Last Link

He is the last link to the 20th century, Boomer Esiason, and Riverfront Stadium.

But Willie Anderson, the greatest right tackle the Bengals ever had and so much more in a locker room that always seemed to have a radioactive glow, said he's still got a stake in Cincinnati even though he turned down a deal to stay Saturday and terminate what the books will say is his 12-year Bengals career.

"I'm not going to abandon my causes there," Anderson said from Atlanta Saturday night. "I'm not going anywhere when it comes to that stuff. I know how important this team is to the city."


Anderson
Anderson is still going through with the opening of one of his Fatburger franchises in October on Madison Road in Oakley. But he also admitted, "I feel free, like something has been lifted from me. I can't explain it."

While there was clearly a financial reason for the Bengals to redo the deal (starting right tackle Stacy Andrews is getting $7.5 million), Anderson said his reasons for declining were one of principles and not money two years after he signed a $32 mllion extension. Of which he has received nearly half.

Anderson, the four-time Pro Bowler, had been stunned for the previous 24 hours when the Bengals first approached him about taking a pay cut from his $3 million salary for '08 as the backup to Andrews. He was just as stunned when head coach Marvin Lewis explained it Saturday in the ensuing news conference. "We haven't seen the day-to-day-to-day that you need," Lewis said. "I know it's contrary to popular belief. But it's important that we start our season healthy."

Anderson said those type of concerns about his health are innuendos and unfounded and have been since he was limited to seven games last season because of a severely bruised knee

"It's just not true; BS." Anderson said. "I don't know why he had to say that. I'm not going to do that. I have too much respect for Carson Palmer, Levi Jones, and all my teammates. And I've got too much respect for the Blackburns and Mike Brown. They came to me, I turned it down. That's it. I'm going to be a stand-up guy about it."

Suffice to say the Bengals and Anderson just never seemed to have any kind of communication about where he was physically. He says dealing with all the non-football issues and what he feels were false whispers about his health "made me exhausted and I just didn't want to go through it anymore."

Anderson seemed to practice pretty regularly until the last couple of weeks, but he did play a lot in the third preseason game and while he didn't play Thursday night in the preseason finale, so did some other veterans.

Anderson said he missed the game because the orthotics he had ordered were too tight and caused his toe to swell. He said he went home to Atlanta on Friday to get the new shoes and was "shocked" to get the phone call looking for him to redo the deal.

"I missed the game because of the orthotics and that's all," Anderson said. "Not because of anything lingering."

From Lewis' standpoint, he wants there to be fewer health questions clouding his Sundays this season. He wants to be able to count on guys for not only games but practices and with Anderson now 33 and a lot of tread, Lewis is just as resolute in saying he hasn't seen enough to be sure.

Lewis didn't close the door on him coming back. Neither did Anderson.

But everyone knows it's improbable. Anderson had no comment, but he'll be contacted by other teams and although he says he'll pray about his next move and consider retirement an option, he is adamant in his belief he can still play at a high level.

Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh can already see it.

"You know a guy like Willie who has so much pride is going to say, 'I'll show you I'm not hurt,' " Houshmandzadeh said. "You just hope if (he) plays against us (he) doesn't play well."

If there are a couple of injuries on the offensive line, it could blow up. But the Bengals believe Scott Kooistra is a solid backup for Andrews. The move does appear to cut into the attractiveness of the Jurassic Line, which moved right guard Bobbie Williams to center, Andrews to right guard and Anderson off the bench.


Jones
And there is a huge impact in the locker room for guys like left tackle Levi Jones. Jones has often talked about how Anderson is a role model on and off the field and once told the story of how he learned from Anderson just getting off the tram at the Atlanta airport while watching him help a woman with a young child.

"Sad day for the Bengals all over," Jones said. "Not only sad, disheartening for me. They told him they wanted to see him practice and play and he did just that. Not only did he play well, he graded in the 90s when he did play."

Houshmandzadeh's Class of' 01 is rapidly becoming the Deans. The Dean of the Bengals is now Brad St. Louis, a seventh-rounder in 2000 who has long-snapped in 123 games.

But Anderson's value always went beyond the field. A four-time nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award as a community leader (Boys and Girls Club, New Jerusalem Baptist Church scholarships, party sponsor at Cincinnati's Children Hospital), he also made his mark as the team spokesman who never failed to mince words.

"I'm shocked at how many texts and calls I've had from people who are sad," Anderson said. "I've heard from a lot of teammates, but I'm not going to get them involved. I'm going to leave them out of it."

Houshmandzadeh said Anderson's presence will clearly be missed, but he believes "from a leadership standpoint, we'll be all right."

"On offense it will be different," Houshmandzadeh said. "We've got myself, Reggie Kelly, and Carson. Carson's not as vocal as me and Reggie, but I think it will be OK. Just different."

Wouldn't you know that Anderson's best and worst memories in Cincinnati stem from the same day?

"The best was getting that home playoff game but it was tough not winning it with Carson getting hurt," Anderson said of 2005. "We seemed to be ready to win every year consistently, but we kind of fell back."

Asked why, Anderson said, "I really don't want to get into it. Stuff happens."

After 181 games, sixth on the Bengals all-time list in a tie with kicker Jim Breech, Anderson wonders what's next

"I'll wait and see and decide if I'll keep playing," Anderson said. "It's been quite a ride. We had some fun and we had some tough times."  

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