The late 1990s and 2000s was an era during which the National Football League possessed players who were not only very productive but also had big, colorful personalities.
Jamal Anderson was one of those stars. He established himself as one of the game’s best running backs while attracting fans with one of the NFL’s most well-known touchdown dances.
His career wasn’t as long as some other prominent running backs, but while he was in the league, he was a definite handful for opposing teams.
From Jersey To SoCal
Jamal Sharif Anderson was one of eight children born to James and Zenobta Anderson. Jamal entered the world on Sept. 30, 1972 in Newark, N.J.
His father was a policeman in Newark who provided security for athletes and other celebrities. It gave young Anderson the luxury of being able to meet celebrities such as Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Richard Pryor, Jim Brown and Michael Jackson, among several others.
There is a saying that people are the average of the five people they spend the most time around. Perhaps spending so much time around such elite people at such an early age inspired Anderson to be much more than average.
At the same time, getting used to being around celebrities also helped build a sense of humility in Anderson that would become a permanent part of his character.
“I grew up around a lot of people who were called the greatest, but my family always treated them like anybody else,” Anderson told USA Today. “People tell me, ‘You saw those superstars when they were being real.’ But I prefer to say I saw them when they were just genuine people.”
Being around greatness also elevated expectations across his family. After he started playing football, he studied lots of game film, and he idolized NFL legends such as Brown, the great running back for the Cleveland Browns in the late 1950s and 1960s.
All the celebrities the elder Anderson had a relationship with honed a high level of competitiveness in the younger Anderson and his siblings.
“From watching all those [football] films and being around all those celebrities, I learned that if you’re going to play, you’ve got to be the best,” Anderson told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. “Always be No. 1— win, win, win. And the competition among my [four] brothers and [three] sisters was fierce.”
His family moved to the San Fernando Valley in Southern California in 1979, and he attended El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif. There, he truly emerged as a standout running back during his senior season, earning All-State honors and being named to the CIF Los Angeles City Section 4-A All-City first team.
However, Anderson’s grades weren’t good enough for him to attend a major university, so he instead matriculated to Moorpark College, a junior college in Ventura County, Calif., an exurban section of Southern California about an hour away from downtown Los Angeles.
In two seasons at Moorpark, Anderson played well enough to garner attention from some high-level football programs, including the University of Southern California, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Arizona.
Instead of remaining close to home, he chose to head for the Rocky Mountains and play for the University of Utah. One of the reasons why he decided on Utah was that its football program also emphasized getting good grades.
His first season there was relatively pedestrian, as he had 317 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
But in 1993, his second year at Utah, Anderson registered 958 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground while averaging a strong 5.7 yards per rushing attempt. This production earned him all-WAC conference honors.
In the Freedom Bowl that season against USC, Anderson exploded for 133 yards in a sign of things to come.
Although he wasn’t high on the list of pro prospects, he was somewhere on the radar of scouts. He wasn’t the most fleet of foot, but at 5-foot-11 and over 230 pounds, he had a low center of gravity and plenty of strength.
Anderson was also blessed with the quickness needed to change directions, and his high physicality made him about as hard to tackle as it is to lift a car.
“I pride myself on being able to run you over, [or] run around you and make you miss,” Anderson once told The Sporting News. “Every time you face me, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You may get a shoulder in the mouth, you may get a stiff-arm, you may get shook.”
That stiff arm also helped Anderson clear some room for himself and scratch out some additional yardage.
“It’s very embarrassing for a defender,” said Anderson to CNN Sports Illustrated. “Imagine just walking into a jab. BAM! And then they’re thinking about it the rest of the game, every time they come over to you. It’s great.”
Still, many NFL teams weren’t sure about investing their future in him. They saw him as lacking enough speed to be a Pro Bowl-caliber running back, while also not being big enough and not good enough at blocking to play fullback.
Emerging In Atlanta
Anderson expected to get picked in the 1994 NFL Draft by the second or third round. But he was still on the board during the seventh round, and the Atlanta Falcons decided to nab him with the 201st pick.
To that point, the Falcons had been a weak franchise for most of their existence. Since entering the league for the 1966 season, they had made the playoffs only four times, and since 1980 they had enjoyed only one winning season.
For the ’94 season, Atlanta had acquired running back Craig Heyward, meaning that Anderson would have to start his career sitting, watching and learning. In his rookie season, he played in just three games, carrying the ball a grand total of twice.
Although the Falcons had talented wide receivers in Andre Rison and Terance Mathis, the Falcons continued their futility, finishing 7-9.
In his second season, Anderson got a little more playing time, appearing in all 16 contests, but he only got 39 rushing attempts for 161 yards and one touchdown. He did contribute significantly as a kick returner that year, returning 24 kickoffs for 541 yards.
Finally, in 1996, Anderson became a consistently featured back. Starting 12 of 16 games, he had his first strong season with 1,055 rushing yards and five touchdowns. For good measure, he also added 473 receiving yards to rank among the league leaders in all-purpose yards.
As he averaged a stout 4.5 yards per rush attempt, his teammates and coaching staff found that he could produce at a high level in the pros.
