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From WNY to Rio: Matt Anderson could be the best volleyball player in the world

Midway through the fall of 2014, Matt Anderson was seemingly on top of the world. That summer, he had led the U.S. men’s volleyball team to a World League title and been named U.S. player of the year for the second time in a row.

Anderson was the reigning MVP of the Russian pro league. His team, Zenit Kazan, was a favorite to win the national title. There was mounting speculation that the West Seneca native might be the best volleyball player on the planet.

But emotionally, his world was crashing in on him. On Oct. 29, Anderson suspended his volleyball career and asked for his Russian contract to be terminated. In a statement, he emphasized that he had no conflict with his team. He was tired and homesick and missing his family, along with his passion for the game.

He mentioned depression in the statement. Looking back on that dark time, Anderson said he wasn’t depressed in a clinical sense, though he wasn’t too far off. He sought the help of a sports psychologist during his time away from the sport.

“I think it was me exploring a little bit more of my personal side,” Anderson said from southern California, where the U.S. team is training for the Rio Olympics. “I was burned out from the game and not enjoying it as much as I should. And I did have to work through some deep emotions stemming from the death of my father.”

Mike Anderson was his son’s greatest supporter, a devoted family man and a competitive soul. Mike went to all the games when Matt played for West Seneca West and Penn State. He would sit in the stands and holler “We are! ...” and wait for the rest of the Nittany Lion fans to respond “Penn State!”

His dad died of a heart attack in 2010. He didn’t live to see Matt play for the U.S. in the London Olympics. Anderson got tattoos in his dad’s memory, played in the 2012 Games with him in mind. But his grief was still there below the surface.

In time, separation from family brought it all back two years later. So Anderson came home and reconnected with his family and his hometown. He’s still a Buffalo guy to the core, so he felt a certain clarity and peace when that massive snowstorm hit in November 2014, a short time after he arrived from Russia.

He and his sister, Joelle, who lives next door, would take long walks together in the snow, talking as their boots crunched on those quiet, empty roads. Odd, isn’t it, that Anderson came home looking to rediscover his sense of community at the very time his hometown was bonding through a winter crisis?

“He needed a break,” said his mother, Nancy. “He didn’t lose his desire. He needed to work through a few things, and he did. He got to see his nieces and nephews and family and do a little rehabbing of his mind and body. I love what he does, but it’s a grind. I could never do it. I don’t know how half these players do it.”

Playing volleyball at the top levels, where you’re committed to the national team while making a living with a pro squad, is an exhausting grind, both physically and mentally. Anderson once estimated that he gets three weeks off a year.

John Speraw, who took over as the U.S. men’s coach in 2013, got a phone call from Anderson as soon as Matt decided to suspend his career. Speraw was concerned, of course, but he realized that time off would be good for Matt. He was making the sort of decision a lot of high-profile athletes have no doubt pondered.

“Michael Jordan needed a break, too,” Speraw said. “It’s not a dissimilar situation. Matt’s under intense public scrutiny; he’s as public a figure in our sport as there is. It takes a lot of emotional strength sometimes to handle that.

“I was really impressed,” Speraw said. “I think it takes a lot of emotional awareness to say, ‘Hey, I need a break.’ Very few people would be honest enough to actually say it and do it. I think going through that process was really beneficial for him, because he came back and had such a great summer right away.”

Anderson returned to Russia after New Year’s of 2015. He came back even better, as difficult as that it to imagine for a player of his stature. He led Zenit Kazan to another Russian title. Last September, the U.S. men won their first World Cup title in 30 years as Anderson was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

That performance gave the Americans an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics next month in Rio de Janeiro. Anderson was named U.S. Player of the Year for the fourth straight time. He has led the U.S. in scoring in every year since 2011.

Evidently, the time away did him well. Anderson is 29, in his absolute prime as a volleyball player.

“I think I’m in a comfort zone right now with the physicality of it,” he said. “I don’t think I’m near done growing as a player. I think that the day that you stop learning new stuff on the court is the day you should stop playing. So I definitely think I still have a lot of upside as a player to grow into, and I’m looking forward to learning more this summer.”

