No one has straddled the Who-Dey generations like Bengals Ring of Honor member Willie Anderson, one of only a handful of men to play with both this year's Ring of Honor inductees Boomer Esiason and Chad Johnson.
The tenth pick in the 1996 draft when the Bengals were housed at Riverfront Stadium, Anderson became the best right tackle of his era and a two-time Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist during a dozen seasons in Cincinnati he saw it all. As he played 181 games, he watched the stripes, along with the rest of the NFL, morph into a wildly popular industry that overtook Paycor Stadium in the rollicking AFC North of the first decade of the 21st century.
In 1997, Anderson was in his second season when Esiason returned to Riverfront as Jeff Blake's backup after a five-year hiatus and put together a memorable final five starts of his career. One of the captains of the Bengals' first AFC North championship team anchored by Johnson's Pro Bowl heroics, Anderson is also connected to Esiason's 1988 Super Bowl team.
With Esiason and Johnson set to be enshrined Monday night at halftime of the Rams game (8:15-ESPN), there's no easier conversation in Bengaldom than one with Willie Aaron Anderson, the once and future locker room laureate.
GH: You and Corey Dillon are the only two guys to play on the same offense with Boomer and Chad.
(Upon further review, a few more guys than that. Tight ends Tony McGee and Marco Battaglia, wide receiver Darnay Scott and offensive lineman Rich Braham.)
WA: Anthony (Munoz) or Kenny (Anderson) are going to give Boomer his (Ring of Honor) jacket. I called Chad. I said, 'Just know, I'm giving your damn jacket to you.' And Chad said, 'Well cool. I'm going to be shirtless.'
GH: Your first reaction when you hear the name Norman Julius Esiason?
WA: He made a joke about me on Twitter last year when I was giving him a bunch of praise. He said, 'Gee, Willie, I only played with you one year.' I said, Well damn, Boomer, that one year could have meant a lot to me.' And it did. He said, 'My bad.' I was bragging about how he was the first person to ever tell me in words what a good quarterback means to the unit of an offense.
Jeff Blake was showing me. Boomer actually told me. We were in the shower and he said, 'Willie, one time in your career you're going to play for a quarterback who only cares about completion percentage and nothing else.' He said, 'I care about winning and I know how important it is for you guys not to give up sacks. I throw that crap away. I don't care about completion percentage. I care about winning and I care about how much you guys care about not giving up sacks.' And after that I did play with a quarterback like that who I won't name.
When I was 13 years old, I became a Bengals fan. I told you this before. I became a Bengals fan in 1988 watching him play. I didn't know a damn thing about offensive linemen. I wasn't trying to be one back then. I was trying to be Bruce Smith and Reggie White. I was not paying attention to Anthony Munoz or (Bruce) Kozerski or any of those guys on the offensive line. I paid attention to Boomer, Ickey (Woods) and James Brooks. To get a chance to play with him nine years later? I was 22.
One thing that irritated me about him but I loved at the end, was he always held up the meetings and I never knew why. I'm a young idiot. Twenty-two. Why does this back-up dude keep holding up meetings asking questions? He was asking questions helping out Jeff Blake. Maybe some other guys in the room, receivers, linemen or whatever, may not have gotten it. Blake knew the offense and Blake was brilliant. But he was doing what a good backup quarterback should do. The same thing I saw Jon Kitna do for Carson (Palmer). I realized a month later Boomer and Bruce (Coslet) created this offense. He was trying to get Bruce to repeat something. Later on in the year I appreciated that because we were now playing with a backup quarterback who probably knew the offense as well or better than the starter.
And Blake was smart. It's just that Bruce and Boomer helped put this offense together along with Sam Wyche when none of us were playing football in the NFL. I just thought that was pretty cool he was asking questions. I was irritated, but when we went on that damn 7-2 run at the end of the year, I was happy as hell. There's usually a dramatic drop-off when the back-up quarterback comes in, but he was so well-informed of the offense we just kept it rolling and the offense did great.
GH: There's a saying you don't want to meet the guys who you watched growing up. But he was famous for being good to his linemen, right?
WA: When Boomer was a back-up, he was getting me prepared to be a leader. After a game we're flying back. We lost a game. He said, 'Willie, get all the linemen together. Your job is to tell them to meet at my house. I've got beer, pizza, and wings.
We'll go to the house. We're going to talk this out. Chill out, man, and fellowship.' And we did that like two times, I think. And those were the best two damn times we had.
