When Anderson describes his versatility—"I may put a move on you, I may stiff-arm you, I may run you over"—Whitfield feels the need to interject. "I tell you one thing his big ass won't do: He won't run away from anybody," Whitfield says. "He'll make some nice cuts, but the speed factor? S—-, I ran him down last week."
"Jamal isn't overly fast," agrees New Orleans Saints linebacker Mark Fields, who helped vote Anderson into his first Pro Bowl this year, "but he's a tough, smart runner. You think you've got him tackled and he'll stick a hand down, catch himself and crawl and scratch for a few more yards."
Now that he is walking the walk, is there any chance that Anderson might feel less need to talk the talk? Not likely. Anderson's urge to remind us of his prodigious gifts dates back to a spring weekend five years ago, when his self-esteem got clotheslined. On draft day in 1994 Anderson's parents threw a party for family and friends at their home in Woodland Hills, Calif. "We had hors d'oeuvres, I made a big bowl of pasta," says Jamal's mother, Zenobia. "This was the day we'd been waiting for. We were going to the Show! But the Show didn't show."
Jamal had a nice senior season at Utah, rushing for 1,030 yards. But he was a classic 'tweener: a trifle slight—and averse to blocking—to be a true fullback; a bit ponderous, it was thought, to serve as a feature back. The first three rounds, on Saturday, came and went. By Sunday, as rounds 4, 5 and 6 passed him by, Jamal lay down on his parents' bed, depressed, embarrassed and furious. That's when the Falcons called.
Anderson felt dissed and pissed, and vowed that someone would have to pay. Four and a half years later, Falcons opponents are still paying. "That isn't something you get over in a year or two," Anderson says. "This is careerlong."
The '94 draft galled Anderson not just because he knew in the marrow of his bones that he was better than most, if not all, of the 24 backs taken before him. (Where have you gone, Robert Strait, Anthony Daigle, Calvin Jones? How are you paying the rent these days, Fred Lester, Tony Vinson, Sean Jackson?) It also offended his sense of destiny. Having grown up in a household where Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Michael Jackson, Sugar Ray Leonard, Richard Pryor and numerous other sports and entertainment luminaries were frequent visitors, young Jamal simply assumed that great things lay in store for him, too.
His father, James, was a Newark policeman who met Ali at a Muslim convention in Chicago in 1973. The two hit it off, and Ali invited Anderson to work for him as a bodyguard. Six years later James moved his family to Woodland Hills and, using the connections he had made through Ali, set himself up as a security consultant who soon had a top-notch reputation. Work poured in. Now, James is in Scottsdale, Ariz., heading up Mike Tyson's security operation.
Having grown up roller-skating on Pryor's tennis courts and sleeping over at Donna Summer's place, Jamal and his seven siblings are neither fazed by celebrities nor bashful around them. After Ali lost a fight late in his career, the Anderson kids begged "Uncle Muhammad" to retire. Not long after Roberto Duran beat Leonard in Montreal in 1980, one of Jamal's sibs greeted Sugar Ray with the question: "Uncle Ray, how could you let him hit you like that?"
Recently, Jamal asked Leonard for advice on what sort of charity work he ought to be doing. Talk to schoolkids, came the reply. Anderson was way ahead of him. Two years ago he had read in SI about Dan Huffman, a lineman at Rossville-Alvin High in Rossville, Ill., who donated a kidney to save the life of his diabetic grandmother and had to give up football. Anderson was so touched by Huffman's courage and selflessness that he flew the teenager to Atlanta to take in a Falcons game. They have remained friends. In the spring of '97 Huffman asked Anderson if he would give the commencement address at his graduation.
"I expected him to say, 'Uh, let me think about that,' " says Huffman, now a student trainer on full scholarship at Florida State. "Instead, he said, 'No problem.' "