ATLANTA — While C.J. Anderson waited for the phone to ring, he focused his energy on making an opportunity — not for himself, but for the young people back home, the gifted ones who grew up just like him, those kids with big dreams but unaware of limitless possibilities.
Twice cut by NFL teams this season, the veteran NFL running back wasn’t sure if a chance to play football would come again. Instead of fretting about the direction of his stalled career, Anderson continued to focus on the bigger picture.
“Where I’m from in Vallejo, California, there’s a lot of kids who grew up like me,” the Los Angeles Rams backup running back said during a sit-down interview with Yahoo Sports. “Single-parent home. Someone in the family was either selling drugs or on drugs. Dealt with police and different things in their household. And there are some kids who grew up way worse than me. When I got older and I got the platform, I got an opportunity to change my community and everything about Vallejo and give them resources that I didn’t have when I was a kid.”
No matter where his football career took him, he made it a point never to forget about his West Coast roots. And even at Anderson’s lowest professional moment, he stayed true to his vision of helping young people who were less fortunate.
After five seasons playing in Denver — which included a Pro Bowl selection, two Super Bowl appearances and a championship — Anderson was released in April. In the months that followed, he bounced from Carolina, to Oakland. And after a six-day stint as a Raider, he suddenly found himself out of work again.
But in December, the 27-year-old got the call that changed the course of his career once more. He had a new home. Back on the West Coast.
“The Rams are going to bring you in,” his agent told him. “And I was like, ‘No way.’ ”
At the time, Anderson had been in Tampa setting up business meetings for his company and his foundation, Dreams Never Die, which aims to help inner-city youth back in his hometown. While out of work, he fell into “full offseason mode,” focusing solely on his philanthropic and entrepreneurial efforts — not regimented workouts.
“Cause I’ve still got an obligation [to the kids],” said Anderson, who admitted he allowed his weight to fluctuate following his release from the Raiders. “And they’re expecting some of the highest resources that we’ve been giving them for the past two years. So just because my life, maybe, isn’t going the way I’d like it to go, I just can’t hide in the shadows. So, I was still working on things that I love to do. I made enough money in this league to where, if I never played again, I’d be OK.”
It turns out, his career was far from over.
Now, he has emerged as an unlikely hero for the upstart Rams, who will face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
“I think the one thing that C.J. did a good job of was coming in right away, endearing himself to his teammates and just being about that work,” said head coach Sean McVay. “He did a great job in a short week of being able to digest that gameplan. You can see once you get around him that he’s a smart, cerebral player and has a great understanding of the specifics of the running back spot. He’s been in some systems that are similar, but what’s great about our team is guys welcome you with open arms and put their arms around you and once you’re on this team, you’re on it.”
Anderson, who was signed in Week 16 after starting running back Todd Gurley was hampered by a knee injury, rushed for 167 yards and a touchdown against Arizona, 132 yards and a TD against San Francisco and then 123 yards and two TDs against Dallas in the NFC divisional round.
Asked if he expected his stint with the Rams to be short-lived, he replied: “I know in this league, just from what I’ve experienced, you can create your own opportunity. And I knew I was going to get an opportunity.
“Obviously, Todd was hurt and I knew I was going to get an opportunity to showcase my skill. And when I got released from Denver, Carolina and Oakland, it wasn’t ever because of talent. I got released because of circumstances and what teams see fit for the organization, which makes sense. They were honest with me. I’ve been a Pro Bowler in this league and teams were honest with me about why they released me, so I was happy about that. Some people don’t get clarity on why they’re being bounced around the league. But when I got here, I knew I could play well and get into an opportunity… and now I have a significant role.”
The same way he attacks holes on the playing field, Anderson sees a clear path for so many young people in his hometown — a path to greater life experiences and even bigger dreams.
“When we started the foundation in 2016, it was about putting kids in an opportunity to live their dream, no matter what that was,” he said. “And then I used the NFL to leverage my platform to speak at Harvard and speak at MIT and have UC-Berkley and have Google and Microsoft and DocuSign and all these other different tech companies that we have partnerships with …
“We kind of took the foundation to a different step in 2017, actually implementing programs or taking a boatload of kids on certain field trips to these big time billion-dollar companies where they can meet these big-time execs. And some of these execs look just like me and you … All they see on TV is the next me or the next Jay-Z but you don’t have to be that to be successful. You can have the No. 1 podcast in the world and be successful. There are so many different ways to be successful and do what you love to do if the resources are provided to you.
“When I got to UC Berkley, I fell in love with technology and I never knew about that when I was 8 or 9 because it was all about making it to the NFL and playing in the NFL and that worked out for me. But that doesn’t work out for every kid.”
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