Even with just two games left in the season, the Harry B. Thompson Middle School in Syosset football team stayed indoors Wednesday afternoon during their regular practice time.
And it wasn’t just the drizzle that kept them in - it was Ottis “O.J.” Anderson, the former St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants running back and Super Bowl XXV MVP.
Anderson, 55, who works at Florham Park-based Veritext Legal Solutions with the grandfather of one of the boys on the team, agreed to spend an afternoon with the boys to talk about his experience on and off the field and how the middle schoolers could become better athletes.
“What’s your record?” he asked the 50 or so players who faced him.
A few of them called out, 3-1.
“What’s your record?” Anderson asked again, not incredulous but because the boys weren’t loud enough. “Where’s the enthusiasm? This is a football team, right? You guys need to have enthusiasm on the field. You need to be loud.”
For more than an hour, Anderson, wearing a Giants cap and a Super Bowl ring on each hand, talked to the young players, their coaches, and some parents about his rise in professional football and his advice to upcoming athletes. He also asked just as many questions as he received.
“I don’t want to sit here and just constantly talk about what I’ve done,” he said, adding that he was here to get to know them as much as they were getting to know him. “You’ll Google me. It’s black and white, it’s in the papers, you know?”
The middle school players asked him questions about settling into the position of running back - he played defense when he first started playing football in school and was not good at it; whether he played any other sports - he dabbled in baseball, basketball, and now also plays golf; and what he did to keep his body in shape - he went to the gym every day while he was playing professionally, and said push ups are an important part of the workout.
A student also asked if he had a signature touchdown celebration move for the end zone.
“Touchdown celebrations are for people who don’t think they’ll ever be there again,” he said, adding that no, he did not have one. “Getting to the end zone, if that’s just your job, I don’t know why you’re celebrating. That’s what you do.”
Andrew Rosenberg, a guidance counselor at the middle school and assistant coach of the football team, asked Anderson about his most memorable game. Anderson said it was a game he played against his school rivals where he grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla. when he was around the same age as the boys in the room.
“We gave the ball to the fullback, he got a safety, we lost the game,” Anderson said, shaking his head. “I cried. I didn’t talk to coach for two weeks because he gave the ball to the fullback instead of me. I still remember it because we lost.”
As the afternoon wore on, the coaches tried to give Anderson an excuse to leave but he pressed on, insisting he had time for photos and autographs, which each Thompson player got individually. A couple even tried on his Super Bowl rings.
“I didn’t know he’d tell funny jokes and stuff, he’s a really cool guy,” said Andrew Harris, a seventh grader who plays tight end and middle linebacker for the team.
The message Anderson stressed the most was that to be good athletes, they had to be good listeners, which meant listening to their parents. He also said he went through life doing everything he could to never make his mother cry.
Max Falk, an eighth grader who plays center, said Anderson’s lessons about doing well academically and respecting your family, coaches and school were the most important pieces of advice he passed on.
“The most interesting thing I heard today was to do good in school and when you do that it will show and when you do that you’re going to just keep getting better and better in life,” Falk said. “It’s going to help you throughout.”
The team’s head coach, Jonathan Scott, said he also appreciated Anderson’s thoughtful message.
“When you think about it, I think that’s more important than football or anything else we talked about today,” he said. “Although there were a lot of lessons, I think the respect fact was probably the biggest.”