Because now, me being a football fan, I'm at Boomer's house looking at all this memorabilia from the freaking '88 team. I'm in his house going crazy because this is the team right here I watched as a kid. His face was bigger. Know what I mean? Look at Boomer. He was like a damn sex symbol. Listen, when I was 22, I thought (right tackle) Joe Walter was old as hell. The Bengals cut me at Joe's age. When you're 21, 22, you think everyone is old. When I saw that, I was damn, Boomer. When I was at his house I was just amazed. I always tell people how simple things, pizza and wings, get millionaire football players. It was like he was preparing me.
So when he became the starter, the last thing you wanted to do is let Boomer get hurt. I remember one time we were playing in Philly and Boomer was going off. That's the game I played against (Hall of Famer) Richard Dent. Richard Dent was an old man then. But he still had some damn pass rush moves. He got me on a move and he got his hand on Boomer's shoulder pad. Boomer threw the ball away. I was saying, 'Oh crap, I let him touch Boomer.' And Boomer was nothing like I thought he was going to say.
Encouraging. He was the same guy when we were playing in Baltimore and he wasn't playing. It's a hot-ass game in Baltimore. Bruce had benched the left tackle and threw me in there. It was just a hot miserable game. We were all kind of down at halftime. Boomer used to drink these freaking rip fuel drinks and Snickers bars. I didn't know how to eat for games until I was a veteran, when I'd bring fruit from the hotel and eat it at halftime. But then I was just an exhausted 340-pound kid. Exhausted. All geeked up.
And Boomer said, 'C'mon Willie, we've got to get going. Here, eat this.' And my mouth was wide open. He bit off his Snickers bar and shoved the other half in my mouth. You know me. I'm a germaphobe. I'm mad as hell. He was so geeked up.
When he was running the scout team, he would run it at a blistering pace. He's got the second-team receivers going crazy. Killing the defense. I remember some guys saying, Why the hell are we running a no huddle offense? The other team isn't running a no huddle offense. Boomer got them going at a blistering pace. So when he took over for us, we had to get in better shape. Everything was fast.
Young guys, we're kind of hating it. Jacksonville, his first start, I remember my boy Gary Walker, my teammate at Auburn. Boomer was saying in the huddle, 'Look at those bleeping guys over there.' I looked at Gary and he had both legs crossed. Hands on his head. He said, 'You're tired, but they are a thousand times tired than you.' I looked at them and said, 'Damn, he's right. They're too tired to rush.' He was lightning. He was going at breakneck speed.
GH: What about the game he walked into the Dallas huddle?
WA: I'm not going to say the kid's name. A receiver ran the wrong route. He missed a hot route. And Boomer got hit. I'll never forget it. The great Cowboys safety Bill Bates took a shot at Boomer. And Boomer walks into the huddle, grabs the kid by his bleeping shoulder pads and walked into the Cowboys huddle saying, 'Scuse me, 'scuse, 'scuse me. No. 40 is the bleeping hot receiver.' The Cowboys are looking. What the hell is going on? He was torching them, too. Torching them.
The day after that game, I came into Spinney Field and one of the back-up guys said, 'Willie, Boomer's looking for you.' You know how loud he is. 'Willie, come here.' I got to his locker and he gave me a freaking envelope. The envelope had $1,500. But just the fact. I gave my backup AB Brown half. He used to look out for me in practice. I wanted to say Boomer won AFC Player of the Week that week.
It's funny. Rex Ryan said it on TV today. The quarterback is supposed to say when he has a bad game, I messed up. When you have a good game, we did great. And Boomer always spread the love.
GH: They drafted you to replace Joe Walter, Boomer's long-time right tackle, and they cut him halfway through that 1997 season.
WA: That was sad. Joe being my mentor and he had played with Boomer all these years. Boomer told me again, 'Willie, grab the guys.' This was crazy. We met at Montgomery Inn, bro. Private room. He had a freaking cardboard poster of Joe. It was sad and beautiful at the same time. Know what I mean? I said, damn. That's how a guy should act when he's the face of the franchise and he gets all the attention.
I remember when Carson came and I'd be talking to (coaching secretary) Sandy Schick and he'd be on the phone talking to Sandy and she would say, 'Willie just walked up.' And he'd say, 'Ask Willie, is Carson doing what I told Willie he better do?' I just started laughing. 'Yeah, he's doing it man, he's doing it.' He taught me in '97 just how a quarterback should act.
GH: Then you played seven seasons with The Ocho.
WA: I tell my friends this about Chad. Y'all may think Willie was a leader and team guy and Chad did his stuff. But here's one thing Chad did more than me. He practiced way more than me. Chad showed up at practice every damn day. Even during the losing. The 2-14 season in 2002. Chad had that I'm a big-time-player attitude in 2002. As you remember, in '01 (Johnson's rookie year), Darnay (Scott) was still there. But in '02 he became Kitna's guy, but we were 2-14. It wasn't the best attitude on that team.
