LOS ANGELES -- If reprinted, must include: Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times, re-printed by permission.
On a Wednesday or Thursday night in the fall at Camp Pendleton, you can find a football game manned by Marines so eager to compete they've been known to practice before roll call at 6 a.m. On Sunday afternoons, some of those same players gather at spots like the Grand Avenue Bar & Grill in Carlsbad or Rookies sports bar in Oceanside to pull for one of their own.
It wasn't so long ago that Mike Anderson, the Denver Bronco running back who set an NFL rookie rushing record with 251 yards against New Orleans two weeks ago, was just another Marine who played on the base.
Kurt Warner's rise from grocery store stock boy to Super Bowl champion was the story of last season. Anderson--the NFL's third-leading rusher--is one of this season's. He didn't even play football in high school in Fairfield, S.C., playing drums in the marching band instead.
Then he became a U.S. Marine.
"When I was a little kid, I would always see the commercial, 'The Few, The Proud,' and I always thought of it as a challenge. Could I do that?" Anderson said. "I wanted to get away from the neighborhood, and it was a good way to earn money for school, so I joined."
He became a lance corporal, working as a communicator in an artillery battery. He went to Somalia and Kenya on peacekeeping missions.
And he played football.
Bob Turley, a retired lieutenant colonel who scours the base for players as an assistant coach at Mt. San Jacinto College, first saw Anderson play for the 11th Marine Regiment--the Cannon Cockers, as they're known.
"It was obvious he was an exceptional athlete with great talent, speed and toughness," Turley said. "He looked like a pretty strong young Marine."
After Anderson's four years in the Marines, Turley recruited him to Mt. San Jacinto, and he still remembers the day in practice when a tough defensive back named Lawrence Walls--another former Marine who delivered hits so devastating the coaches called them anti-tank rounds--finally grew weary of hitting Anderson.
"All of a sudden, he sort of backed off. All the coaches looked like, what the heck? 'Lawrence, why didn't you take a shot?' " Turley said.
"I think I'm done tackling furniture," Walls told them.
"You can't just pop [Anderson]," Turley said. "He has great balance. He can take a hit."
After two seasons at Mt. San Jacinto, Anderson went on to Utah, where he rushed for 150 yards against Utah State in his first game as a junior and finished his career the next season with consecutive 200-yard games against New Mexico and Fresno State. The Broncos made him a sixth-round draft choice. Then Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary both were injured, and Anderson rose from obscurity to become the latest 1,000-yard rusher to work behind Denver's vaunted offensive line.
With two games left in the regular season and Denver headed for the playoffs, the 27-year-old rookie has 1,353 yards and six 100-yard games--251 against New Orleans, 195 against Seattle, 187 against Oakland.
His jersey from the Saints game has been shipped to Canton, Ohio, to be displayed at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in honor of his rookie rushing record.
Talk about the few and the proud.
"That's hard for me to put in words. For me, that's unbelievable," Anderson said. "Never in my wildest dream could I have imagined that or even pondered that thought in my mind. For that to happen, it's just remarkable. It is a big-time honor."
Richard Gomez, the master sergeant Anderson worked for in an artillery battery at Camp Pendleton, would like the base to recognize Anderson too.
"I mentioned to my boss, we should do something like rename our football field in honor of him," Gomez said. "He really thinks the Marine Corps, being in the military, gave him the foundation to be where he is now. I heard somebody ask him about training camp, and he said it's nothing compared to boot camp."
Anderson's high school career fell by the wayside when the coach wouldn't let him try out for running back. "He said, 'You go with the offensive linemen,' " Anderson said. "I just walked away and did other things."
On the base, they were happy to give the 6-foot, 235-pound Anderson the ball. "I think without going into the military, I probably wouldn't be at this point right now. I probably wouldn't be playing," he said. "I walked away from it my ninth-grade year in high school. I never looked back and thought about playing again until I got into the Marine Corps."
He was a standout player among the dozen or so teams, but nobody has the precise stats. The base paper, The Scout, covers the games, but there is nothing official. "There were times he broke 100 or maybe a couple of times he had a couple of hundred yards," Turley said. "The statistics are not as detailed. But you walked away with the impression he was the leading rusher."
Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times, re-printed by permission.