When Ottis Anderson retired in 1993 he ranked seventh all-time in rushing touchdowns with 81 and his 10,273 rushing yards was eighth on the NFL’s all-time list.
The seemingly tireless workhorse was one of only 10 players to have rushed for 10,000 yards or more in the then 73-year history of the National Football League, yet in explicably he has never once been so much as a Hall of Fame semi-finalist over the past 26 years.
Some facts of football life are simply inexplicable. The disappearance of any memory of Ottis Anderson is one of them.
The St. Louis Cardinals made Anderson the eighth overall pick in the 1979 draft and the former University of Miami All-American did not disappoint. His impact on the Cardinals and on pro football was shockingly immediate.
Facing the defending NFC champion Dallas Cowboys in his first NFL game on September 2, 1979, Anderson rushed for 193 yards on just 21 carries, missing the all-time debut record set by Alan “The Horse’’ Ameche in 1955 by a single yard. Anderson average 9.19 yards per rush that day and scored on a 76-yard run, both of which were warning shots of the explosiveness that was to come.
By season’s end, Anderson had run for over 100 yards nine times and finished third in rushing with 1,605 yards while scoring nearly a third of the lowly Cardinals’ total touchdowns. Those numbers would make him both an instant All-Pro and the 1979 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Despite carrying a withering load with 372 total touches that season, Ottis Anderson had just begun.
Anderson would rush for over 1,000 yards in five of his first six seasons in St. Louis, the only exception being the strike-shortened 1982 season when he would play in only eight games. Had the league not been shut down for half a season Anderson was on pace to rush for 1,174 yards after piling up 587 yards in those eight games. Had he not lost that half season and kept to his average, Anderson today would rank 23rd all-time in rushing 26 years after last toting a football.
Predictably, Anderson wore out after six long seasons in St. Louis. After carrying the ball 1,690 times, an average of 281 carries a season, his body began to give out. In 1985 he ran for 1,174 yards but the following season the battering he’d taken limited him to just nine games and 117 carries.
Thinking him damaged goods, the Cardinals traded Anderson to the New York Giants for two draft picks a month into the 1986 season and for the next two and a half years, Anderson was a serviceable backup in New York.
But when Joe Morris was slowed by a series of nagging injuries in 1989, Giants’ head coach Bill Parcells called the then 32-year-old Anderson to his office to tell him a story.
The Giants had drafted running back Lewis Tillman that spring and many felt the handwriting was on the wall for Anderson. Parcells thought otherwise so he told Anderson the story of “Old Red.’’
According to Anderson, “Bill said to me, 'Old Red was a coon dog. Loved to hunt coon. He was great at it, too. But as Red got older, he didn't get off the porch as quickly. He'd already made a name for himself.
“Well, the farmer went out and got himself a puppy as a way to motivate Red. Every time the door opened the puppy was there, ready to go. Red didn't jump up. But then the puppy came back from a hunting trip with some coon. That got Red's attention.
"Bill said to me, 'Here's the moral of the story. I can let Lewis Tillman play. He'll do a good job. But if you want to stay on the team, you've got to decide to get motivated.’
“That's the year I was 32, and became the oldest back at the time to gain over 1,000 yards. Bill would walk by me at practice and say, 'Ooo, that dog, he wants to hunt today.' He was great at pushing people's buttons to get them to play harder."
Those buttons pushed Anderson into a time machine that took him back to his days in St. Louis. He carried 325 times, piled up 1,023 rushing yards and ran for 14 touchdowns, second in the NFL that season.
A year later he shared the load with rookie No. 1 draft pick Rodney Hampton but still carried 225 times for 784 yards and 11 touchdowns before Hampton injured his shin in the playoffs and the ball was handed to Anderson despite the fact he had the wrong pants on.
Inexplicably, Anderson had put on his practice pants rather than his game pants for the Giants’ divisional playoff game against the Chicago Bears, sporting an ill-fitting look that had his teammates in stiches. When Hampton went down, Anderson recalled, “The first thing that came to mind was I got the wrong pants on. But it didn’t matter what I had on.’’
He rushed 21 times for 80 yards as the Giants routed Chicago and two weeks later Anderson’s crowning career moment arrived in Tampa.
On January 27, 1991, the Giants would defeat the heavily favored Buffalo Bills, 20-19, to win Super Bowl XXV. One of the key elements was the pounding ball-control offense provided by Anderson, who rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries.
“It was like James Brown reappearing at the Apollo Theatre,’’ Giants’ teammate Leonard Marshall recalled of Anderson’s resurrection. “Everybody thought he couldn’t do it but he made his comeback. The guy is steadily rolling on.’’
For years Anderson told friends and teammates his destiny was to win the Super Bowl back in his home state of Florida. He missed that chance when the Giants were upset by the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC divisional playoffs a year earlier when the Super Bowl was to be played in Miami but he got a second chance a year later and walked away not only with a champion’s ring but the Super Bowl XXV MVP one year after being named 1989 Comeback Player of the Year.
“It was a perfect ending,’’ Anderson said. “My career had turned around.’’
Ottis Anderson had remade himself from the explosive speed runner he’d been in St. Louis into a pounding workhorse piling up yards inside the tackles and becoming one of the game’s most proficient short yardage and goal line runners.
After Super Bowl XXV, Parcells said of Anderson, “I was calling him Elvis Presley on his comeback. You know, ‘can you still do it? I think he probably had some apprehension. When you don't do it for two or three years, you have to wonder. It's a natural thing. But he should go to Canton. He's got too many pelts on the wall.''
Ottis Anderson played two more seasons as a backup before retiring in 1993. As Parcells said, by then he’d put many pelts on the wall. They haven’t yet been enough to get him to Canton but the numbers speak loudly that he is a forgotten Hall of Fame candidate and most certainly a deserving one.