Sept. 15, 2011
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Tony Anderson was told long ago to never settle for being average.
His mother, Jennifer, wanted her son to be special. Be a leader, never a follower.
She started reinforcing the positive messages when he was very young, and he'd nod his head, saying, "Yes, mommy," before bouncing off to play.
She now has confirmation her son was indeed absorbing her wise words, as Anderson is anything but an average Michigan senior.
He's part of Michigan's football team, playing right corner, and is pursuing a degree in Arab, Armenian, Persian, Turkish & Islamic studies with a minor in applied statistics.
"There's never been any question that I wanted to make the most of my time at Michigan, both as an athlete and a student," said Anderson, a native of Redondo Beach, Calif. "Sometimes when people hear everything I am doing, they just wonder how I do it all. It's easy -- I'm totally engaged in everything I do, so it's not hard to give my full effort and time.
"Learning is my passion, as much as football is. It's different sides of me, parts I get to explore because I chose to come here to Michigan."
Anderson's journey is marked by his determination and ability to dream big.
As a high school senior, he received a prestigious Gates Millennium Scholarship, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, due to his potential, strong academics and character at Redondo Union. The Gates Foundation puts candidates through a rigorous selection process, but the stress comes with a big reward: full tuition, at any university or college, for a degree.
"I can't say enough about how that scholarship has changed my life," Anderson said. "College is crazy expensive, and especially when you are talking about going to some of the top schools like a Harvard or Michigan when you're from out of state. Knowing I could go to any school I wanted, and didn't have to worry about the cost, was and is incredible. I didn't even have a clue back then how expensive everything was. I do now."
Anderson had a successful prep track and football career but was going to put sports aside to concentrate on his studies. Acceptance letters from Harvard, Columbia and Michigan arrived, making his mom very proud.
But he saw there was only one choice: Michigan. He'd grown up a huge Michigan football fan, and after learning more about the academics, he knew he had to go to Ann Arbor.
"I wanted to make sure he was sure -- I mean, getting accepted into Ivy League schools is not something most people turn down quickly," Jennifer said, adding a laugh. "But he knew. He's always known exactly what he wanted to do from a very young age. And he'd let you know he knew what was right -- he's never been shy about going for it, which is good, because he's always been such a good son. He's like Einstein to me. I've never questioned his decisions, because he thinks it through and follows his heart."
Anderson's head brought him to Michigan, but it was his heart that led him back to football. He went through the first semester as just a student, and felt a real pang of loss.
He missed being on a team, having hard-hitting practices, and the rush of being in a game. Anderson decided to try out for the team, hoping to become a walk-on.
He submitted some game video from high school, gave it his all in the tryout, and soon found out his fate in 2008.
Anderson made the Michigan football team.
"That was one of the greatest moments of my life, hearing I made it and knowing I would be part of one of the best football programs in all of college," Anderson said. "I still get chills when I think about that. I get to put on the winged helmet."
Anderson has played reserve roles on special teams and in the secondary. He's not the star of the team, and that's okay.
He's trying to get the most out of his college experience, which is what led him to learn how to speak Arabic and study other cultures. His curiosity drives him to learn history and languages of different societies.
One of his Michigan instructors, Rima Hassouneh, helped teach him Arabic. Anderson used his determination, honed from playing football, in class.
"Tony was a very good student in Arabic because he was hard working and outgoing as well," Hassouneh said. "He had no inhibition about getting into uncomfortable linguistic situations from which he benefited in terms of language learning."
Anderson isn't looking too far ahead into the future for his last year of college. He wants to have the best football season of his career, graduate, and then maybe head into a career in finance.
As he frankly says, it's never been about the destination.
It's all the journey, and living life to the fullest.
"I can't imagine now not taking that chance to play football," Anderson said. "I would have missed this team atmosphere, it's like you're in a big, cool brotherhood. When you're away from home, like I am, having these brothers around me every day makes me feel like this is my home away from home. There are so many things this game teaches you, so many life lessons.
"When this is all over, I can say I accomplished my goals and lived my dreams, even bigger than I thought when I came here. I wish that for everybody here at Michigan."