TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Every few years there is a player who is special, even judged among the special players around him. Will Anderson is special.
Anderson, along with junior teammates Bryce Young and Jahmyr Gibbs, announced plans to enter the 2023 NFL Draft on Monday. Safety Brian Branch announced he will enter the draft Monday afternoon while cornerback Eli Ricks has yet to decide what he will do, although a decision is expected in the coming days.
I intend to squeeze every last drop of the word special when I use it here because, as those of us who have been around him over the past three years know, Anderson is an extraordinary football player , but he’s an even better person.
Let me illustrate this to you.
Not once in his three years in Tuscaloosa did I or anyone who covered Alabama football or anyone in the Alabama football program (and I spoke to several d between them over the past week on this) have never seen him in a bad mood. He’s shown a lot of intensity and meanness on the court, skills that could make him the No. 1 pick in the spring draft, but other than that he’s a completely different person.
Do you know how difficult it is to constantly carry that positive attitude towards life in a program as demanding as Alabama, where they push you to your limits physically and mentally, and where bumps, bruises and pains make part of your daily life? Still, Anderson did it all with his trademark smile.
“He’s like Coach in his mental makeup,” an Alabama staffer told me Monday. “He loves the ball.”
NFL general managers are going to eat it.
He also loves his family. It’s not abnormal, of course, but the extent to which the Andersons are close and overwhelmingly positive people is remarkably noticeable. Anderon took a few moments during his time in front of the microphone on Monday to thank them for all the times he called them out for rookie support.
“I have to shout out my family,” he said. “They have been my backbone this whole time. My mother, my father, all my sisters, my aunts, my grandmother, my grandfather, I love you so much. Thanks for the love and support. Through good times, through bad times, through difficult times, you have stood by my side.
In a sense, Monday’s announcement was a love letter to his family.
His parents, Will Sr., known as Big Will, and Tereon, enjoyed every part of Will’s three-year college career. But they were always in the background, never attention-seeking or outspoken. They let their son shine and they’ve been there every step of the way.
They were there on the field Saturday in New Orleans. Embrace the Alabama staff members who made the trip a little easier to navigate. Guys like Jeremy Gsell, director of football rehabilitation services at UA. They weren’t quick hugs with a pat on the back. They were hugs that lingered and carried strong emotion in a show of appreciation for a player, staff member and family that went far beyond the intricacies of a working relationship. The Andersons cemented their relationship in Alabama. With everyone they met.
The Andersons. You won’t find better people. Their son is also a very good football player. pic.twitter.com/JRENTrwBiz
—Aaron Suttles (@AaronSuttles) December 31, 2022
What I will remember most about Will Anderson has absolutely nothing to do with him being the best player in his position on the pitch. He was twice the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, won numerous national awards and was a general terror to face. But it was our first phone conversation that I could never get rid of.
Anderson was coming off a freshman year in which he was a first-day starter at linebacker Jack. Rumors of his greatness reached me via texts and phone calls the day he put on towels before his first season. But because freshmen don’t talk to the media in Alabama, we hadn’t talked one-on-one before. Until August before its second season.
I had received a mission from Athleticism to profile Anderson. We knew he was a player who was going to explode on the national scene. We wanted to be authoritative on this and set the scene for the 2021 season. We didn’t know what kind of year it would have. It was special.
Alabama was still operating under COVID-19 protocols, so they facilitated a phone interview. That’s when it happened, a moment that defined Anderson’s character for me, and to a large extent one that still exists today. Before the interview started, as we both exchanged greetings and such, Anderson had this to say:
“Do me a favor. Don’t make me look better than I am.
It stopped me cold because I had a crystallized thought: this guy had no idea how good he was.
He would prove it to himself that year with a national record of 34 1/2 tackles for loss and 17 1/2 sacks. After that he had to admit there was no way I could make him look better than he was. Because he was so good. He admitted it to me on Monday.
“I haven’t always had the confidence that I walk around with (now),” Anderson said. “I was a little shaky about coming to Alabama.”
A humble superstar if ever there was one.
Alabama does not retire numbers. He literally can’t. With 149 players receiving first-team All-America honors, that’s just not possible. But if that were the case, the No.31 would never be available for another player because he’s so special. He is the first two-time unanimous All-American in program history.
Think about it for a minute. Of all the Hall of Famers and outstanding players to have participated in the program, Anderson was the first to do so. And this is at a time when misdemeanors have the upper hand. It is truly remarkable.
Anderson thanked Saban, teammates, coaches and even the media during his remarks. He is the epitome of all that is good with collegiate sports. He graduated in three years. He won a national championship and two SEC titles. He was widely regarded as one of the best players in the sport for two years, certainly the best in his position. Yet he never talked about himself. And in some ways, it all goes back to his parents.
“To whom we give a lot, we expect a lot,” Tereon Anderson told me on Monday. “That’s the quote for our family. We always want them to know, no matter what you’ve accomplished, remember you should always be grateful. Be humble.”
Anderson was humble all the way. He showed it when he put his team first by deciding to play in the Sugar Bowl. Truth be told, he had no reason to. His legacy was established whether he played in the game or not. But he decided with Bryce Young that they were going to play. Because they wanted one more match with their teammates and coaches. And because they wanted young players to see the example.
In doing so, we could all see the emotion of Anderson and his family. The sincere love that everyone feels for them. And Will is for his family. In a still cynical world, it was beautiful to see.
Just like Monday’s announcements, when these young men made their dreams come true by announcing for the NFL. They left to begin their journey in the drafting process. In their wake, they leave a cemented legacy and an example for their teammates to follow.
In Anderson’s case, it was one more opportunity to show the world what type of young man and player is heading to the pros. He made sure to remind us through his actions how relatively humble he remains and how responsible his parents are for all of this.
(Top photo: Butch Dill/USA Today)