Commentary

Willie Anderson craves mentoring role

Originally Published: June 22, 2010
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Willie AndersonIcon SMIWillie Anderson, right, is eager to play again as well as help younger players find their way.

ATLANTA -- After sitting out the 2009 campaign following a sterling career that spanned 13 seasons -- and included four Pro Bowl invitations, three All-Pro citations and a 10-year stretch in which he missed only two starts -- offensive tackle Willie Anderson is interested in returning to the NFL in 2010.

And not just as a player.

Although Anderson, 34, certainly has the itch to play again, after retiring from the Baltimore Ravens in May 2009, he views his role in counseling young players to be as critical as that of fending off opposition pass-rushers.

Maybe more so.

"There is no manual for playing in the NFL, no book that explains to a young guy everything you're going to go through, all the ups and downs you'll experience in a career … and how to prepare for life [after football]," Anderson said over lunch after a workout. "I think someone who has been through it all, has seen all the sides on and off the field, has a better chance to [impart] all of those things. And I think that's basically a part of what I have to offer either as a player or as a former player.

"There's no [camouflaging] that I would like to play again. But if not, I feel I owe it to the game and to players to help them prepare for things."

Arguably one of the premier right tackles of his generation, Anderson essentially saw every possible facet of the game during his tenures in Cincinnati (1996 to 2007) and Baltimore (2008). With the Bengals, the franchise with which Anderson is most associated, he labored for a team that finished last in its division three times and posted only one winning season while he was there. In his only season with the Ravens, Anderson played for a club that finished one victory shy of a Super Bowl berth.

In between, there were contract battles with Cincinnati management, millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses, perseverance through a couple of serious knee injuries (Anderson missed only eight starts in his first dozen seasons), his release after he refused to accept a salary reduction and his recognition by two franchises as an underrated yet important leader on the field and in the locker room.

The approximation to an appearance in Super Bowl XLIII -- the Ravens lost at Pittsburgh in the 2008 AFC Championship Game -- still motivates Anderson. But what eats at him just as much is that there is a group of young players whom Anderson could impact off the field as well.

Anderson has begun to do that at the high school level, with his annual camp for offensive linemen in Mobile, Ala. It is a continuation of a role first laid out for him by longtime Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander. As an elder statesman of sorts for the Bengals, Anderson regularly took young blockers such as Stacy Andrews and Andrew Whitworth, and even fellow former first-round draft pick Levi Jones, under his wing.

In the case of Andrews, he advised the youngster even though he realized that the Bengals' 2004 fourth-rounder was ostensibly selected to replace him one day.

As a member of the Ravens, who signed Anderson after the Bengals released him, he spent hours talking football and life with young Baltimore linemen such as Ben Grubbs, Chris Chester and Jared Gaither.

Recalled Andrews, who now plays for Philadelphia: "Willie was always there for the younger guys. He was [selfless] with his time."

These days, Anderson views the game's 20-something blockers with a degree of envy because their football future is mostly ahead of them. And because they still have a chance to claim the one prize that eluded him: a Super Bowl ring.

"When you're in your 20s, you think about the money and how much you can make … and it can be the most important thing for you," Anderson said. "And then when you get to be 30-something, you start thinking about the ring and what it would mean to win one. And, yeah, to be honest, it does kind of gnaw at me that, with everything else I accomplished, I don't have [a Super Bowl ring]."

Successful off the field -- Anderson has invested well and owns fast-food restaurants here and in Cincinnati -- the veteran right tackle would not mind cashing in on the field, too, in a comeback. Toward that end, he maintains his playing-days regimen of Pilates, kickboxing and a variety of grueling workout routines.

His weight, about 360 pounds when he started 11 games for the Ravens in '08, is down to 338. Anderson said he still has very good flexibility, is still a "knee bender," in football lexicon, retains his durability and has healed up after a year away from the game.

He flirted with the notion of playing again in 2009, and several teams demonstrated an interest in bringing him to camp, but Anderson felt he needed a year off to allow his body to fully recover after 13 years of collisions.

At age 34, Anderson almost certainly would have to be an insurance policy for someone as a backup tackle. But there were five linemen older than him on NFL rosters in 2009. There are two older tackles currently in the league, and the San Diego Chargers recently signed graybeard Tra Thomas, who's seven months older than Anderson, in case left tackle Marcus McNeill doesn't sign his one-year qualifying offer and fails to report to camp.

So there are a few blockers more senior than Anderson in the game.

But few wiser.

"I've seen and learned an awful lot," Anderson said. "If I could pass that knowledge on to people, on the field and off it, that would be great. I don't want to be a coach; that has never interested me. And I don't want to impose myself on people, because that isn't my nature. But I definitely feel I've got something to offer."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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