Big Red Flashback: O.J. Anderson’s Historic NFL Debut

After Cardinals management decided not to retain star running back Terry Metcalf in 1978, new head coach Bud Wilkinson searched the entire season for an outside threat to complement the inside running of Wayne Morris and Jim Otis. That problem was solved in 1979 after the Big Red selected Ottis Jerome (O.J.) Anderson with the eighth pick in the 1979 NFL draft.

“His durability, his speed, his attitude, his ability to catch the ball,” a pleased Bud Wilkinson told the St. Louis Post Dispatch after the Cards chose the West Palm Beach, Florida native. “There were so many factors. This is something we’ve been discussing for three months. There was no doubt who we wanted. The question was whether he’d be available.”

Cardinals personnel director George Boone added, “We feel that he has the great moves that we’ve been hunting for. We haven’t had those in quite a while.”

“I always believed I was the No. 1 back in the country,” Anderson told the Post Dispatch. “I was happy to be picked in the first round, but I wasn’t surprised.”

Playing in the shadow of Chuck Foreman at the University of Miami (FL), Anderson set several school records including Foreman’s single-season rushing record in 1978.

“People were always comparing me to Chuck,” he said. “They wanted to know if I was as good as Chuck or as quick as Chuck. I’m faster than he is, but he’s a different back and so am I.”

O.J. arrived at Big Red training camp in the shadow of another great running back: Terry Metcalf.

“I don’t know if I’m a Metcalf,” said Anderson. “He was really something. He and Mel Gray were the one-two punch that made the Cardinals go. Metcalf did everything—run, catch, throw, return kicks.”

Big Red officials raved about the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder’s speed (4.5), quickness, and moves. And it didn’t take long for O.J. to give Cardinal fans a sneak preview of what was to come.

In the exhibition home opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Anderson took a Jim Hart handoff, broke a tackle, and dashed 80 yards for a touchdown. Never mind that it was called back on a penalty, the excited fans rose to their feet and welcomed their new hero as he trotted to the bench.

“I gave them a little bit of what they’ve been waiting for,” Anderson said after the game. “They’ve been waiting for somebody like me. I don’t brag and say a lot. I let my ability speak for itself. Watch the films… come to the practices… see what I can do.”

BIG DEBUT

O.J. would make his NFL regular season debut a few weeks later at Busch Stadium against “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys who had beaten the Cardinals four out of the last five contests.

Dallas jumped out to a quick 10-0 lead before O.J. jump-started the offense. On a third and seven from their own 21, Anderson exploded through a hole opened by guard Bob Young, broke a tackle, and lost his shoe before gaining 33 yards. He jumped up after being tackled, slammed the ball into the Astroturf, and was flagged for a delay of game penalty.

“I’ve seen guys on television do it. I figured if they could, I could,” the confused rookie said after the game. “I didn’t know about the rule. I did it because I was disgusted. I felt I could have gone all the way.”

With less than four minutes to play, the Cardinals had the ball at their own 24-yard line and trailed 19-14. Anderson took a quick handoff and spotted an opening.

“On that play, it’s his job to pick a hole,” Jim Hart said after the game. “He reads the blocks and goes anywhere he likes. It’s just straight-ahead-type blocking.”

Anderson blasted through the hole and the footrace was on.

“From the way the crowd sounded,” said Anderson, “it seemed like somebody was close to me. I thought I might get caught, so I didn’t slow down till I got to the end zone.”

Anderson blew by linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, used his long arms to push off defensive back Aaron Kyle, and left safety Cliff Harris in his dust. 76 yards later O.J. spiked the ball in the endzone (legally) and the Cardinals had a 21-19 lead.

“It’s easy to pick daylight with guys blocking for you on the line and guys blocking downfield,” Anderson said. “And the line here is even more than I thought it would be. They love to block. Any back in the league would like to play behind this line. You can’t help but pick daylight.”

“Because of the situation in the game,” Wilkinson said, “more and more they seemed to think we’d pass the ball. That’s why it seemed like a good opportunity to run. Of course, if we hadn’t popped the big gain, it might not have looked like such a good strategy.”

“We thought it was a pass play,” Cowboys defensive end Harvey Martin said of the play, “and I was going inside. They ran outside and he was gone.”

Unfortunately for the Cards, with just over a minute to play, Cowboys kicker Rafael Septien kicked the eventual game-winning field goal. His kick sailed left, clanked off the upright, and bounded through for the game-winner.

