The emotions are mixed and many for Willie Anderson. But for the greatest right tackle in Bengals history, they won't begin to cascade until the Ravens land in Cincinnati on Saturday in preparation for Sunday's game at Paul Brown Stadium. The place where Anderson went to four straight Pro Bowls and played half of his 116 straight games in becoming the rock of a franchise.
"But you've got to remember, I went through all the stuff in the '90s, too," Anderson said Monday over the phone from Baltimore. "That's why it's so hard for me to separate myself from them. I know what they're going through. Except for Sunday, I root for them in every game. They're still my friends and I know how hard they're going to play. I've told my teammates to be ready for a tough, physical dogfight. We lived for situations like this at home when we (had bad seasons). Beating Cleveland last year. Pittsburgh in 2001
Anderson this Sunday will make his first-ever visit to PBS as a Bengals opponent. (Getty Images)
Anderson remembers a flight home two years ago after the Bengals had won a bruising game and he tried to stretch out his 340 pounds of pain in first class where the veterans sit. Mike Brown, the Bengals president who chooses his words carefully, leaned down and told him, "Thank you for what you've done."
"That meant so much to me," Anderson said. "I would have played the next 10 years for him hurt."
He also remembers the searing quote from head coach Marvin Lewis when he signed in Baltimore that day less than three months ago. The day the Bengals left Cincinnati to play in the opener. Alluding to Anderson's injuries and knowing he wouldnt be suiting up right away, Lewis said he was used to seeing Anderson in shorts.
"That hurt," said Anderson, who has since received a text from Lewis.
"I dont want to get into it," he said. "But it was all positive and he said some nice things."
He also remembers watching Bengals like right guard Bobbie Williams and tight end Reggie Kelly trudge off the field in Baltimore after the Ravens had drilled them in the opener.
"I left the field with tears in my eyes," Anderson said. "Just the week before I had been helping Carson (Palmer) come back from his broken nose and here I was helping Joe Flacco in a game Carson got pounded."
Oh yeah, a lot of emotions. Twelve years worth.
Before that game, a different owner, the Ravens owner, Steve Biosciotti, a man Anderson had never met, came up to him and said, "Willie, I feel like we've won the lottery with you here."
A lot of emotions.
For the longest time Anderson's Ravens teammates didn't ask him what happened in Cincinnati. Then Adam Terry, the young right tackle Anderson is now mentoring in Baltimore, asked, "How could they turn on you like that?" and Anderson summed it up with, "That's the business of football."
That's how Thornton looks at it. With the football gods in action, it looks like Thornton, the tackle and dean of the Bengals defense, may be matched up some with the ex-dean of the Bengals offense now that defensive ends Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker are on injured reserve.
"Looking back on it, we could use everybody. You could always use a guy like Willie," Thornton said. "He's the greatest right tackle in Bengals history. You've got to give him credit. Would we have the same record if he was still here? Probably. That's not a knock on him. All good things have to come to an end. I'm sure he's happy where he is."
A lot of emotions.
More than the 70 snaps he took last Sunday in the victory over the Eagles. Snaps were the issue when Anderson chose to leave the Bengals at the beginning of the season when he declined a pay cut from the $3.1 million he was scheduled to get this year.
The club didn't think he could survive a full season practicing every day at age 33 after playing just seven games in 2007, and Lewis came out of the offseason insisting he needed players that practiced every day.
The '07 season began with a foot problem stemming from an injury in pregame warmups before the Dec. 10, 2006 win against the Raiders, but the season got washed out when Anderson took a shot on his knee that resulted in a bone bruise.
In the soap opera of this past preseason, it was hard for Anderson to deal with the fact the Bengals didn't think he could do it anymore in practice every day. He even told them in training camp to start Stacy Andrews at right tackle. He was willing to mentor Andrews and if he was needed to play, he would be ready. He thought he proved that in a training camp in which he worked consistently nearly every day. But he thinks they were more worried about the foot and his age than what was on tape.
"Don't compare me to what I was," Anderson said. "Compare me to the next guy."
He literally stands on what he said the day he decided to leave.
"I have a lot of respect for Mike Brown and the Blackburns and the coaches," Anderson said. "But they got the wrong information about my foot. I can't tell you how many people came up to me before we played them and said I hoped I played 15 games to show people that."
From the Bengals' side, Anderson has fought through a lot of injuries and missed a lot of practices, beginning with microfracture knee surgery after the '04 season, the tear in his foot, and then the bone bruise. Plus, they've got a 27-year-old guy in Andrews they feel can become a Pro Bowler if they can re-sign him after the season.
Anderson won't end up playing in 15 games, but he has helped the Ravens become an elite rushing team in a 7-4 push to the playoffs since becoming the starter for good Oct. 5 against Tennessee and going the whole way against the Titans. He did that for three straight games (including getting a game ball against the Raiders) before he injured his ankle in the third quarter against Houston and then missed the Nov. 16 game against the Giants. He vowed he'd bounce back and he came back to practice the Thursday before the Philly game. And not without some advice after watching the Super Bowl champs blow them out.
"I told our young guys after the Giants game that they watch tape, too. They prepare for us, too," Anderson said.
It was that role of mentor that Ravens quarterback coach Hue Jackson had in mind when he went to the club after Anderson got cut and urged them to get him to provide a resource for the youngest offensive line in the league.
"Willie is a big, tough physical guy who is a teddy bear and rubs off on people," said Jackson, who saw what Anderson did when Jackson was the Bengals receivers coach from 2004-2006. "He likes to help other people. I haven't been in their meetings, but I'm sure he's been great with our young linemen."
It was that welcome that drew Anderson to Baltimore and convinced him not to take the trip to San Diego, where everybody thought he should go if he wanted to get to a Super Bowl. He felt wanted with the Ravens right away, but he admitted the first month was tough because he had begun to doubt himself.
"But the defensive guys here were great, especially Bart Scott," Anderson said. "They said, 'We know you can play. Take your time and get ready. You'll be ready when we need you.' "
Now here he is in the middle of a smashmouth playoff run. But he won't talk about how the Bengals can't run the ball this year. Running the ball and committing to the run and having the tough mindset to run it had always been among Anderson's favorite topics in Cincinnati. But he won't touch it. There is too much respect for the guys here and, savvy veteran that he is, he doesn't want any bulletin-board material.
"I know this," he said. "Those guys are going to play hard and it's going to be a great ballgame. I know them. Zimmer's got them playing great defense.
"I love the fact that a guy like Dhani is playing well for them. He's showing them that old guys can still play. He's a 30-year-old linebacker leading them."
Anderson went through a lot of youth movements in Cincinnati.
"Kids can't teach kids," Anderson said.
He texts with wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh every few weeks or so. He talks to left tackle Levi Jones. Palmer called the week Anderson hurt his ankle to see if he was OK. Anderson has yet to visit the Fatburger restaurant he owns in Oakley, yet he hears business is great. And he watched rookie left tackle Anthony Collins make his debut Thursday night against the Steelers.
"AC did a good job. He's got confidence and you need that for that position," Anderson said. "I feel badly because he was looking to rent my house but I never got back to him."
After watching Anderson play against the Eagles, Thornton said, "He can still play good. He can still move around really good. It's the same guy who was here. He's a good player."
A lot of emotions.
But not until Saturday night.
"Until then," Anderson said, "it's just another week."