It’s a muggy evening at the football field adjacent to Danforth Magnet School. Players arrive over a half-hour span, pulling worn equipment from backseats and trunks and lacing up their cleats while sitting on the bumpers. Three “spectators,” eyes focused intently on their cellphones, sit in the stands as players trickle onto the field for practice, debating the skills of LeBron James and Michael Vick or arguing about who won a video game match the night before. Surrounded by water bottles, helmets, puddles and flying insults, coach Kenny Anderson is home.
Anderson, 39, is the president and head coach of the Syracuse Shock, a semiprofessional or “minor league” football team that plays in the Empire Football League. Every Monday and Wednesday throughout the summer, he drives 90 minutes from his job at Vision Nissan in Webster to the Danforth field on the South Side for practice.
On the weekend, he travels around the region from his home in Oswego for games in such football meccas as Albany and Glens Falls. He calls plays. He studies film. He even washes the uniforms. And he does it all for one reason.
“I love the sport,” he said. “I love the challenge of getting to the top and staying on top, working with all the different athletes. It’s a great personal challenge. When you love the game, you’d do everything to stay around it.”
Anderson competed through high school in Fulton, where he grew up. He played football only one semester at Canisius College, before leaving school and entering the workforce. He thought his playing days were over. However, when a coworker brought in a newspaper ad for tryouts for the semi-pro Syracuse Express, Anderson thought he would give it a try to “see if I still had it, see if I could play at a level higher than high school.” Nearly 20 years later and after playing for more than a half-dozen teams, he’s still competing in the sport he loves. He brings the same intensity and dedication to coaching that he used to bring to the field.
Anderson didn’t initially imagine himself as a coach, said David “Wolf” Parker, one of Anderson’s coaches during his minor league playing days. “I remember early in the first season of coaching him, I told him someday he would make an amazing coach, and he was like, ‘Oh, you’re an idiot.’”
However, to Parker, Anderson’s leadership skills were obvious. He recalled telling Anderson, “‘Look, when you’re up, the team’s up. When you’re down, the team’s down. So I need you to stay positive all the time,’ which he did very well.”
Not that Parker had to push him too hard.
“I think when it comes to Kenny, (leadership) is something that was there his whole life — business-wise, friendship-wise, he leads in everything he does,” said Parker, whom Anderson calls his mentor. “I think the only thing I can take credit for was pointing it out that he could do it.”
What set Anderson apart as a player was his ability to not only focus on his position or duties on a given play, but also focus on every member of the team on every play. Duane Milton, a teammate of Anderson’s from the Express and current backup quarterback for the Shock, wasn’t at all surprised when he made the transition to coaching.
“Kenny was probably one of the highest IQ guys that was on the field, beside(s) myself,” Milton said with a chuckle.
For Anderson, part of the lure of coaching is the challenge of finding out how to motivate a new group of players every year. He calls his coaching style a result of trial and error.
On a recent August evening, he mingled nonchalantly with the players, spending the most time with starting quarterback T.J. Sheard. He raises his voice only once, to exasperatedly yell “Shut up!” when the chatter from his defense had gotten so loud he couldn’t call the next play.
“Probably earlier in my career it wasn’t the same approach,” he said. “I think I tried to muscle them more, but now ... you kind of realize that they’re adults and they play a certain way, and it’s easier for me to adapt to them than to try and have them adapt to me.”
The Shock players appreciate that philosophy.
“I like playing for Kenny. He’s pretty laid back. He’s not overbearing,” middle linebacker Elbert Maeweather said. “He gives us a lot of freedom on the field to do what we need to do, and to utilize our abilities. I appreciate that in a coach.”
His players possess differing levels of ability and experience. Some have played in college, some in Division I. Others are playing organized football for the first time. Most are in their early to mid-20s, and their careers will last three to four years “before life gets in the way,” Anderson said. And none of them, including Anderson, is getting paid. In fact, each player buys his own equipment and pays a $125 fee to play on the team.
“Especially at this level of football, you’ve got to give the respect to get the respect, and he respects all of us as men, and respects the fact that we have outside lives other than this,” Maeweather said. “We see that he puts his all into the organization, and so we try to reciprocate that as well with the way we play.”
Anderson’s daughter Paige, 17, believes he wouldn’t have it any other way. “His whole life is that team,” she said. “He does a lot for the team. He works as hard as he can to make them win and make sure that they’re good players.”
According to Paige, all the effort comes from a deep love for the game.
“He’s always talking about football. If he’s not working, it’s football,” she said. “I like that he’s dedicated to something.”
Anderson’s dedication reached a new level before the 2011 season, when he bought the rights to the team. And while it hasn’t been a lucrative investment, Anderson believes keeping the team afloat is his way of giving back to the game that has given so much to him. By his own estimate, he spent around $10,000 on the team last year, yet he remains unfazed and remembers how others sacrificed to give him the chance to prolong his career.
“People did it for me for 15, 16, 17 years to allow me to continue playing,” he said. “So I kind of owe that to the younger players coming forward, to have someone else give them the same opportunities.”
His former coach couldn’t be prouder.
“I appreciate the fact that Kenny still feels that way,” Parker said. “To me, when it comes to minor league football, there’s two kinds of coaches. There’s those that have the title because someone gave them a whistle and told them they were one, and then there’s those who think that they need to give something back.”
Parker believes that Anderson’s dedication exemplifies all that is good about the sport and wishes that those qualities were made more evident on a larger stage.
“Kenny belongs in the NFL,” Parker said “The NFL just doesn’t know it.”