After making the playoffs in ’95, the Falcons did poorly in ’96, winning just three games, and the organization responded by hiring Dan Reeves, who had previously led the Denver Broncos to three Super Bowl appearances, as its new head coach, as well as a new starting quarterback in Chris Chandler.
As a result, things started to head upwards for the team in 1997. Anderson again did well, running for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns. The Falcons didn’t make the playoffs, as they won just seven games, but things would start to drastically change for the better.
Becoming The Dirty Bird
Going into the 1998 season, Atlanta traded for productive wide receiver Tony Martin in an attempt to take some pressure off Anderson and Mathis. Still, not much was expected from the team, as few expected them to make the playoffs.
While coaching the Broncos, Reeves had employed a somewhat freewheeling, up-tempo offense that featured superstar QB John Elway. But with the Falcons, he realized that his new crew couldn’t be effective playing a pass-heavy scheme, so he adjusted and had the team run the ball more than it threw the ball.
Atlanta started the season with close wins against the Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles. Anderson did fairly well in both games, registering 88 rushing yards against Carolina and 74 yards against Philly.
In Week 3, the Falcons traveled to California to face the San Francisco 49ers, a perennial contender led by Super Bowl XXIX MVP QB Steve Young and superstar wideout Jerry Rice.
Anderson ran for 123 yards and a touchdown while adding 43 yards in the air, but the Niners prevailed, 31-20.
Atlanta recovered and won its next three games, against defeating Carolina, then prevailing against the new York Giants and New Orleans Saints. Anderson had at least 110 rushing yards in each game, and a total of two touchdowns during that span.
The Falcons now held a 5-1 record, but most pundits dismissed it, given that they hadn’t beaten any good teams. Indeed, in Week 8, they got waxed by the New York Jets, 28-3, at East Rutherford, N.J. as Anderson was held to just 46 rushing yards.
The following week, with Anderson going off for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns, Atlanta blew out the St. Louis Rams by 22 points. Then, in Week 10, then beat up the New England Patriots on the road, 41-10, with the help of 104 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Anderson.
This was the game in which Anderson would introduce America to the “Dirty Bird” touchdown dance, with a little help from tight end O.J. Santiago. It involved the tailback flapping his arms as if they were wings, moving his arms up and down in rhythm and bouncing from side to side.
— Breaking Trends News (@breakingtrendsn) November 19, 2021
With the Falcons sporting a 7-2 record, the football world was starting to realize that they were for real and that Anderson was a force to be reckoned with. From this point on, he would punctuate each of his touchdowns with his famous dance.
Next was a home rematch against the Niners, who were having a strong season themselves. Anderson continued to play big with 100 rushing yards and a touchdown to help down San Fran, 31-19. The next week Atlanta beat the Chicago Bears to push its record to 9-2.
The Falcons would not lose another game the rest of the regular season. Anderson went on a tear through the stretch run, recording 188 rushing yards against the Rams in Week 13, 148 yards against the Saints in Week 15 and 147 yards in a matchup with the Detroit Lions in Week 16.
He finished the season with a whopper of a stat line: 1,846 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, 319 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. He copped Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors for the first time in his career while getting serious MVP consideration.
Only Broncos RB Terrell Davis had more yards and touchdowns on the ground than Anderson did.
The Falcons rode Anderson’s broad shoulders to their best season ever, finishing 14-2, which was tops in the NFC West. They were elite not just on the offensive side of the football, with Chandler making the Pro Bowl, but also on defense.
As the playoffs began, national pundits had to come to grips with the fact that Atlanta was a serious contender for the Super Bowl.
Playing For All The Marbles
The Falcons would begin the postseason at home against the Niners. San Fran posted a strong 12-4 record, and with a good mix of veterans left from their world championship team a few years ago and young stars, it would pose a nice challenge for Atlanta.
The Niners were coming off an emotional, last-second win in the wild card round against their rivals, the Green Bay Packers, meaning that Anderson and his mates would have to be on their game with no rust.
The Falcons would catch a lucky break when, on the first play of the game, Garrison Hearst, the star RB for the Niners, broke his ankle and was out for the rest of the contest.
Atlanta would take advantage, as would Anderson in particular. He posted 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and his team would manage a hard-earned 20-18 win.
Next was a date with the dangerous Minnesota Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. It was the first time the Falcons played in the conference championship, and they would have their hands full.
The Vikings won 15 games and were one of the most prolific offensive teams in history. Led by veteran All-Pro QB Randall Cunningham, the Vikings boasted wideout Cris Carter, who had been the best at the position for years, and a hotshot rookie wideout named Randy Moss, who had garnered All-Pro First-Team honors.
The Falcons were 11-point underdogs, and they would not only have to overcome Minnesota’s souped-up offense, but also their venue, the Metrodome, which was one of the loudest in the NFL.
Early on, things looked bad for Atlanta. After Anderson scored the first touchdown of the game, the Vikings scored on two touchdowns and two field goals to take a 20-7 lead in the second quarter.