Anderson was the youngest player on the U.S. team four years ago in London. This time, he’ll be one of the veterans and a leader. The American men are looking to make amends for London, when they eliminated by Russia in the quarterfinals.

“I’ve learned a lot of the emotional side of the game,” Anderson said. “The physicality has always been there, it’s a kind of a gift to me. But I’ve learned to control my emotions through difficult times and not let it be so influential in my physical decline as a player, meaning not letting it wear me out.

“Last Olympics, I was in a great spot physically,” he said. “But the emotional aspects of the game just wore me out every match. My recovery wasn’t ready for that, wasn’t braced for that. Towards the end of the tournament, I was gassed.”

Anderson says his own journey of self-discovery will make him a better leader, more able to show the way for the younger players. He’s still a passionate competitor, but knows how to channel it and not be overcome by his emotions.

“I think it definitely made me a better leader,” he said, “because I’m more sensitive to the other guys on the court and the way that they react to my emotions, to my body language and everything on the court.”

He proved he’s a team player when he agreed to switch positions on the national team when Speraw took over. Anderson was moved from the left outside hitter position to the opposite (right) side. He said it was no big deal at the time, but Speraw saw it as a seflless act by a star of that magnitude.

“When Matt is competing at his very best, and he’s out there and really aggressive emotionally, its an incredible lift to our guys,” Speraw said. “And it’s fun to watch. So yeah, he has great influence on the emotional energy of the team. He certainly can influence the entire team in a very positive way.”

The U.S. will need a lot of positive energy in Rio next month. Brazil, the host country, is the top-rated team in the world and the Olympic favorite. Brazilian crowds are renowned for their passion and were out in force in London, where Russia beat Brazil for gold. They will be a powerful, passionate presence in Rio.

“They are crazy,” said Nancy Anderson, who traveled to Rio a decade ago when Matt played a junior tourney there. “It’s going to be loud! But we’ll do fine. We beat them in Brazil before. One step at a time. I’d really like to see him win a medal. He deserves it for all the hard work he’s done.”

Nancy Anderson said a group of 11 friends and family will travel to the Olympics, including Matt’s older brother, Josh, and his wife. Nancy Anderson’s brother, Vince Ferraro, and his wife will also make the trip. Ferraro also went to the London Games. He’s proud of his nephew, and wishes that being one of the best players in the world came with more acclaim.

“If the men’s U.S. soccer team had won the World Cup, they would have had ticker tape and been invited to the White House,” Ferraro said. “And if an American was named MVP, he’d be on the Wheaties box and everything else. Unfortunately, that didn’t come with the U.S. winning the volleyball World Cup.”

Anderson said he wishes volleyball was more popular in the U.S., but he’s a private sort who can do without the public spotlight.

“I do enjoy the anonymity of it,” he said. “Of course it would be great to get some recognition and for people to know me. But the privacy I have right now is great. I still have the pride in where I’m from, the humility of it I still carry with me, being from Buffalo. It’s one of my greatest attributes as an athlete.”

He knows what’s most important in life. Family and home. His skin gives testament. On his left upper arm, he has a tattoo of a tree, symbolizing his family and the strong sense of community he grew up with in Buffalo. The four roses on his wrist signify his four siblings. He has the Anderson family crest on his rib cage. He has his father’s initials and the dates of his birth and death.

There’s a blue puzzle piece tattooed on his wrist, signifying the fight against autism. His nephew, Tristan, has the disorder. Tristin’s name is inscribed there, too. Anderson started a tournament (Matt Anderson Spiking For Autism) that donates money to autism treatment in Western New York.

Those are the things that matter, more than money or medals or MVP awards. Sure, he’d like to win gold in Rio. He was bitterly disappointed and felt he hadn’t played his best in London. But he’s in a good emotional place and confident this year’s team will play well in the underdog role.

“And to bring back a gold medal, not just for the national team but to bring it back to Buffalo, would be an incredible honor,” Anderson said, “an incredible experience for me.”