Neal Anderson - Once a Gator, Always a Gator

The day that Neal Anderson spoke to the gathered Chicago media the first time after he was drafted number one by the Bears back in 1986, he let it be known that it was eight years and then he was walking away. Eight years later, 29 years old and still in good health, he kept his promise and retired from the National Football League.

The former Gator tailback rushed for 6,166 yards and 51 touchdowns in his NFL career in addition to catching 302 passes for 2,763 yards and another 20 touchdowns. He was selected to the Pro Bowl four times by his peers in the NFL.

It was a good career and when it was time to go, he was ready for the moment.

"For me I didn't have that true love for the game that most people have," said Anderson, a visitor to Florida's football practice session Monday afternoon. "Some people love it and they just can't let it go. I know some guys who love it and everything about it --- the training, the practicing, the games, the locker room … everything about it they love it and that's why it's so hard for them to give it up."

Anderson made his choice to give it up before he ever played his first pro game. He knew there was plenty more to life than football and he wanted to experience it all, plus he wanted to get out of the game with his health intact. He knows all too well the beatings players take, especially tailbacks, so it was just a matter of keeping the promise that he made to himself.

"I told them the day that I went in that I was playing eight years and I was done and I kept that promise," he said. "I liked to compete but I didn't just love the game itself. I liked to compete and God blessed me with the talent to play the game of football but I told them from day one when I went up to Chicago and did the press conference after I was drafted that I'm going to play eight years and then I'm done. That was easier for me to follow than hanging on forever and being forced out. And, if you truly love a game with all your heart, you just can't give it up at age 29.

"Playing was a hard thing to do and I was blessed to be able to do it. Walking away from the game when I did was hard, but I made the promise, I kept it and I'm glad that I did."

Any time, if he should wonder if he made the right choice, all he has to do is look at his family. He lives in Gainesville with his wife and three children (ages 6, 4 and 1) and enjoys being retired from football. He has business interests that keep him productive and active.

"There are a lot of good things for me to do, just not football," he said. "Raising my kids, that's my big job."

Anderson came to Florida in 1982 out of tiny Graceville. He was highly acclaimed, but the Gators already had Lorenzo Hampton and they also signed John L Williams. Before their careers were over, all three would be number one draft picks, but Anderson would be Florida's all-time leading rusher (3,234 yards… since surpassed by Errict Rhett and Emmitt Smith). He made All-SEC both on the football field and in the classroom.

Neal Anderson (center) with Kerwin Bell and Shelley Meyer (both on left) and Coach Meyer on the right.

The Florida experience was a good one. He loved being in Gainesville, loved going to school and loved playing for the Gators. He was recruited to Florida by the late Charley Pell, a coach he believes has never been given enough credit for building the Gator football program.

"Chris Patrick (former Gator trainer) and I were out here [at practice] last week and we were talking about him [Pell] and we thought he would be very happy right now seeing what's going on with the intensity we're seeing on the practice field with the hitting that's happening," Anderson said. "To me, he started all this good stuff that's happening and I don't think he's ever been given enough credit for all the good things he did. Not all of what Charley Pell did here was bad. He did plenty of good things."

It is Florida's new coach that has Anderson excited about the future for the Gators. He sees in Urban Meyer a coach that in a lot of ways reminds him of the only coach he ever played for in the pros, Mike Ditka.

"One day these players are going to appreciate that they played for Coach Meyer the same way that I appreciate that I played for Coach Ditka," he said. "You might not agree with what Coach Ditka said and we disagreed a lot of times, but you always knew where you stood, and even if you thought he was wrong, at least you knew where he stood."

"As a man that's all you can really expect is to know what someone thinks and with him you can take things at face value because he says what's on his mind and guys are going to respect that and they'll go to war for him. These players are going to look back on their experience with Coach Meyer like that."

It's that straight-forward approach of Meyer's that really catches Anderson's eye. He's been to practice, seen the "Circle of Life" and knows all about "The Pit." He's watched as the coaches continually get after players who decide it's time to take a play off and how every day, players are held accountable for their actions both on and off the field.

"As young person you appreciate the discipline that coaches like that instill in you," Anderson said. "Urban is the type that he's not going to accept anything else so you will be disciplined and you will understand that's the way it's supposed to be."

"I played for two guys like that -- Coach Pell and Coach Ditka in college and pros and that makes a difference in my life even today. This guy is going to be the same thing. The players are going to love him, appreciate him and they'll go to war for him when the time comes. That's what Florida needs."

Unlike a lot of former Gators who found fame and fortune in the NFL, Anderson has never forgotten his roots. His experience at Florida is something he calls "four of the best years of my life" and it's something that he's never forgotten. You can take Neal Anderson out of Florida, but you can't take Florida out of Neal Anderson, and in particular, you can't take the University of Florida out of him.

Because his experience was so exceptional, part of his first big contract with the Chicago Bears came back to Gainesville. He endowed an athletic scholarship in the name of his mother.

"I just wanted to give something back after playing here," he said. "Everybody around this organization and this university was so good to me. It was a way for me to give something back. It was only natural for me to do it in my mom's name. My mom always believed that sports were a very important part of life so to give a scholarship in her name was a really great experience for me."

If asked by young people about the University of Florida, he's always happy to point out all the advantages offered by his degree. He won't tell any young person where to go to school but he believes that he has an obligation to tell young people to be true to themselves when making a choice where to spend the next four years.

"I wouldn't trade my Florida experience for anything in the world," he said. "I had such a good time here and it was the best thing that could have happened to me. To someone who's making a college choice, I say follow your heart. You have to follow your heart. If you can play, no matter where you go you can be successful if you have the desire and academics is simply a matter of applying yourself. You have to give your best on the playing field and in the classroom. So I tell any kid follow your heart, give your best and once you get there it's up to you do your best."

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