the physically unable to perform list at the start of New England's training camp. "I've been playing basketball with some of those guys down here in Atlanta this offseason," Anderson said. "They're fine."
He also thinks back to the fans' whispers about his age last season and wonders what happened between 31 and 32.
"Because when I was 31," he said, laughing, "I shut down guys like Julius Peppers and Robert Mathis and Derrick Burgess."
Not since Little League has Anderson remembered being second string. Even when the Bengals took him with the 10th pick of the draft in 1996, the idea was to get him into the lineup as a right or left tackle as soon as possible.
"I'm not going to fight it. The player against the organization, the coaches, the training staff, he never wins," Anderson said. "I remember when I finally stopped thinking about making the Pro Bowl, I figured I was too old, but then I made it."
Anderson knows there is more to it than football. Always one of the more committed guys when it comes to faith and the community, he believes he has put his career in perspective.
"I'm not a saint; I'm not perfect," he said. "But I believe God put me in the NFL for a reason and that was to touch other people. I truly believe no matter what happens, I win either way. I know what I mean to this team. And if I have to do that in a backup role, that's what I'll have to do."
But he won't go quietly on the field and into the books. Not when he thinks about the competition. Not when he thinks about how fast his feet are still moving and the guy lined up across from him.
"I know I can still do it and that's kind of the funny thing about it," he said of Camp 13. "I have to prove myself to guys I've proven myself."