KU tailback Brandon McAnderson has been, and still is, inspired by his father
By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE | The rap on Brandon McAnderson as a Kansas football captain: He's laid-back. More hah-hah than rah-rah. Always ready to drop a witty one-liner under his breath and loosen things up in team meetings.
But there's a side to McAnderson that he doesn't often show his KU teammates. He saves it up for times like this Monday afternoon at Lawrence High School, where he's come to watch his alma mater practice. Lawrence coach Dirk Wedd sees McAnderson in the stands and walks over to say hi.
"When you were a nobody," Wedd jokes, "you used to come and see me once a week."
"I'm still a nobody," McAnderson says, looking down.
If he were a nobody, Wedd wouldn't ask him to speak to his team after practice. McAnderson obliges. The team, which has struggled to a 3-5 record this year, looks up at KU's 235-pound tailback.
"Where the leaders at?" McAnderson asks, and a few boys meekly raise their hands. Unsatisfied, McAnderson continues, "Where the seniors at?" The same reaction. McAnderson understands. There was a time when he didn't know whether he was a leader, too.
"Guys, senior to senior, this season is not over," McAnderson says. "You have to realize as leaders, seniors, that this is your opportunity to do something great."
In his two-minute speech, McAnderson draws inspiration from his own story. Seize every chance you have to play. Every game is made up of moments where you can help the team win, moments that have nothing to do with scoring touchdowns. Such as when McAnderson made a tackle on the KU punt team with 2 minutes, 16 seconds left against Colorado that kept the field position manageable for the defense.
That was all McAnderson was supposed to be: a special-teams player, a serviceable fullback at best. But there's one man who every day made sure he would be more. He's the man who never missed a game or a chance to teach Brandon football and life lessons, the man whose voice everyone in town knew all too well. Today, they hear it bellowing from the Memorial Stadium bleachers and say, "Oh, that's just Ramon."
Ramon McAnderson is always smiling. Always, really. Sure, he may work the night shift at the local Hallmark plant, sleeping for a few hours at a time during the day, but look at the things he gets to do while awake.
How about coaching the football team at Lawrence South Junior High after many years as a little-league coach? How about illegally watching KU football practice through binoculars from the apartments that overlook the practice field. One time, McAnderson got too close, and KU coach Mark Mangino ordered him shooed away. As if that would keep him from coming back the next day.
Sometimes, this is all too much for Ramon. His family was poor in the Dominican Republic - of course, he says it was no big deal because everybody else was poor, too - and he didn't know what football was until he immigrated to the United States as an 8-year-old. Ramon didn't know any English, and he'd get made fun of at school in the Bronx, N.Y. He would learn the new language by reading a Spanish-to-English dictionary, word by word.
But the language that most helped Ramon wasn't English. It was football. His family eventually moved to Leavenworth, Kan., where he would play fullback and linebacker in high school. All that work with the dictionary paid off and he got into college at KU. He was the oldest of 12 siblings and the first of many to go to college.
Ramon met his future wife, Michelle, at KU. He walked on to the football team and says he was a second-team cornerback during the spring of his sophomore year. He would never play, though. Michelle got pregnant with Brandon's older sister, Lori, and Ramon dropped out of KU and got a job at Hallmark.
Still, he couldn't shake the football bug. A friend was coaching little-league football, and Ramon asked whether he could join him. He would bring a new flavor to the sidelines.
"He's very fiery," Wedd says. "I don't care if he's coaching in front of six people or a thousand people, you can hear Ramon."
Hundreds of kids over the years heard Ramon loud and clear, none more so than Devin and Brandon McAnderson.
Someone once told Ramon that you couldn't teach football in the backyard. Hah! He'd prove that theory wrong. Devin, two years older, and Brandon would pound away at each other under Ramon's watch, learning how to tackle. Michelle couldn't believe it when Ramon had put 5-year-old Brandon into one of Devin's games against older kids, and Brandon came out of the game crying.
"It was rough for them having Dad as a coach," Ramon admits. "I coached them in basketball, baseball, whatever sport they wanted to do. If that's the sport you want to do, we're going to do it hard. We're not just going to do it to hang around your friends."
Brandon can recite countless stories about his father's antics. There are so many that, as a senior in high school, he made a video compilation for a class which he calls a "mockumentary." Brandon's favorite is from the city track meet in eighth grade. Brandon was showing off for some buddies, jumping in and out of the long-jump pit. After two times, Ramon warned him not to do it again. Of course, Brandon did.
"Get your (stuff)!" Ramon said.
Ramon grabbed Brandon's bag and walked across the field to tell his coach that Brandon was going home.
"He wasn't competing," Ramon explained.
Ramon drove a disgruntled Brandon to a McDonald's across the street. He slowly sipped his coffee and let the moment sink in. He told Brandon about pride, how you can't let people see you goofing around. Brandon understood.
"All right, we're going back," Ramon said. "We've got one more race, and you better compete. Or you'll never run track again."
Brandon says: "I was running as hard as I could."
Those kinds of lessons were constants in Brandon's life, and gradually, his slumped shoulders that were his trademark when things went wrong had vanished. By his senior year in high school, he was good enough to get looks from Iowa, KU, Missouri and Kansas State.
MU said he was a step slow. K-State said he was an inch or two small. But Mangino had a chance to watch McAnderson play often because his son, Tommy Mangino, was the Lawrence High quarterback.
"Brandon is the type of kid that grows on you," Wedd says. "Every game he'll do something that wows you."
Brandon redshirted his first year at KU and only got on the field on special teams the next year. He was discouraged. But Ramon McAnderson had always seen something in his son that Brandon didn't know was there.
"You need to go ask for some carries," Ramon told him.
That wasn't Brandon's personality, though. He was satisfied when he became KU's lead blocker during his sophomore and junior seasons. Last year, he carried the ball 31 times, running for five touchdowns. Life was good, but not as good as it would be a year later.
Unlike his father, Brandon McAnderson never could have imagined this. As part of a two-headed tailback tandem with sophomore Jake Sharp, he's carried the ball 81 times for 505 yards - an average of 6.2 yards per carry - and seven touchdowns. He still cleans up on special teams, and his teammates elected him a captain.
McAnderson's leadership style is not to yell at guys during games. Instead, he pulls them aside at practice and offers them words of encouragement or help in the film room.
"I tell guys the truth all the time," McAnderson says. "We have a lot of talent on this team, guys that have super talent that haven't been able to tap into that potential yet."
McAnderson tells sophomore running back Angus Quigley, "There's nothing I can do that you can't do physically. You're an amazing talent, but you have to get your head right."
He does the same thing with Sharp, whom some would see as his competitor for carries.
"I always felt like Jake was the starting tailback," Brandon says.
On the field, it looks as if McAnderson has it all figured out. Still, though, Brandon hasn't outgrown film sessions with his father. Every week, Brandon goes over the most recent game with Ramon.
When McAnderson uncharacteristically fumbled twice against Florida International, McAnderson could hear Ramon in the stands from Row 42.
"I told you not to wear those gloves when it's hot outside!" he yelled.
Thinking about it, McAnderson smiles. Just like his father would.
"He's one of the truly selfless people I know," Brandon says. "He has no selfish bone in his body. He sacrificed it all for us. That's something I want to strive for when I become a father."