Nick Anderson doesn’t care what those numbers on your scale or tape measure say.
If you think his 5-foot-10 frame isn’t tall enough to play linebacker in the NFL, that’s on you.
Or if you think those 3 pounds and 6 ounces he weighed at his birth, that came two months sooner than it was supposed to, were going to stop him from living a normal life, so be it.
The measurables on his pro day in March, much like the measurables on that January day in 2000 when he entered the world small enough to fit in the palm of his mom's hand, haven't stopped Anderson from his constant pursuit of his NFL dream.
“He was a premature baby and wasn’t expected to live,” said Emmarie Flaggs, Nick’s mom. “So my prayer to God was if he’s going to come into this world, I want him to be great in something that people can see. They didn’t give him a large percentage of a chance to live. So from the time he was born, the odds have been against him. He’s been fighting his whole life. This football journey is just a part of it.”
The next chapter of that journey is with the New Orleans Saints, who signed Anderson as an undrafted free agent after he didn’t hear his named called during the three days of the NFL draft. For Anderson, who spent the past four seasons starring in a lead role in the resurgence of Tulane football, there’s no other team he would rather be with. He didn’t have to pack up his furniture and move across the country. And his family members, only three hours away in his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi, won’t have to travel very far to see him play if he makes his way onto the Saints roster. But most importantly, New Orleans is a part of him now, seeping into his veins like the city so often does.
“I’ve rallied with New Orleans,” Anderson said. “I’m a Mississippi guy, but New Orleans is my second home. I love the support from everybody. That’s just the mentality of New Orleans, whether it’s the Pelicans or the Saints or Tulane. They love their teams. You can feel the love consistently. It’s a blessing because it’s not like this in many other places. I’m glad to call this home and ready to get to work.”
The work with the Saints began in rookie minicamp last week and will continue with the organized team activities starting Tuesday.
But Anderson’s work started long before he ever put on a football helmet or started running on those hills in his hometown along the Mississippi River.
For him, it began with a simple message from his mom when they were walking down the hall at Bowmar Elementary when he was a kid.
“I was honest with him,” his mom recalls. “I told him that I made a few poor choices when it comes to student loans. I told him that because of those poor choices, I’m not going to be able to put you through school. So it starts today. I think it put the fear of God in him that day and he made straight A’s all the way throughout school.”
Well, except that one A on his report card that gets an asterisk.
Anderson was supposed to have a B in that Spanish class that year. He asked the teacher to allow him to do some extra work to make up for it to get an A. The teacher did and Anderson made an A. His mom found out, went to the school and made the teacher change the grade back to a B.
“He didn’t earn it, so don’t give it to him,” Flaggs told the teacher.
As punishment, Anderson missed his freshman year of football, putting him behind in the sport that he so loved.
“It was almost like starting over as far as him getting his position back,” Flaggs said. “The draft process was kinda like that too, with him having to prove himself again. But proving himself has always been an adrenaline rush for him.”
Anderson, despite all the accolades he racked up both on the field and in the classroom at Tulane, didn’t get invited to the NFL combine or the Senior Bowl. His height was scaring teams away.
Instead, he had to show what he could do at Tulane’s pro day in front of scouts from all 32 teams. He excelled that day, wearing a Sam Mills No. 51 Saints jersey in the process. It was his way of paying tribute to the late 5-foot-9 Hall of Fame linebacker who also was once thought too short to play linebacker in the NFL.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing back his legacy for the community and the NFL in general,” Anderson said that day.
As much as he’d like to have a Sam-Mills-type impact on the field, he’d also like to have a Demario-Davis-like impact off it. Giving back and helping others is something near and dear to Anderson. It’s the reason he helped pay for the funeral of someone who died in the March tornado in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, just 45 miles from his hometown of Vicksburg. It’s the reason he’s helped feed the homeless that live under some of the bridges in New Orleans. As a Mother's Day to mothers in his hometown, he paid for haircuts for boys in Vicksburg.
Helping others has been a way of life in Anderson's family. His grandfather, George Flaggs, has been the mayor of Vicksburg since 2013 after having served the previous 25 years as a state legislator. His grandmother often would invite strangers to her house to feed them during the holidays. And his mom, who is completing her master’s in clinical mental health, has slept on a park bench in the city to help bring awareness to homelessness. Anderson has joined her in that venture.
“Some kids whine saying ‘I don’t want to do this,'” Anderson’s mom said. “But Nick’s not like that. He’s in the gutter with me trying to get it done. He’s been my partner in a lot of the things I’ve had the success in doing and I wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for his desire to help me. Giving back has always been our thing and that’s one of the reasons he wanted to be in New Orleans because he knows what he can do there.”
Perhaps Anderson can become a hero in New Orleans just like he is in his hometown. He served as grand marshal of Vicksburg’s Mardi Gras parade in February, an honor bestowed him after his showing in the Cotton Bowl when Tulane shocked the college football world by beating Southern Cal. There could be more in store for Anderson depending on how the next few months go, according to his grandfather, a diehard Saints fan.
“If he makes the team, we’re going to give him a key to the city and a parade,” mayor Flaggs said.
So that’s the focus for Anderson now. Do whatever it takes to find his way onto the Saints’ roster. He realizes that special teams is the best way to do that. He played 776 snaps on special teams during his time at Tulane, a number that he rattles off the top of his head with ease. When you're a 5-foot-10 linebacker, you have to do whatever it takes to stand out in the crowd. It’s always been that way for him at every stop of the way, from Vicksburg High to Jones County (Miss.) Junior College to Tulane and now to the NFL.
“I always have something to prove,” Anderson said. “Being a guy that’s always been overlooked, I always have that chip on my shoulders and that’s not going anywhere. So just day in and day out, I just come in and try to improve myself and show that I belong.”
And he has a message for the other Nick Andersons out there as well. All those who have been told they aren’t tall enough or big enough or whatever else enough.
“I would tell them to believe that they are in control of their destiny and fate,” Anderson said. “God has given us all the opportunity to become amazing at whatever we desire to do every single time he allows us to open our eyes to see a new day. However, we cannot expect others to believe in our capabilities if we do not believe in them ourselves. Push your limits, set your goals as high as you can and set them even higher once you achieve them. Have a shark mentality. Never stop progressing. Never stop fighting. Never stop believing.”