Jamal Anderson grew up around fighters, big-time champions such as Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. That's why he became a football player and now represents a large portion of the Atlanta Falcons' hope in Super Bowl XXXIII.
James Anderson, Jamal's father, started out as a Newark policeman. He was assigned to a security detail escorting Ali, hit it off with The Greatest and ended up starting his own bodyguard business. James collected clients such as Leonard, Tyson, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. Singer Donna Summer once baby-sat for Jamal.
"I was around the boxers a lot," Jamal remembered. "You picture yourself growing up to be Muhammad Ali. You try to imagine what it would be like, but I also saw them lose or get beat up, too. I decided that wasn't for me. So I turned to football."
Football, NFL variety, didn't turn to him very enthusiastically at the beginning. He was a seventh-round draft choice in 1994 when he came out of the University of Utah. By his third season he was a 1,000-yard rusher. This season, his fifth, he gained 1,846. Only eight backs in history ever gained more.
Anderson may have begun humbly, but that doesn't mean he is in awe of his first Super Bowl.
He has the aura of a song-and-dance man who just can't wait to get out on the stage. In fact he's the one who invented the "Dirty Bird," Atlanta's now-famous touchdown celebration dance.
"I'm the best dancer in the NFL," he claimed. "Well, maybe not better than Deion Sanders. But I'm definitely No. 2."
While it has become a cliche that meeting with the hordes of Super Bowl media is supposed to be a distraction for the players, Anderson can't wait to perform for the press. "There are no bad days for Jamal Anderson," he said. "We're here and we're the only two teams playing for the world championship. It's the greatest athletic stage there is.
"You have to have fun. That's why I say nothing's really a bother to me because I'd rather you guys be here 'bothering' us than bothering the Packers or any other team."
Days before the Falcons even left their training base, Anderson was honing his act. He told a German film crew, "I want to be on all the European stations, that's my goal. If I see a camera from Europe, I'm coming to find it. I'm going after Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Russia.
"Folks in Siberia, y'all will get to watch me. Y'all will get to say, 'He's very, very handsome and a pretty good player.' "
Not even the prospect of playing on grass Sunday dampens Anderson's spirit. He rarely played on a natural surface in the last three seasons. His last nine games were in domed stadiums. The last time he played on grass was in New England on Nov. 8.
"Grass is the best surface to play on," he maintained. "We practice on grass all the time and it's a lot better on the body. When you fall on it, or carry the ball 25 or 30 times a game, you kind of look forward to grass.
"When we aren't playing on grass, I may be a little more hesitant to make a sharp cut because I don't want my body going one way and my leg going another way. When we're on grass, I can let it all hang out."
In that November game in New England, incidentally, he ran for 104 yards and the Falcons won, 41-10.
For a number of Super Bowl analysts, Sunday's game is seen as a duel between Anderson and Denver's Terrell Davis, last year's Super Bowl MVP who ran for 2,008 yards this season.
"At halftime, they'll probably flash his statistics against mine on the screen," he said. "It will either be a lot of fun or if he's killing me I'll run into the dressing room hiding my face.
"I was the 201st player picked in my draft year. Terrell was the 196th the next year. This is the reward for all late-round picks."