On the wall outside the men's volleyball locker room at Penn State, there hangs a plaque. After every match, the attending media choose a player of the game and add his name to the wall. It's named in honor of Mike Anderson, who used to drive from West Seneca to State College to root on his son, Matt, and for the Nittany Lions.
"Mike was special," said Mark Pavlik, the veteran Penn State coach. "He was this big, barrel-chested man with a great, deep voice. You knew when he was in the gym. At some point early in the match, you would hear Mike bellow, 'We are!' And the crowd would answer, 'Penn State!!' Every so often, someone in the crowd will still do it."
Next month in London, perhaps someone in the U.S. fan contingent will yell out "We are!" to inspire the youngest and tallest member of the American team, and to remind Matt Anderson that his late father is there in spirit to watch his youngest child realize his Olympic dream.?Anderson, the pride of West Seneca West, is the best outside hitter on the U.S. men's team. He has been dreaming of London since giving up his senior season at Penn State to turn pro in South Korea. His dad, who was a star athlete at West Seneca East and a backup quarterback at Niagara, was looking to London, too.
Mike played competitive sports into his 50s. But he fell off the roof of a house (a day after playing softball), breaking his leg in two places. While treating him for blood clots, doctors discovered he had kidney cancer. The kidney was removed and things were looking up when Mike died in his sleep of a massive heart attack on Jan. 23, 2010.
Months earlier, Matt had struggled through a tough season with Team USA, one that was shortened by a bout with pneumonia. Now his dad, his role model and his rock, was gone. Matt was devastated and angry. He wished he could talk to Mike. But he had his father's constant example to sustain him.
"My dad was a great guy," Matt said. "I hear that from everyone I talk to. I base who I'm trying to be on who he was. He was a great dad, husband and family man. He was close with everybody. He always forgave people. He had this old way about him, where if you're going to do something, you might as well do it right. If you're not good enough, at least you have the satisfaction of doing the best you can."
Anderson, who is 6-foot-10, carries his dad in his thoughts and on his body. On his right rib cage, he has a tattoo with Mike's initials, plus the dates of his birth and death. His brother, Joshua, and sister, Amy (Matt is the youngest of five children), also wear tattoo tributes to their father.
After his father's passing, Anderson truly blossomed as a player. In 2011, he was the leading scorer on the U.S. team, one of the best outside hitters on the planet. He had more kills and played in more sets than any other American in the world's top pro league in Italy.
Last month in California, Anderson was the top scorer as the U.S. team qualified for London by winning the NORCECA men's continental qualification tournament. The Americans upset Brazil for the gold medal in Beijing, but are not the favorites heading into this year's Games. Brazil is ranked No. 1 in the world and seen as the team to beat.
"We know where we stand," said Anderson, who was in France with the U.S. team last week for a World League tournament. "We're working on little parts of our game that we can improve before London. This is a different group. Different parts of the team are new. We're running different offenses, different blocking and defensive schemes. And the game itself has changed in four years. Teams are running faster offenses. Players are bigger.
"I'm very excited," he said. "I set goals for myself as a professional athlete. This is like my last career goal, to play in an Olympic games. It's like reaching the top. I suppose when I get there, I won't want to leave."
There's no reason he can't stay there a good long time. At 25, Anderson is the baby of the U.S. men's team. Nine of the players at the trials were 30 or older. Clay Stanley, the MVP of the ‘08 Games, will be in his third Olympics. Lloy Ball, who is not on this year's squad, played on four U.S. Olympic teams between 1996 and 2008.
So it's uncommon for a young American to be a volleyball icon. Anderson has been called a "rare rising talent." After a slow start at Penn State, he came into his own as a sophomore and was national player of the year as a junior, when he led Penn State to the NCAA championship. Did Pavlik see Olympic possibilities then?
"Oh, no," Pavlik said earlier this week. "That was being thought four years before that. Yeah, we felt Matt was the best player in the country when we recruited him."
Anderson was 6-7 at the time, a junior at West Seneca West. Pavlik saw him playing with the Eden Volleyball Club and was struck by the depth and sophistication of Anderson's athletic skills. Volleyball players take time to mature. But he knew this tall, skinny kid was a rare talent, capable of reaching the very top of the sport.
"He just moved so explosively and quickly," said Pavlik, who was national coach of the year in ‘08. "He moved like the other kids on the court. Those other kids were 5-10. So we saw the elite athlete in him from day one."
His mother sees a lot of Mike in him. The Andersons were a close family. They traveled together, went to sporting events. Mike's love of competition rubbed off. Daughter Joelle played volleyball for the College of St. Rose. Amy played volleyball and basketball at Hilbert. Matt, the baby, inherited the most talent, and height.
"I knew he was going to grow," said his mom, Nancy Anderson. "When he was little, they had that chart to predict how tall he would be, and it was pretty close."
It took time, though. Matt was 5-10 when he started high school. A couple of years later, he was 6-7. By then, it was all volleyball. He grew to 6-10 by his second year at Penn State.
"He played one year of basketball [in high school] and basically sat on the bench," Nancy said. "He said, 'Well, I'm not doing that again,' and he went to play volleyball."
Karen was asked which of her late husband's qualities was most evident in Matt. Without hesitation, she said, "Desire." She said Mike couldn't give up softball, even after he got sick. "He always wanted to be part of a group and enjoy it. But if there was a fight on the field, he'd shake hands and go out for drinks with the guys afterward."
Boy, did he love those trips to Penn State, and overseas when Matt turned pro. Volleyball took them around the world. Nancy went to Italy for three weeks this past year to watch Matt play. She and a number of family and friends will travel to London next month to watch the U.S. men defend their gold medal.
"It's wonderful," she said. "It's a little bit unreal, still. I know Matt is excited and proud. I think he wishes his dad could be there, but ...
"Oh, we had that in our minds four years ago," Nancy said. "We were planning. Life just takes different turns. It wasn't really a dream at that point, but a hope."
There's no telling how far the dream could take him. When you consider that many of the top U.S. Olympians play to age 36 or beyond, it's reasonable to think Anderson could play in three Olympics, or even four, if he stays healthy. He would be only 33, roughly the average age of the U.S. team members, eight years from now.?
"I hope so. I hope I'm around," said Anderson, who has signed a contract to play in Kazan, Russia next fall. "I hope my body can last. I'm 25. I'm young. But all kind of things can happen."