By Tom Friend
ESPN The Magazine
His son is a possible Top-10 NFL draft pick, but he doesn't listen to the gossip, the rumor or the innuendo. Because he cannot hear.
On draft day, sign language or closed captioning will tell him what he needs to know. Because he cannot hear.
The team that picks his son will have found a special player. All because Glenn Anderson cannot hear.
Asked if he would be a NFL prospect without his dad, Jamaal Anderson says "Impossible."
In this era of Pacman and T.O., the National Football League needs more people like Arkansas defensive end Jamaal Anderson, whose deaf father has shown him anything is possible. Jamaal may be a 6-foot-5, 288-pound former basketball player who reminds scouts of Julius Peppers, but his best attribute could very well be the man who raised him in silence.
When Jamaal wanted to quit football in eighth grade, he thought of his father Glenn, who never quit his cruel, mainstream high school.
When Jamaal was hesitant to switch from receiver to defensive end in college, he thought of his father Glenn, who worked day and night to obtain a Ph.D.
And now when Jamaal hears some NFL teams still aren't sold on him, he thinks of his father Glenn and says, "If they only knew."
Last month in an LA mall, Jamaal and his sister, Danielle, witnessed a teenage boy get nabbed for shoplifting. A cop arrived and told the kid he had two choices: call his dad or go to jail. "I'll call my dad," the kid answered.
"Wow," Danielle said to Jamaal, "you and I would've chosen jail."
That's because the man they never wanted to disappoint is the same man who has never heard one word they've ever said: their father. He yells with his hands and commands respect with his e-mails. And when you ask Jamaal Anderson if he'd be an NFL prospect today without Glenn, he tells you, "Impossible."
You have to go back to Chicago to understand, back to the early 1950s. Glenn Anderson was a perfectly healthy 6-year-old when he contracted pneumonia and was given the experimental drug streptomycin. Doctors warned his father, a middle school custodian, and his mother, a short-order cook, of the drug's potential side effects, including complete hearing loss. But it was either that or lose their son.
He became deaf, and his family didn't even try to learn sign language. So Glenn was on his own, at the playground and at school. There were no interpreters available and no televisions with closed captioning. Right from a young age, he was in survival mode.
Glenn Anderson, 61, lost his hearing when he was 6, but he never let that slow him down.
While his friends attended a vocational high school, Glenn was sent to Parker High School -- a mainstream and academic high school that has since been torn down -- and he spent much of his free time in the library, reading about Bill Russell and Hank Aaron. He was a top-notch basketball player, the only deaf player in the city's public schools, but his teammates gawked at him, kept their distance. They would cut up in class, while he just wanted to study, and he was ostracized.
He simply wanted to blend in, and because he was so smart and self-sufficient, there were teachers who didn't even know he was deaf. He went an entire semester of an American history class with an A, until the teacher decided the final test would be an oral exam.
"So I raised my hand and said, 'I'm deaf,'" Glenn, 61, recalled through an interpreter. "And he said, 'Not you.'"
The teacher still forced him to take the test orally. "Four years of high school, my only F," Glenn said.
His trick, mostly, was to find classmates -- mostly girls -- who took copious lecture notes and were willing to share them with him. He was also an exquisite writer, and after graduation he ended up at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the university for the deaf and hard of hearing.
He played basketball there, scoring over 1,000 points in two seasons, and also competed in the long jump and triple jump for the track team (later participating in the 1969 deaf Olympics in Belgrade). He became the first person in his family to earn a college degree, but didn't stop there. He earned his master's from the University of Arizona and his Ph.D. from NYU, where he met his wife, Karen. He later became a professor at the University of Arkansas, where he started a family and began coaching his youngest of two children, a gangly kid named Jamaal.
They'd be at the playground, every night, shooting baskets, using sign language to communicate. Jamaal learned how to sign before he learned to speak, and the bond between them became rock solid.
"He was pretty hard on me," Jamaal said. "I guess I was out of shape once, so right after a basketball game, he took me to the track and made me run five miles. I was so mad at him for that. But I guess it paid off."
Jamaal Anderson, center, and his parents Karen and Glenn celebrate his high school graduation and his future at Arkansas. Jamaal chose the Hogs after coaches used sign language to communicate with Glenn.
There were other life lessons taught along the way.
"I remember Jamaal playing their archrivals in a game, and there'd been a lot of trash-talking on the court. And Jamaal was a little upset," Danielle said. "He told Daddy, 'They're saying things that are mean and nasty,' and I can remember Daddy stopping the car, turning to Jamaal and saying, 'We don't do that. It's not necessary to do that.' So Jamaal never did."
By eighth grade, Jamaal had decided to take up football, but he was upset when the coach made him the center. Snapping the ball to the quarterback and blocking? It was boring, and he told Glenn he was bailing out, quitting. But no one in that family quit anything, and Jamaal knew it. He stayed and was soon rewarded when the coach switched him to tight end.
"Caught a touchdown on his first play," Karen said.
"If I hadn't stuck it out, I'd have never played football again," Jamaal said.
