- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Damien Anderson waited and waited some more, until the NFL Draft closed up and everybody went home. He was not one of the 261 players selected, and the way he sees it, somebody goofed. All he has to do now is prove it. "I've got a chip on my shoulder," he said.
Entering his senior year at Northwestern, Anderson was considered one of the top running backs in the country. He was a preseason All-American and the top returning Heisman Trophy vote-getter after finishing fifth in 2000. An early draft projection listed him as a potential first-round pick. ESPN even did one of those "Sports Century" documentaries about him.
Now Anderson is perhaps this year's most vivid case study of how a player's stock can plummet, how a high first-rounder can become a low first-rounder, a second- or third-rounder, or in his case, a no-rounder. All those names were called and he was unwanted. He didn't even qualify to be Mr. Irrelevant, the dubious honor that comes with being the draft's final pick.
After signing a free-agent contract with the Arizona Cardinals, Anderson is determined to show up at minicamp in Tempe this week and demonstrate the irrelevance of some of the scouting criteria.
"I don't have a negative attitude," he said. "I know the NFL is pretty serious about injuries. It's all business to them. My whole thing is having a positive attitude and showing the Arizona Cardinals what I have."
Anderson suffered a dislocated shoulder during Northwestern's eighth game of 2001 and missed the rest of the season. Surgery followed, placing the NFL on high alert. But he showed up at the league combine in March and bench-pressed 225 pounds 27 times. Only one other running back was able to do that.
That, he said, proved the shoulder was fine. It also showed "that I'm a soldier."
As a junior during the 2000 season, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Anderson led the Big Ten with a school-record 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns. NFL scouts told him he would likely be a third- to fifth-round pick if he came out early. But even though he would earn his degree in communications in June, Anderson decided to return to the Wildcats. Last spring, a projected 2002 draft by CNN/SI listed him 27th overall.
"All the benefits were toward coming back," he said. "I heard all the negatives, that I wasn't that big, that I needed to improve my catching skills, my blocking. I needed to improve all the little things. What everyone saw was how I could run the ball. I thought I could improve my total game."
Coming off a year in which it tied for the Big Ten championship and went to the Alamo Bowl, Northwestern was the conference favorite heading into 2001. But the death of defensive back Rashidi Wheeler during an August conditioning workout, followed by charges of negligence, hit hard and cast a shadow over the rest of the year.
Anderson had a close relationship with Wheeler, whose locker was two stalls away. "He always called himself the 'educated athlete,'" Anderson said. "He took it to heart that he went to Northwestern. We'd talk about stocks and bonds, and he always thought he knew what he was talking about. We were always joking around, thinking we knew everything about everything."
Then came the tragedy of September 11, which canceled the college schedule the following weekend. Anderson said the Wildcats seemed affected by that, especially in the wake of Wheeler's death. For example, he said, team captains asked the coaches to let them take the bus instead of flying to Duke for their next game.
"I think our guards were down already," Anderson said. "So much death, so quickly. It caused us to think about things a lot more. We won a lot of games, but I think our senses were up to just thinking about things."
Said coach Randy Walker, "It was a difficult year. You're emotionally spent in so many ways, and you look up and it's still Oct.1."
Northwestern started 4-1, but the emotion, and injuries, took a toll. Three other tailbacks got hurt in addition to Anderson, and at one point, five first-year freshmen started on defense. After suffering a dislocated shoulder against Minnesota in Game 5 ("I just sat up and popped it in myself," he said), Anderson took another hit on the shoulder and separated it against Indiana three weeks later and was gone for good. The Wildcats, meanwhile, lost their last six and finished 4-7.
"It definitely wasn't how I envisoned my senior year," Anderson said.
With opponents keying on Anderson, often stacking eight or more defenders on the line, the Wildcats threw more than they would have liked. Not only did Anderson see the ball less than he did in 2000, but "everywhere I went, someone was following me."
Still, he finished with 757 yards, ending up as the No.6 career rusher in Big Ten history. "I thought I played well," he said.
Not well enough, apparently, to impress pro scouts. With a sore hamstring, he ran an ordinary 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. A healthier Anderson improved his time in later workouts, but critics pointed to his presumed lack of blocking and receiving skills and his lack of speed. Some considered his 2000 performance to be a product of the spread offense Northwestern ran, even though Anderson gained more than 1,100 yards as a sophomore in 1999 running out of a more conventional pro set.
"I kind of liked the guy," Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. "But they ran out of the shotgun and they really had only a couple of running plays. He's not real physical between the tackles. He didn't time that well and he didn't play that well. We graded him as a middle-round player."
John Dorsey, the Green Bay Packers' director of college scouting, said he liked Anderson's toughness and durability. In fact, Dorsey said, Anderson was a favorite of his 14-year-old son, Bryant. "But for that size, you'd like him to have exceptional speed," Dorsey said.
Anderson wasn't the only one who couldn't believe he wasn't drafted.
"I was very surprised," Walker said. "All I know is, he could stay here and play for me forever. I love him. I love his work ethic. Everybody wants a guy 6-1, 225 pounds who can outrun a speeding bullet. That isn't Damien. He isn't the biggest guy going. But he's gonna make some team."
Anderson watched the draft at home in Wilmington, Ill., and saw teammates Napoleon Harris, Kevin Bentley and Sam Simmons get picked. He didn't expect to hear his name called the first day, Saturday, during the first three rounds. He said his agent told him he probably would go in the middle rounds. On Sunday, Anderson waited. Other running backs were drafted, players Anderson believed were not as good as himself. During the later rounds, Anderson said teams started calling and told him to expect to hear from them. Sure.
"I'm just sitting there wondering what everyone is thinking," he said. "I'm seeing running back after running back [get drafted] who I had better stats than or who I did better than at the combine. I'm just trying to rationalize the situation. What did I do wrong? I think I did everything right, except for having surgery. I wasn't angry, just upset at the whole situation."
Anderson decided to sign with the Cardinals, who lost starting running back Michael Pittman to free agency. Although Virginia's Thomas Jones, picked No.6 overall in 2000, is considered the starter, he has yet to do anything. The only other veteran running back, Marcel Shipp, did not touch the ball last year. The Cardinals also drafted Josh Scobey out of Kansas State in the sixth round.
"They said I have a real good opportunity," Anderson said.
Cardinals GM Bob Ferguson said Anderson was hurt by teams drafting for defense this year and because several clubs already are stocked with running backs. He said Anderson must prove he can play on special teams, but he likes his skills as a runner.
"He picked a good spot, I can tell you right now," Ferguson said. "The things we like are his production, the way he runs the football. He's a confident, strong kid. He's quick, though not necessarily strong on the clock. I don't have any problems with his blocking or his hands. We'll find out."
Anderson says there is no doubt they will.
"I think the Arizona Cardinals got the steal of the draft," he said.

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