The following feature story appeared in the Army Football Game Day program versus Hawai'i on Sept. 11, 2010, and was written by Brian Gunning.
The opposing ballcarrier never saw it coming. He broke into the clear for a split second, but the deafening crack of shoulder pads colliding let everyone in attendance at Michie Stadium know he was not going any further. Army middle linebacker Stephen Anderson had delivered another of his big hits.
It didn't matter that Anderson's hit came in August in front of a few hundred fans at a preseason intrasquad scrimmage. All that mattered was that Stephen Anderson was back, and everyone knew it.
Army fans had become accustomed to Anderson's ability to snuff out opposing offenses since he forced his way into the lineup as a sophomore in 2008, but just nine months earlier on the field at Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, no one knew for sure if they had seen the last of Army's first junior captain since 2003. With the clock winding down in the Black Knights' loss at Air Force on Nov. 7, Anderson attempted to make yet another play, but this time something went terribly awry.
"It was one of those things I've done a million times," Anderson reflected. "I was shuffling left. I saw the ball and went to explode and my cleat got stuck or something and I just went down. I knew what it was right away. There was no mistake. I didn't know it was both my ACL and MCL, but I knew the ACL was gone. I've never had a serious injury before, but I guess it's one of those things when you know, you know."
Anderson had torn both the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee. His season was definitely over, and for a time, the status of the remainder of his career was unknown.
"I was initially pretty down," he said. "To be honest, I thought my career was over that day."
With those doubts about his return bouncing around in his head, Anderson needed a voice to make sense of his thoughts. As someone who was used to being the leader and inspiring his teammates, it was tough for Anderson to be outside the action. Luckily for him, and the Black Knights, co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Payam Saadat recognized what his star pupil was going through.
"Coach Saadat saw me watching film and trying to talk to the younger guys after I got injured and he could tell how much it hurt me to not be able to help my team," Anderson said. "What was I going to do if I couldn't lead by example? He pulled me aside and told me that I was still a leader. He really motivated me to come back stronger. He told me I could come back not only a stronger physical player, but a stronger mental player knowing that any play can really be your last. I took that to heart."
While his athletic talents were on the shelf for the remainder of the season, Anderson was intent on utilizing and honing his leadership skills. He could be seen at every practice and every team meeting. On Saturday, he put on his No. 50 jersey with the well-earned C on the shoulder and despite having to use crutches, walked to midfield with the other three Army captains for the pregame coin toss.
"I wanted to do as much as I could on crutches," Anderson said. "I felt like that was still one of the things I could do. It was minimal, but the important thing was that I wanted to be on the sidelines. I wanted to be in the huddle when the guys came off the field. I tried to talk to the younger guys and the second string, some of them who are starting now, to make sure they were seeing the right things."
His effort to remain a part of the team and solidify his role as a mentor to the younger players was not lost on his teammates. Defensive tackle Mike Gann, who himself missed nine games with an injury in 2008, knew what his teammate was going through and admired how he handled himself during the difficult period.
"It was important," Gann said of Anderson remaining a part of the team leadership. "He was a team captain last year, and still is this year. At times it was painful for me to watch because I know how it feels to have to sit on the sidelines. His presence was still known, and we all knew that he wanted to be out there with us. He really took it upon himself to educate some of the younger guys that were stepping up for him. It showed how much he really cares about the team."
With his mind settled and focused on making his comeback, it was time for Anderson to go through the physical part of his rehabilitation. A week after the Black Knights finished their season in Philadelphia against Navy, Anderson had surgery to repair his injury. He returned home to Ijamsville, Md., to focus on regaining his health. He used the motivation of his teammates and coaches to rededicate himself and make sure he was doing everything possible to step back on the field.
"When I went home last semester, I made a routine," Anderson explained. "I had a regiment of eating breakfast at the same time, working out at the same time, rehabbing at the same time and eating at the same time. Everything was centered around my knee because I knew that we had something special coming back and I wanted to be a part of it."
Anderson's routine paid off. He returned to the practice field with the rest of his teammates on Aug. 2 and has not missed a beat. Anderson is back where he belongs in the middle of the Black Knights' defense that ranked 16th in the nation in yards allowed last season and has even higher expectations for 2010.
"I was excited that all my hard work paid off," Anderson recalled of that first day of practice. "I had to do a lot of things that I didn't want to do, but it was time to rejoin my brothers and rejoin the team that is going to put Army back on the map and bring respect back to the program."