He was still playing basketball, too, at Parkview High School in Little Rock, Ark. But before his senior year, he quit -- this time without telling his dad -- and Glenn was livid. Jamaal wanted to concentrate on his football training. Glenn thought it was a mistake, that he'd have too much time on his hands and could fall in with the wrong crowd. But every ensuing day, without fail, Jamaal would be working out or drinking a protein shake or eating healthy food. Glenn learned he could trust him, learned that Jamaal was another him because he never slacked off. Jamaal then went out his senior season and broke the high school touchdown record of former all-world tight end Keith Jackson.
Soon, the University of Arkansas was all over the kid, and Razorbacks coach Houston Nutt Jr. came in for a home visit along with his brother, Danny Nutt. Their father, Houston Nutt Sr., had been hearing-impaired himself, so the Nutt brothers were able to sign to Glenn throughout the home visit. Jamaal loved it and committed to the school.
Right away, they put him with a deaf roommate, Antoine Dinka. That's how much the Nutts thought of Jamaal. They knew he'd help Dinka cope, knew he'd be his interpreter in football meetings. On the practice field, Houston Nutt began using sign language to talk to Jamaal when no one else was looking -- their secret communication method -- and when Nutt asked him to switch from receiver to defensive end, he trusted that the coach knew what he was doing, just the way he trusted Glenn.
By his junior season, he was glad he'd gone along with it. He accumulated 13½ sacks, using speed moves and power moves, and decided it was time to turn pro. And Houston Nutt knew Jamaal was ready, on the field and off. He was so much more mature than the other players, had so much more perspective. And it all had to do with Glenn, who, by now, had been appointed by George Bush to the National Council on Disability and had served as chair of the Gallaudet Board of Trustees. He had mingled with President Clinton and been a keynote speaker nationally. And Jamaal had watched it all happen.
He'd seen everything his father had been through. He'd remembered the night the family had gotten their first closed-captioned television, and how Glenn could now watch Knots Landing with the whole group. He remembered how much joy his dad felt. He decided that if his father could overcome being deaf, he could sack an NFL quarterback. How many other top players had lived this way? How many had that going for them? How many?
Like Father, Like Son
Most Top-10 draft picks roll with a posse.
Jamaal Anderson rolls with his sister.
When Anderson traveled to LA this winter to train for the NFL combine and his pro day workout, he arrived with his sister Danielle. She cooked for him and hung out with him, another indication that he could be the most mature player, at 21, in this entire draft.
Jamaal Anderson had 13½ sacks last year at Arkansas and may be the first D-lineman selected in the NFL draft.
While he was out West, he bulked up from 282 to 288 pounds and trimmed his body fat from 13.7 percent to 11 percent. Then, at his pro day workout, he mostly out-performed his chief competitor at defensive end, Clemson's Gaines Adams. Adams, who is the 30 pounds lighter, ran a 4.66 40 yard dash compared to Anderson's 4.75, but Jamaal ran faster in the 10-yard dash (more pertinent to linemen), in the 20-yard shuttle and in the three-cone drill.
Still, in a lot of mock drafts, Adams was projected to go higher than Anderson, not that Glenn -- still teaching in Arkansas -- knew anything about it. His son had previously text-messaged him from the combine and told him he'd met with 28 teams. It floored Glenn that 28 teams had actually taken the time to visit his son.
Glenn had simply taught his son not to be boa****l, not to brag about who his father was or what his background had been. If teams knew what Jamaal had been exposed to, they likely would have lauded him for his character and probably moved him up the draft charts. But he kept silent about it. "It's just something I really never talk about," he said. "I'm just humble about it, because that's how I've been raised."
Jamaal kept hearing the Washington Redskins were interested, and, because there'd been a recent protest in DC when Glenn got snubbed as a Gallaudet president candidate, Jamaal knew his dad was popular there. "Yeah, if I go to Washington, there'll be a deaf community section at Fed Ex Field," Jamaal said. "A Glenn Anderson section." But then, suddenly, the Redskins talked openly about trading the No. 6 overall pick. Were they not enamored of him? Did they know Jamaal's history?
Finally, at the combine, word got out. And the first to leak it was Tennessee Titans assistant coach Jim Washburn, who had formerly been a D-line coach at Arkansas. Washburn had bumped into Jamaal right before his individual meeting with the Titans brass and asked Jamaal to answer the first few questions using only sign language. The idea was to shock Titans GM Mike Reinfeldt and head coach Jeff Fisher, shock them into never, ever forgetting Jamaal.
It worked. Reinfeldt's jaw dropped at the sight of a 288-pound man using sign language, and the Titans were blown away. Now everyone knew there was a talented kid out there who had class, who would never be a Pacman, not in a million years.
His father had rubbed off on him far too much. Teams needed to know that. They needed to know that, in a lot of ways, he was a Glenn Anderson who could hear. They needed to know that when Jamaal Anderson checked into a hotel recently, for a team visit, he flipped on the TV ... and turned on the closed-captioning. Out of habit. Out of pure habit.
Tom Friend is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine.