Heart of a Champion: How NFL Star CJ Anderson Overcame the Odds to Win, On and Off the Field

By Heather Baldwin

It would have been easy for Super Bowl champion CJ Anderson to end up like all those other kids – living on the street, dealing drugs, watching life pass by. For a young man growing up in Vallejo, CA, this was the norm, the fallback path for when you couldn’t make it as a rapper. You went to school for a while; you found a “crew” (not a gang, he is quick to point out; a crew is just a group of guys hanging out and doing life); and you did a little of this, a little of that, sold drugs, got in a few fights.

Yes, it would have been so easy for Anderson to walk that path. Except for one thing: the wall of people blocking it.

There were his mother and his grandmother, constantly pressing him to stay off the streets and do something with his life. There were his brothers, always looking out for him and making sure he stayed out of trouble. There was Philmore Graham, founder of the local Boys & Girls Club, who used to take away Anderson’s football and make him do book reports to stay on track academically. There was Miss Doster, Anderson’s fifth grade teacher, who he still calls “Miss Doster” out of respect for the role she played in pushing him hard toward the right side of the fork in the road, the one leading to success.

Any time Anderson showed signs of veering toward a drop-out life on the streets, they and others intervened – pushing hard against the tide of peer pressure, against the allure of the easy road.

Anderson looks back at the people who stood by him, who poured into him, who kept him on the right path, and he knows what he wants to do with this life, the kind of legacy he wants to leave.

Hint: It’s not winning football games.

The Path to the Super Bowl
Granted, Anderson was blessed with some talent that most other kids around him didn’t have: athletic prowess. From a young age, it was apparent this kid had something. He was fast, he was strong, he was nimble. At Jesse M. Bethel High School, he ran track – blazing through the 100-meter dash in just over 12 seconds. Blink and he was across the line. He was a football standout, leading his team to four consecutive playoff appearances. In 2007, he was named the Vallejo Times-Herald Athlete of the Year.

It’s easy to look at achievements like that and think Anderson would be immune to the lure of the street life. From an outside perspective, it’s pretty clear someone with that kind of talent could get picked up by a good college, earn a degree, maybe go on to play in the NFL, certainly go on to leverage the degree into a good job. All he’d need to do is stay the course: a simple choice to an adult looking in from the outside; not so simple to a restless teenage boy surrounded by trouble. Anderson knows now what a fine line he walked, how easy it would have been to fall onto the wrong side of that line – and he is grateful every day for those who held on tight and refused to let him fall.

“Guidance and mentorship are everything,” says Anderson, who to this day surrounds himself with people who challenge him, who are honest with him and help him grow in both business and character. “I try to learn something from everyone.”

This attitude, along with the efforts of all his early mentors, paid off in 2011 when Anderson was picked up by the University of California, Berkeley. He did well enough as a running back for the Golden Bears to catch the attention of the NFL. Since 2013, he has played for the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, Oakland Raiders and, most recently, the Los Angeles Rams. During his six years as a professional football player, Anderson has played in three Super Bowls, including Super Bowl 50, where he made a two-yard touchdown run with just over three minutes left in the game, solidifying the Broncos’ victory and earning the right to put the words “Super Bowl champion” in front of his name.

The Rams released him in February this year, but he signed with the Detroit Lions in April. In between, he was essentially in limbo, facing an unclear future. It was a situation that was not unfamiliar – and not of serious concern to a gritty survivor like Anderson, who has lived through times far tougher than an uncertain football contract. “I grew up rough, with drugs and police and the things you see in the movies. But I pushed through that and pursued my dream,” he says. “I’m a grinder. If everything is taken from me, I know I can rise back up. I know I can grind it out.”

While he ground out the wait, he stayed focused on preparation. “Being relieved from any team doesn’t stop me from working out and preparing. I want to be ready when the opportunity comes along. I live by the five P’s: proper preparation prevents poor performance.”

It’s a lot like sales, he muses. You work and work and suddenly a big opportunity presents itself. If you’re ready for it – if you’ve laid the foundation and done the preparation – it will go well.

Redefining Success
By any measure, Anderson is a success. Few reach the heights he attained that day in 2016 at Levi’s Stadium, when he ran the pigskin across the line and secured a Super Bowl victory for the Broncos. That’s the kind of high that is dizzying – the stuff of stories that will be told and re-told down through generations of Andersons. Yet…

…something was missing. Nagging at him. There was a debt to settle – deeds that needed to be paid back or paid forward, however you wanted to look at it.

The model for repaying that debt came by way of Marshawn Lynch, a running back with the Oakland Raiders who is known for giving back to his community. In 2006, Lynch formed the Fam1st Family Foundation, which he runs with fellow NFL players Joshua Johnson and Marcus Peters. Fam1st aims to “impact the lives of Oakland’s disenfranchised youth,” “strengthen Oakland’s fractured community,” and provide “critical aid to residents in need.” It’s about empowerment and education – building self-esteem and academic skills in underprivileged youth.

