After long wait, Anderson takes deal from Cardinals

Adam Rittenberg

It was late in the sixth round before Damien Anderson’s phone finally rang on Sunday afternoon. An Arizona Cardinals scout was on the line, informing Anderson that he had a 50-50 shot of becoming the team’s next selection.

But Arizona chose the other guy.

The seventh round proved to be deja vu for Anderson: a phone call from Arizona, his hopes briefly boosted, then dashed. With the selections over, all Anderson could do was wait and see. But his patience paid off, and after suffering through a draft day that made the Alamo Bowl feel like Mardi Gras, NU’s all-time leading rusher finally found a home in the NFL.

Anderson agreed to a free-agent deal with Arizona after entertaining offers from 10 other teams. Guard Lance Clelland became the ninth NU player to enter the NFL this year, signing a free-agent deal with the New York Jets.

Anderson, who dislocated his shoulder in a Nov. 3 game against Indiana, said he was surprised at how much the injury impacted his draft status. But he was also relieved to secure his future.

“I knew my (shoulder) surgery was going to raise some questions and I prepared myself for the worst,” Anderson said on Monday. “But I feel the Cardinals got one of the best picks of the draft.”

Jacksonville and Houston were among the other teams involved in the post-draft “bidding war” for Anderson, who was given the designation of “primary free agent.” But Arizona was the first to offer a financial package, and Anderson and his agent felt it was the best fit for him. Although he did not know the details of the deal, Anderson said most free agents are signed for three years at a total compensation of $900,000-$1 million.

Although disappointed at not being drafted, Anderson said he appreciated Arizona’s honesty and attention in keeping him posted throughout the lengthy process. Immediately after Arizona selected Kansas State running back Josh Scobey in the sixth round, the team scout phoned Anderson and explained that his injured shoulder was the lone reason why he was not chosen.

“I didn’t think (the injury) would push teams away that much,” Anderson said. “I was able to lift on it, but I haven’t shown that I could play on it yet. I could understand where teams were coming from.”

Anderson also understands the odds against free agents, but he believes he has a legitimate shot with the Cardinals.

“I’ll have the opportunity to make it on special teams, and I definitely will fight for a role in the backfield,” he said. “But honestly, it’s a rarity when a free agent makes the team.”

After racking up a school-record 2,063 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns in 2000, Anderson elected to return for his senior season despite having completed his NU degree. The leading returning Heisman vote-getter struggled through 2001, posting a 4.4 yards per carry average before the injury at Indiana.

Although staying in school undoubtedly cost him on the draft boards, Anderson continues to stand by his decision.

“People can say I lost millions, but I can’t miss something that I never had – nothing was guaranteed,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he remained at NU in large part because of the NFL’s official projection, which placed him in the third to fifth round. With the estimate as his “only factual data,” it helped Anderson’s decision become an easy one.

“Who wouldn’t come back?” he said. “You have the opportunity to get better, your entire offensive line coming back and a team with a great opportunity to go to a bowl game.

“But then everything that could possibly go wrong did.”

One of Anderson’s key blockers was Clelland, a 314-pound guard who made 29 career starts at NU. After watching the draft from his home in Reistertown, Md., Clelland accepted an free-agent offer from the Jets early Sunday night.

“It worked out pretty much how I had expected,” Clelland said. “Coming off a losing season, I was happy just to get this opportunity. I could care less if I was drafted or not.”

Clelland said the Jets will slate him at guard or tackle. On Thursday he leaves for mini-camp, but he will return to Evanston for graduation in June.

“I belong there,” he said of New York. “I am a little nervous, but not too much yet.”

The Daily’s Amalie Benjamin contributed to this report.