The distance Cortelle Javon Anderson traveled should not be measured in distance — practicing for Super Bowl 50, he is only 70 miles from his hometown of Vallejo — but in achievement. He’s done what few beyond Anderson or his mother believed was possible in the classroom or on the football field.
It’s a tough, industrial community, Vallejo, filled with the offspring of workers — many African-American, many from the South — who came to work in the Mare Island shipyards during World War II. The headlines from Vallejo these days too often are negative ones dealing with crime or unemployment.
The city has had its sporting heroes. The late Dick Bass, a Pro Bowl running back, went from Vallejo to what now is University of Pacific and then the Los Angeles Rams. Bill Buckner, involved in that most infamous of errors in the 1986 World Series, is from Vallejo. And baseball pitcher CC Sabathia. So too Anderson, known as C.J., who rushed for a game-high 72 yards in the Denver Broncos’ win over New England in the AFC Championship Game.
There’s an understandable edginess to Anderson. That often is a requisite for those who battle against the odds, as Anderson has done. Indeed, he was a star at Bethel High, but his grades were not high enough to get him a scholarship at any major college program, particularly Cal. He would find a way, enrolling at Laney, the community college in Oakland, and then, after averaging eight yards a carry, averaging high enough in grades to transfer when academically eligible.
He started only two games the two years (2011-12) he was at Cal, although he did rush for nearly 800 yards as a senior. He went undrafted and signed as a free agent with the Broncos in 2013.
After the AFC title game, another Bay Area product, the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who was drafted in the sixth round, congratulated Anderson in an Instagram post, telling him, “C.J., way to fight and prove everybody wrong. You belong in this league, and you’re one hell of a player. I love the way you run. Keep climbing to be great.”
Anderson has never stopped climbing. Or learning. Or showing appreciation to those who never turned away, such as Brady. In his own Instagram post, Anderson said, “I know a lot of people hate [Brady] but man when he was pick 199 and was overlooked he inspired me I was undrafted and overcame the odds so bless what he told me at the end of the game.”
Overcoming the odds is what C.J.’s life has been about. He and his two brothers were raised by a single mother, Neva Craig. “Because I’ve always been undersized since Pop Warner, I had to keep proving myself,” said the 5-foot-8 Anderson.
The other day during the Broncos’ interview session, Anderson gave his mom credit for his success. “It wasn’t easy,” he said, “but she was with me all the way. I always knew she was there.”
Interestingly, Neva Craig is a Raiders fan, as was Anderson as he grew up. His loyalty has changed. Hers has not when the Broncos face Oakland. But now, it’s the Panthers.
“I’m having fun out here,” said C.J., an offensive player being a bit less defensive in talking to reporters. “I’m just doing what I’m doing, picking the right spots, making the right reads.”
Obviously he was talking about football. But those observations were true at Laney. He would take a predawn bus from Vallejo for spring workouts. He would connect with philosophy professor Amir Sabzvary, showing a different side. “I’d sit there and soak up everything. He [the pro] helped me a lot.”
That’s what maturing is all about, certainly, expanding one’s horizons, gaining confidence. And, if you’re also a running back, gaining yards.
“We lost a Super Bowl two years ago,” said Anderson, referring to the defeat by Seattle, “and it’s something not to be talked about. We’ve got to go out there and do what we have to do.”
For Anderson, that’s hardly anything unusual. He keeps doing what he’s had to do, even when others never thought he could.