Atlanta cut its deficit to three by the end of the third quarter, but the Vikings stretched it to 10 early in the fourth. A field goal from Morton Anderson and a touchdown from Mathis with under a minute left tied the game and set up a furious finish.
The game went into overtime, and both teams failed to gain an advantage for a while. The Metrodome crowd grew ever more anxious, as it saw its team fail to ice the game in regulation and started to fear the worst.
With 8:28 left, the Falcons started an offensive drive on its own nine-yard line. With Anderson carrying the ball five times on that drive, gaining yardage on four of those carries, Atlanta found itself with a chance to win.
Placekicker Morton Anderson converted a 38-yard field goal, and improbably, the Falcons were headed to Super Bowl XXXIII.
Today in sports history January 17, 1999: Jamal Anderson and The Falcons upset the Vikings 30-27 in OT in the NFC Championship Game.
Vikings kicking nightmares as usual as Gary Anderson missed his first field goal in nearly two years
— George Jarjour (@GeorgeOnTap) January 17, 2021
Their opponent there would be Reeves’s old team, the Denver Broncos, who happened to be the defending league champs. Once again, the Falcons were underdogs, and with Elway possibly retiring after the game, they had to gear up for a legendary QB looking to go out with a triumphant last hurrah.
It would also be a matchup between the two best tailbacks in the game: Anderson and Denver’s Terrell Davis.
Although the “Dirty Bird” put up 96 yards, he was held without a touchdown and would be slightly outplayed by Davis.
After scoring the first points of the game on a field goal, the Falcons gave up 17 unanswered points and would be forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. They never got any closer, as they lost 34-19, giving Elway his second straight world championship in what was indeed his final game.
What had been a dream season for Anderson and the Falcons had been soured by a loss in America’s biggest sporting event.
On The Way Down
Coming off their unexpected run to the brink in ’98, the Falcons were still expected to be in the mix for Super Bowl contention once the 1999 season started.
But their chances ended with one tear of a ligament.
In Week 2 of the new season, the Falcons suffered a fatal blow when Anderson tore the ACL in his right knee against the Dallas Cowboys, prematurely ending his season, as he would undergo surgery.
What made the injury even more galling was that it was a non-contact injury. No one was near Anderson when the ligament snapped.
It was a death knell for Atlanta, who had just given Anderson a five-year, $32 million contract that had a $7.5 million signing bonus. It would win just five games that season and miss the playoffs.
Did he tear his ACL simply because of wear and tear? He had carried the ball a league-high 410 yards the year before, and with his pound-and-ground style where he ran through men, instead of around them, one has to wonder if the Falcons were too dependent on him.
Anderson returned for the 2000 season and played in all 16 games. Although he did fairly well with 1,024 rushing yards, 382 receiving yards and six touchdowns, at least a bit of his old dominance was missing, as he gained just 3.6 yards per carry.
He wasn’t able to rescue his sagging franchise, as the Falcons did even worse than in ’99 with a 4-12 record.
The 2001 season would be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In Week 3 against the Arizona Cardinals, Anderson again suffered a torn ACL, this time in his left knee.
Just like his first ACL injury two years earlier, no one touched him when it occurred.
Anderson was determined to return and regain his old form. But he would never play another NFL game again.
His career was over before he turned 30.
A Sweet And Sour Retirement
In some ways, Anderson has been befitting of his “Dirty Bird” nickname after retiring from the NFL, but not in a good way.
In 2009, he was arrested by Atlanta police for possession of cocaine. An off-duty officer who was working as a security guard at a local nightclub saw Anderson and another man snort the drug – in of all places – not just the bathroom, but off a toilet bowl.
Luckily for Anderson, the charges were later dropped.
In 2012, he was arrested for DUI just outside of Atlanta, and he pleaded guilty to a reduced charge with reckless driving. He was given a sentence that included a year of probation and community service.
Two years later, the former star was arrested for DUI again. Through his attorney, he claimed he was tired, not drunk, but he was still convicted and forced to give up his driver’s license while serving a year of probation.
It would be his second DUI arrest in just 10 months.
When visiting a QuikTrip store in 2016, Anderson allegedly exposed himself and was suspected of being under the influence. No charges were issued, but he was given a criminal trespassing warning.
Then late in 2018, he refused to pay his limo driver a $50 fare. The driver called the police, who would discover that Anderson was intoxicated and arrested him.
But Anderson’s post-football life hasn’t been all bad.
He has spent some time as a TV commentator for football games on ESPN/ABC. He also served as an analyst on “CNN Newsroom,” covering news and highlights from the NFL and other sports leagues.
In 2011, he told Bleacher Report that he was doing charity work to help a number of different causes.
“For a number of years I have had the Jamal Anderson Miracle Foundation which I am about to restart here next year, but I also do stuff for Children’s Miracle Network, American Cancer Society and Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation,” said Anderson. “I do as best I can, as often as I can, to speak to different at-risk groups of children in different areas. I try to give back as much as I can.”
Here’s hoping that Anderson stays out of trouble in the coming years and that he continues to pay it forward to the less fortunate.