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DETROIT — Phone pressed to his ear, bad news pouring in, C.J. Anderson silently shook my hand and offered a forced smile as he walked away.
We had just done a 30-minute presentation at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit here, a workshop designed to improve youth sports and encourage children to continue participating in them.
The Detroit Lions running back had shared his remarkable personal story, which involved growing up in Vallejo, California, and never knowing his father; having a live-in uncle who sold drugs, which led to four police raids of their home; the strength of his mother and grandmother keeping C.J. and his two brothers from going the wrong way; the vital impact on his life from several youth league coaches; the ambitious Dreams Never Die Foundation he has started to help at-risk youth in the Bay Area.
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It was an inspiring talk from the 28-year-old, who played a vital role for the 2015 Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. He spent a good portion of his one day off per week to be here for the seminar, with his younger brother and girlfriend and 5-month-old baby daughter in tow. There was just one commitment left to complete, a quick video message for the Aspen Institute as part of its “Don’t Retire, Kid” message.
That’s when the phone rang.
I went into the makeshift film room and shot my 30-second video. We waited for C.J. to come in and do his. The guy in charge of the video project opened the door, peeked outside and said, “He’s still on the phone.” We waited some more.
Finally, Alyssa Hankins of Brener Zwikel & Associates — Anderson’s PR rep — opened the door and offered her apologies.
“We’re going to have to cancel the video shoot,” she said, citing “a family issue.”
That’s when I went outside and shook C.J.’s hand as he and his entourage walked away.
About 10 minutes later, we learned what happened: The Lions announced that they had signed running back Paul Perkins, who hasn’t played in a game since 2017. That made C.J. Anderson expendable. He’d been cut via telephone on his day off while making an appearance to talk about his charitable foundation.
Here was a gut-punch reminder of how brutal life in the NFL can be. “Not For Long”, indeed.
The league chews up and spits out players at every position, but perhaps none more so than running backs. It’s quite likely the most physically damaging job on the field. The collisions are endless, and the shelf life can be short. When your legs go, you’re done.
Earning a living that way — even a lucrative living — is hard work. And it can be snatched away in an instant.
One minute, Anderson was saying that he was going home to watch film of the Lions’ next opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. The next, he’s going home unemployed.
People get fired every day, in all walks of life. It happens. But not many employers can be as cold as NFL franchises.
The Houston Texans waived starting cornerback Aaron Colvin after a bad game in the season opener. Anderson was whacked with the Lions off to a 1-0-1 start. Perhaps not coincidentally, both the Texas (Bill O’Brien) and Lions (Matt Patricia) are coached by men who worked for Bill Belichick. In terms of personnel, nobody is a more ruthless, bottom-line-oriented franchise leader than Belichick.
Anderson signed a deal worth $1.5 million with Detroit in April. According to overthecap.com, $450,000 of that was fully guaranteed. He also got a $200,000 signing bonus. With six years of NFL experience, he’s fully vested in terms of the league pension.
So he’s hardly destitute. And there certainly is a chance that another franchise will pick him up.
But the next time we as fans want to say NFL players are pampered or have it easy or don’t deserve every dollar they get, remember what happened to C.J. Anderson, survivor of a dangerous upbringing, Super Bowl champion, fired on his day off while making an appearance to speak about his work helping children.
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