The thing about Ocho, he had a great attitude in practice every day. He practiced hard. He had an infectious attitude even when it was gloomy. He was happy and laughing and talking trash and trying to be competitive. When you think about it, he was saying, 'I'm not going to let the old guys (it was my seventh year, Chad's second year and there were guys older than me), but what Chad was saying is I'm not going to let this old mentality, just because we're losing, keep down my spirit. If there is one thing Ocho is known for, it's his spirit.
That spirit got the country behind the Bengals in '03 at a time when old heads didn't think it was so great.
Now? I'm anti-old head. I'm all about the young guys. Hey, man. I know it's crazy. I'm cheering for the young guys. A lot of my friends get mad at me. I'm anti-old head guy. I was an old head guy that at first didn't agree with some of the stuff Chad was doing. But I came to love it. You know why? That SOB was winning games for us.
GH: What about when he guaranteed the win the week of the win over the Chiefs in 2003?
WA: I had a problem with that. I had a problem with it. But what it made me see is that I had an old-head mentality. We needed some freaking spunk. We needed something outrageous to make all of us hold up to it. We needed it. And I was wrong. I was dead ass wrong. I was dead wrong when I said it because what he was doing was he was a young guy trying to bring a spark. If a young receiver did that now on a team known for losing, I think there would be more people siding with him. You know what? This team needs a spark. Make guys back the word up. Sometimes coaches will do it.
See who's doing that right now? Freaking Deion Sanders. He's making a losing program believe they can win by changing their attitude and a lot of old heads don't like it. So I can admit I was wrong about Chad. We needed it. That was a signature game for us. That was '03. In '04, '05, I had no problem with him and T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) being in the huddle trash talking the Ravens.
You know why? We were beating the Ravens' ass for the first time. The only thing I would tell them is, hey man, just don't talk to my guy. I'm lulling my guy to sleep. Don't talk to my guy. And they were cool with it. But he and TJ brought that attitude, man, that we got known for. Us linemen, we were known for roughing it and toughing it. Those guys were known for a bodacious attitude. 'I believe in me. I believe in us. I believe in us as a team and we're going to win.' And that stuff started to happen.
GH: Marvin Lewis might have been the perfect coach for him in the end. An old head who got it.
WA: He knew what Chad was. I read Phil Jackson's book years ago about how he dealt with Dennis Rodman. He had to deal with Dennis Rodman differently than everybody else. One thing Phil Jackson knew and Michael Jordan let it go. Because Michael Jordan realized, know what? This guy does all this crazy stuff, but he still gets me 25 rebounds.
Chad wasn't drinking or any of that stuff. Chad was being Chad and it was different from what a lot of traditional football people wanted to see. But when it came to game day, Ocho was Ocho.
GH: He practiced hard, he played hard. He did it the right way.
WA: Everything wasn't great. But when it came to football, not one teammate could ever say anything about Chad but he was one of the freaking all-time great receivers.
GH: Was he a good teammate? There are people looking from the outside who think he was selfish.
WA: Ask the teammates if they had fun with it and everybody would say yes. Ask them if we had fun with it. Did we laugh and joke and play around with him? Yeah. How can anybody say he was a bad teammate? He was like everybody's little brother. He wasn't doing any crazy stuff to coaches. He wasn't calling out his quarterback.
GH: He was calling for the ball, but who doesn't?
WA: What receiver didn't? T.J. called for the ball. We've learned in 2023 it's best to figure out a way to throw the damn ball to those kinds of guys. It wasn't the receiver era. Now, they were all right. You'll win games catching big-pass plays. That was the thing to me. Even though we had Pro Bowl running backs like Corey and Rudi (Johnson), I realized, you know what? This passing game stuff is going to make our life as linemen way easier. I like to run block, but I also like not driving 15 plays and getting three points. With Carson and Chad, it came back to like my rookie year with Blake and (Carl) Pickens and Darnay and those guys.
In 2006, we're playing the Panthers. I'm battling Julius Peppers. I want to win, but I also want to shut Peppers out. If you remember, we had fourth-and-one (from Panthers 35 as Bengals trailed 14-10 early in the fourth quarter.) Carson called a run. But he and Ocho did some crazy stuff and they audibled and they threw Chad a fade route that Chad made a beautiful ballerina-type catch. (For 32 yards to set up the winning touchdown.) That won the game for us. On the sideline, Ocho dyed his hair half-blond, remember that? Crazy. There's a picture on the internet that I've got teased about for years. Grabbing Ocho and kissing him on his forehead telling him great bleeping job. They caught me.