Gann is also excited to see No. 50 back in the huddle. Playing a position that isn't always in the spotlight, but is responsible for a lot of other players' highlights, he is excited to have another playmaking threat lined up behind him.
"It's great to have him back," Gann said. "He flies around and has a nose for the ball. As a defensive lineman you always want those guys behind you to make what you do successful."
In addition to returning to 100 percent healthy, Anderson is back on the field with an increased passion. That is a bold statement for someone who was known for his enthusiasm and energy on the football field.
"Any guy after injury realizes that this stuff can really happen to you," Gann said. "He always had a love for the game so to know that has increased is just scary."
Anderson's moment of clarity came in the middle of perhaps the most chaotic scene of the Black Knights' season. Standing at the 50-yard line in front of nearly 70,000 people that included both the entire U.S. Corps of Cadets and Brigade of Midshipmen at Lincoln Financial Field, he was able to see a bigger picture for the first time.
"These moments are very precious," Anderson said recalling that pregame epiphany. "At the Navy game when I was standing on my crutches in the middle of the stadium and looking at how many people are affected by this game and what this game means, it allowed me to step out of my game mode and just take in the fact that it's bigger than a football game. This is greatness. You can become a player that is remembered forever in this one specific game. It's really nice to know that I have that experience coming into this year's Navy game, or any game for that matter. I'll be able to use that to motivate me even more."
Anderson's return to the field is a key component of the Black Knights' quest for success in 2010. A leader among leaders, he is part of a roster stocked with an experienced group of seniors, particularly on defense, that has been through a roller coaster ride of a career during their tenure at the Academy. Several members of the group were recruited by a coaching staff that was no longer at West Point by the time they arrived, and are currently playing for a second head coach in their four seasons on the banks of the Hudson. Despite the upheaval and uncertainty, Anderson and his classmates are steadfast in their goals and aspirations they set forth upon their arrival.
"We all know that we came here to win games and it would be just a matter of time before we got to play together again," Anderson said of his U.S. Military Academy Prep School teammates. "This year is really the year that most of those prep school guys are on the field. We have a lot of guys with experience. We're excited to finally be seniors. Since those prep school days we've been talking about turning this program around, and now we have a chance to do it. Most of us know this is our last shot at playing football, and it's definitely our last chance to play together. It makes it that much more special."
Even with his status as a two-year captain, Anderson realizes that the corps group of seniors he has relied on for four, sometimes five, years are all vital to the success of the mission they embarked on together. His voice might be a bit louder than the rest in the locker room, but he knows it's not the only one.
"I wasn't surprised that my teammates thought of me in that way, but I was surprised that they actually went out of their way to vote for me," Anderson said of his selection last season. "I always knew I'd be an informal leader if I wasn't a captain. The same goes for guys like Donovan (Travis), Josh (McNary) and Mike (Gann). We all bring different things to the table. As a formal captain, I just try to lead the way by using my strengths, and I let those guys lead with their strengths. It's definitely a nice mix and match of leadership styles."
As for his own leadership style, Anderson thinks of himself as part disciplinarian and part cheerleader.
"My teammates will tell you I'm a fun guy, but I do tend to get on them a little bit just to make sure we have that discipline," he explained. "Off the field, I try to make sure we always look good in uniform, and I try to make sure we're doing the right thing. They might call me 'Daddy Steve' or something like that, but it comes with the territory.
"I try to lead by example. I think that's key for any great leader. You have to be an example, but at the same time I feel like I can bring some emotion and passion to everybody. I can excite people. Having fun and being excited is contagious. When you see people having fun out there on the field, you remember that this is a game, not life or death. It makes the game that much more fun, and in my opinion, makes you play better. You're out there with your brothers. If I'm not going to have fun out there, I'll go do something else. It's because of them that I still play the game."
While Anderson often speaks of having fun on the field and making sure his teammates are inspired, the American Law and Legal Studies major realizes that football at West Point is not all about having a good time. Anderson and his classmates understand that the gridiron is a laboratory for what lies before them after their days in helmets and shoulder pads are over.
"We get reminded by our office representatives and our mentors that this is the closest thing the Academy has to battle," Anderson said. "This is as much in the trenches and in battle as you can get here, and that's when you see guys' true leadership and true colors come out. When we're backed up against the wall, who is going to stand back and who is going to step up? You'll see that with this defense. None of us will back down. None of us want to give in, and that's what makes us a good defense."
With just one more season left in his career, Anderson has an eye on establishing his legacy in Army lore.
"I want them to think that I was a great leader and that I knew how to play linebacker. I want people to say, 'That guy had a great instinct to find the ball.'"