Marked man

Adam Rittenberg

Randy Walker barks, “Ones, red zone,” and Northwestern’s first-team offense converges on coordinator Kevin Wilson. The weary players listen to Wilson’s play sequence, then huddle together for the 16th practice period of the day.

All the usual suspects are present – quarterback Zak Kustok wears his baby-blue practice jersey and twirls a football, wide receiver Sam Simmons buckles his chinstrap and mammoth tackle Leon Brockmeier claps his meaty hands.

To no one’s surprise, tailback Damien Anderson is in the center of the circle, slapping fives with his teammates and shouting encouraging words. But when the unit charges on the field, Anderson stays behind.

In spring practice, any risk is a big risk.

And with five months until kickoff, NU’s Heisman trophy hopeful has a take-no-chances label stuck on his helmet.

“I don’t have that injury factor going on, knock on wood,” says a smiling Anderson, who sidesteps over to a wooden crate and raps his hand several times. “I’ve been playing the game since I was six years old, and if I get hurt, that’s in God’s control. I’m just going out there and playing every day.”

Although Anderson’s health will be left to chance this fall, Walker has played God throughout spring practice, taking every precaution to avoid the unmentionable. Anderson will sit out all contact drills and NU’s spring game on April 21.

“Hell, he’s carried the ball 600 times the last two years,” Walker says. “I don’t need to see him get tackled. He’s keeping timed up, keeping oiled up in the passing game, but when we go full-go, he doesn’t play.”

With Anderson looking on from the sideline Tuesday, backup tailback Kevin Lawrence took an inside handoff and darted through the line of scrimmage before absorbing a teeth-chattering shot from middle linebacker Billy Silva. Several plays later, defensive end Ray Bogenrief earholed Lawrence on an ill-fated sweep.

While Anderson’s teammates understand the reasoning behind his no-contact participation, they can’t hold back a few verbal cheap shots.

“They call me ‘Walker’s boy’ and things like that,” Anderson says. “It’s more of a respect thing, but at the same time they have to give me a hard time – it wouldn’t be right if they didn’t.”

The friendly ribbing comes with the territory for Anderson, a consensus All-American who elected to return to NU for his senior season after rushing for 2,063 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2000. With many of his talented counterparts booking for the NFL, Anderson will enter this season as the NCAA’s leading returning rusher and a serious contender for the Heisman.

Before solidifying his decision, Anderson considered the injury risk of staying at school and decided to take out an insurance policy “to make sure all bases are covered.” Anderson says it is common practice among athletes projected high in the NFL draft to invest in insurance plans – just in case.

Walker, who was alongside his star runner for most of the decision-making process, wanted to make certain that Anderson held no reservations about injuries before choosing to remain in Evanston.

“I told him: ‘You’re going to have to play 100 miles an hour next year and if you are going to be cautious, then don’t come back – you’d be asking for a problem,'” Walker says. “But if you come back and practice hard, I’ve never seen a guy get hurt going fast. Damien’s always practiced that way and he’ll continue to do it.”

Anderson maintains he does not second-guess his choice to stay, but admittedly monitors the progress of fellow All-Americans such as former Wisconsin cornerback Jamal Fletcher, who elected to make the jump to the pros. With his sights on the 2002 draft, Anderson studies the draft – especially the crop of tailbacks – in order to “see how I would have paired up if I had left.”

But with Decision 2001 behind him and his senior season nearing, Anderson has no time to think about what might have been.

“I’d probably have a lot more money than I would right now, that would be the biggest thing,” Anderson says with a wry smile. “But I don’t think it will be too different. I just keep preparing like I always do. I don’t think I’d have that coach Walker figure getting on me like I need.”

The awards and records of last season vanish for Anderson during team practice, where he is just another guy wearing pads.

He still does calisthenics every day with 18-year-old freshmen, works on his pass catching and footwork, and runs extra wind sprints with the offense. Perhaps Anderson’s lone distinction from his teammates is his tattered and faded practice jersey, a rag that would make any washing machine cringe.

Most importantly, the fame of last season has not affected Anderson’s relations with his teammates.

“He doesn’t really talk to us anymore,” Kustok says jokingly. “Nah, he’s the same guy and nothing has changed. He’s always been down to earth and that’s just the way he is, the way he was brought up.

“None of this success has changed him at all.”

Wildcats’ fullback Vince Cartaya says he is at a loss for words when his friends from home ask about Anderson.

“People are always like, ‘Hey, what about that Damien Anderson guy, is he cool?'” Cartaya says. “I guess for me being on the team, I never see it from that perspective. He’s just Damien. Same guy.”

But when September rolls around, Anderson will try to be anything but ordinary on the field. With the caution tape finally peeled off, NU’s opponents will be targeting No. 20, and Anderson will be running ‘full-go’ full-time.

“He made a choice and he thinks he can improve himself as a football player, which I agree with,” Walker said. “He can do some real special things. We’ll just let that stand as it is.”