The Cards had one last shot, but Mike Wood’s desperation 60-yard field goal attempt fell just short.

“It went a foot under the crossbar,” Dan Dierdorf said after the game. “Their kick hits the upright and goes in. Ours misses by one foot. That’s hard to take.”

Anderson rushed for 193 yards in the Cardinals 22-21 loss, the most in a rookie debut since the Baltimore Colts Alan Ameche in 1955 (194 yards). However, he couldn’t help but wonder what might have been.

“A whole lot of things were going through my mind,” he said. “What more could I have done? What could I have done better than I did? If I had caught that pass (late in the game), it would have put us in a better position for the field goal… You’ve got so many things on your mind… All you can do is pick up the pieces and look to the next game.

COWBOYS IMPRESSED

“He’s a good back,” Martin said, “but we knew that.” We saw it on the film. How many yards did he get? Over a hundred?”

When told that Anderson gained 193 yards, Martin rolled his eyes and repeated the numbers. “One hundred ninety-three,” a puzzled Martin said. “He almost got 200 yards? Against us? By himself?”

“He’s gonna be a star. He’s gonna gain lots of yards this season. He can outrun all of us. He proved that today.”

Cowboys head coach, Tom Landry

“He’s big and strong and fast,” injured running back Tony Dorsett said. “He reminds me of an Earl Campbell type of runner. I think he’s gonna have some good afternoons in the NFL.”

“That running back?” wide receiver Tony Hill said. “We were hoping he’d pull a muscle or something. That cat smoked us.”

Wide receiver Jay Saldi may have said it best for all of his teammates. “Who was that guy?” he asked.

ACCOLADES

Although the Cardinals finished with a disappointing record of 5-11, Anderson turned in the greatest season of any rookie running back in NFL history in 1979. He was the consensus NFL Rookie of the Year, NFC Offensive Player of the Year, and named to the NFL All-Pro team. He set four NFL rushing records and tied a fifth. He set eight team records and tied a ninth. His 1,605 rushing yards were second in the NFL behind Walter Payton’s 1,610.

“In no way did I envision this happening so quickly,” O.J. said as he reflected on his record-breaking rookie season. “I thought I might be a challenger for the rushing title in a couple years, but not in my rookie season. It’s exciting and it’s scary because this sets the stage for 1980. What will I do for an encore?”

Anderson gained over 1,300 yards and scored nine touchdowns in 1980 and became the leading rusher in franchise history in 1981. The Cardinals traded Anderson to the New York Giants in 1986 where he won two Super Bowl titles and was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXV.

O.J. played 14 seasons in the NFL. His 10,273 career rushing yards ranked eighth all-time in NFL history when he retired, and his 81 rushing touchdowns ranked seventh, but he has not yet been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is also still the Cardinals all-time leading rusher, yet has not been enshrined into their Ring of Honor.

“My question is, ‘what does it take to get into the Hall of Fame?'” O.J. wondered out loud at his recent induction into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame. “‘I mean, is it about character? Is it about statistics? What is it? Because I’ve been looking at the ones that have gone in, and my stats are equal or better than quite a few of those individuals. But I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’,” O.J. joked.

Whether O.J. makes the Hall of Fame, or not, Big Red fans will always have that memory of him running the ball down the Cowboys throat on that warm Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium in September of ’79.

O.J. Anderson scores a 76-yard touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in his NFL debut on September 2, 1979
Video of O.J. Anderson’s induction into the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame in May, 2022

4 thoughts on “Big Red Flashback: O.J. Anderson’s Historic NFL Debut

  1. One of the very few good draft picks the Big Red made. That years team should have at least finished at 8-8. We lost 5 games by 6 points or less. There’s politics involved in making the HOF but the Bidwell’s should be embarrassed that O. J. Anderson isn’t in the ring of honor.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good insights, Bob, about Ottis Anderson finishing his career ranked 8th all-time in NFL rushing yards and 7th all-time in NFL rushing TDs. Both of those stats pleasantly surprised me.

    Your article prompted me to poke around some more on football-reference.com. It is impressive that Anderson is one of only 31 players with 10,000 rushing yards or more in the NFL.

    I’m not making apples-to-apples comparisons when I note that it is a credit to Anderson that he has more career rushing yards than such Hall of Fame running backs as Earl Campbell (9,407), Jim Taylor (8,597), Larry Csonka (8,081), Terrell Davis (7,607) and Leroy Kelly (7,274).

    Like

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