DAMIEN ANDERSON: Northwestern University

As a junior, Damien Anderson placed fifth in the Heisman, and he’s in the running for the big prize this year

By Kim Goss
Published: Winter 2001
There are far easier places to get a college education than Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Even if you can make it past the tough admission requirements, the countless hours of daily study required to meet Northwestern’s high academic standards often prove too much for many students. And if that weren’t enough, the school never shows up on any of the underground lists of top party schools in the country! Knowing this, you would think that a promising high school running back who ran for 2,002 yards in his senior year and who had visions of playing on Sunday would look at just about any other place than Northwestern. But then, you don’t know Damien Anderson - or his mom.
“My mother was a teacher and she always stressed education, so I was looking for a great university that could offer the best of both worlds,” says Anderson. “My choices came down to Notre Dame, Michigan and Northwestern. Upon visiting Northwestern I knew it was the place I wanted to be.”
Through hard work in the weight room (he power cleans 355 pounds and benches 445 at a bodyweight of 207) and on the practice field, the Wilmington, Illinois, native made his mark on Northwestern football history right from the start. He led the team in rushing with 537 yards in 1998, then again with 1,128 yards in 1999, and once more with 2,063 yards (and 23 touchdowns) in 2000. When Anderson’s stats were tallied, it was no surprise that the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City announced last year during its Heisman Memorial Trophy presentation that Anderson was voted the fifth best football player in the country.
With that level of achievement, plus the fact that Anderson graduated in June with a degree in communications, there was concern that Anderson might skip his final year at Northwestern to cash in on a lucrative contract as a guaranteed high draft pick. But after talking to his family, his coaches and other players who had the opportunity to enter the draft early, Anderson decided that staying for his senior season “would be the best rational decision.” One reason, according to Anderson, was that the extra year would give him more time to fine-tune all his football skills, and in the long run this balance would make him a more valuable player.

Role Models for a
Role Model

When an athlete achieves the degree of ability and success that Damien Anderson has worked for, it’s no surprise to discover they rely on specific sources of inspiration. When asked who his role models are, Anderson replied, “My parents - they kept me on the straight and narrow and taught me that working hard would get me the best results. As for players, Barry Sanders and Walter Payton jumped over a lot of hurdles on their way to greatness, and that’s who I think about every time I want to stop running or stop lifting. I think about how hard those guys worked to get where they are.”
Another role model of Anderson’s is Darnell Autry, a former Heisman Trophy finalist (he placed 7th in 1996) from Northwestern who was also a running back. “I met Darnell three times. I respect him - he’s done a lot for our program at Northwestern and he’s obviously one of the reasons why I came here.” That said, it was especially fulfilling for Anderson in this years opening game when he was able to break Autry’s school record to become Northwestern’s all-time rushing leader.
As for the inevitable comparisons between Anderson and his predecessor Autry, Larry Lilja, the head strength coach at Northwestern, says Anderson is much stronger. “He’s faster than Darnell and the only edge Darnell had was that he weighed more,” says Lilja. Such comments are especially complimentary, as Autry was instrumental in helping Northwestern raise its poor football reputation (at one time the team suffered 34 straight losses!) to earn an invitation to the Rose Bowl in 1996.
Now that Anderson is among the best players in the country, and to many sports writers the favorite for the Heisman, you might wonder if the greater expectations and attention from fans has changed his life. Not quite. “I don’t see the pressure at all,” says Anderson. “I love playing the game, and football is a release for me.” As far as changing his daily life, Anderson says that he is recognized more, but that’s fine with him as he enjoys meeting new people, especially kids. “I see the impact I’m having on their lives, and I just want to give as much to everyone as I can. I remember what Walter and Barry did for my life, and if I can have a little of that type of impact on someone, I think it’s great.”

Feeling the Steel

Because he didn’t have the natural bone-crushing size of many of today’s top running backs, Anderson decided he had to spend quality time in the weight room. “I’ve always had speed, but I’ve never been one of the biggest guys out there,” says Anderson. “I knew growing up that I’d have to lift weights seriously to compensate for my lack of height and weight. Lilja agrees. “Damien has a great work ethic,” he says. “He leads by example and he’s very coachable. Even with all of the Heisman hype he continues to work hard. I wish we had more like him.”
Regarding his basic weight-training workout, Lilja says Anderson follows much the same routine as other players, but with “more emphasis on hamstring and hip extensor movements.” Outside the weight room, Anderson’s program is designed for upper limit athleticism. “We do plyometric training to work fast-twitch fibers and we also do a lot of power work like sled pulls and resistance running and over-speed drills, which incorporate tension bands and bungee cords.” Such a sound, functional approach to training helped Anderson enter this season with a 4.33 best in the 40 and a 36-inch vertical jump.
His favorite exercises? “Anything that will get me bigger, faster, stronger,” Anderson quips. “But if I had to narrow it down, the power clean, squat and bench press.” Anderson says that the squat, in which he has a personal best of 575 pounds, is especially important “because you have to be able to break through tackles and take it the distance.” In regard to changes from last year, Anderson says the major difference after the season was in striving to increase the intensity of his workouts.

Rushing Forward

At the time of this writing, Northwestern has won five of six games, including a 27-26 thriller over Michigan State that involved three lead changes in the last 30 seconds.
Anderson has been keeping his Heisman hopes alive, rushing for 595 yards, which included a team record of four touchdowns in the school’s second game with Duke. And with a veteran offensive line to keep the opposing defensemen at bay and a quality senior quarterback in Zak Kustok, you can expect more big numbers from Anderson along with more W’s for the team.
When asked what advice he would give high school running backs trying to emulate his accomplishments, Anderson stressed dedication to goals. “I went from the best high school program in Illinois to probably one of the worst when my family moved, and I was faced with a lot of adversity then,” explains Anderson. “But we turned the whole program around, and then when we played on Fridays the whole town practically shut down.” Even as Damien Anderson looks toward his own promising career in the NFL, his veteran advice is to stay focused, and find ways to continually motivate yourself. “You just have to want it - you need that inner drive to be successful.”
Drive on, Damien!


“Damien has a great work ethic, He leads by example and he’s very coachable. Even with all of the Heisman hype he continues to work hard. I wish we had more like him.”
Larry Lilja, Northwestern Head Strength Coach

Winter 2001 Cover

“My choices came down to Notre Dame, Michigan and Northwestern. Upon visiting Northwestern I knew it was the place I wanted to be.” -Damien Anderson

Even with it’s tough academic requirements Northwestern continues to build a great football team and fill the stands each week.

Northwestern head strength coach Larry Lilja (left) spots Damien on some curls.

Damien Anderson