Lynch pours his success back into his community, and Anderson wanted to do the same. “I remember going to his football camps when I was young and seeing the impact he had on kids like me in the city of Oakland,” says Anderson. “I wanted to do the same thing for kids in Vallejo.”

That desire to create something bigger than himself – and help Vallejo youth as he himself had been helped – led to the creation of Anderson’s Dreams Never Die Foundation. Like Lynch’s organization, the DND Foundation is about empowering inner-city and low-income youth to reach their potential – in sports, in academics, in life.

Anderson launched the foundation in October 2016, held his first football camp in summer 2017 and began field trips and workshops in early 2018. He has taken about 40 high school students to tour Google. He’ll soon be taking another group to YouTube headquarters and to DocuSign. He has held a robotics workshop, an art program, cooking classes. And he is just getting started.

“When I went to Berkeley, it opened my eyes and gave me opportunities I’d never had before. I was exposed to technology and robotics and art and cooking – things I didn’t know about as a kid,” says Anderson. “Growing up, it was all sports or entertainment or the streets. Kids like me, they see the next rapper as the definition of success. I want to show them that being an editor, having a podcast, being an entrepreneur, a painter, a cook – those are all forms of success, and they keep you off the streets.”

Through DND, Vallejo kids are discovering talents and passions they didn’t know they had. Kids who weren’t “cool” because they weren’t sports stars are finding a voice and getting attention for their skills at computer programming or cooking. With the exception of the summer football camp, Anderson’s decision to focus initially on non-sporting skills is significant – especially coming from a big-name athlete. “Our sports program won’t start for another one or two years because we are trying to get the educational programs established first,” he explains. It’s sending a message. Young Vallejo athletes are learning that touchdowns and slam dunks are only one definition of greatness.

Currently, 380 youth participate in DND Foundation activities. The organization has established partnerships with Google, LinkedIn, DocuSign, Warner Brothers, Harvard, and others. This summer, Harvard will send students to Vallejo to teach some of DND’s summer programs. And that’s just the start. Anderson sees the foundation continuing to grow, add partnerships, and play a critical role in getting kids off the streets and into meaningful careers. He wants to see a 98-99 percent high school graduation rate among DND kids.

The foundation is not only a ladder for inner-city kids to climb out of poverty; it’s a heartfelt thank-you to everyone who fought so hard to keep Anderson off the streets. He is paying back their efforts in the most powerful way he can – by giving them a vehicle to help hundreds, eventually thousands, more kids like him. By impacting Anderson’s life so deeply, these same caring people are now able to impact the lives of countless others. People like Anderson’s mother, grandmother, and brothers, who all serve on DND’s board of directors. People like Miss Doster, who directs kids to his program. People like Graham who, though he passed away before seeing Anderson win the Super Bowl, continues to inspire Anderson even to this day.

“When Philmore Graham died [in 2014], he took the Boys & Girls Club with him,” says Anderson. But he left a legacy of excellence, of getting kids to believe in themselves, to go on to college and to careers. “I want to keep that going – to continue what Graham started. We want DND to be the Boys & Girls Club on steroids.”

For a kid who has risen from the streets of Vallejo to the pinnacle of the NFL, the grinder who has already overcome overwhelming odds, it’s a sure bet Anderson will achieve that goal and leave a legacy of helping Vallejo youth start winning big in their own lives.

If at First You Don’t Succeed . . .
Anderson is nothing if not persistent. If something doesn’t go his way the first time, he learns from it, tweaks things, tries again. This never-give-up mentality is partly what’s driven the early success of his Dreams Never Die Foundation. As head of that foundation, Anderson must sell corporations on partnerships – and he doesn’t always get it right.

He tells the story of the first time he reached out to Ibotta, a technology company that enables consumers to earn cash back on purchases through a smartphone app. The company partners with brands and retailers, and Anderson thought it would be a great idea for Ibotta to partner with DND and with the store where Anderson’s old neighbors buy most of their meat.

“I was way too aggressive in my pitch,” admits Anderson of his first conversation with Ibotta CEO Bryan Leach. “I really came on hard about our foundation and pushed what we were doing and what I wanted his role to be. I turned him off.” Despite that encounter, Anderson maintained the relationship and later invited Leach to visit a DND football camp. Having learned a thing or two from his unsuccessful initial pitch, Anderson didn’t bring up any sort of proposal. Instead, he took Leach on a tour of his Vallejo neighborhood, showing the CEO where he’d grown up, introducing him to the meat market/liquor store and to some of the people who were shopping there.

“He saw first-hand what kind of an impact he could have without my having to ‘sell’ him on it,” says Anderson. “He got on the phone with his wife and told her that he knew these kinds of conditions existed in Africa or the Philippines but he had no idea people in America were living in such conditions. He now works with us and has the Ibotta app in our store. Down the road, I’m hoping to get our DND kids working with him in marketing, PR, coding, and other areas.”