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Five from 50: C.J. Anderson reflects on his Super Bowl 50 homecoming
We're kicking off our series celebrating the fifth anniversary of Super Bowl 50 with C.J. Anderson's story of coming home and honoring a local legend.
By Ben Swanson Feb 01, 2021

With the fifth anniversary of Super Bowl 50 nearly upon us, we’re spending the week sharing stories from five players who made key plays in the game. We begin with C.J. Anderson, the bowling ball of a running back who had to fight through a tackle from Luke Kuechly at the goal line to clinch the win. Helping lead the Broncos' offense in a Super Bowl was Anderson's dream, and doing it a short drive away from his hometown made it even more special.

For some players, nerves are only natural. Super Bowl or not, they have them before games.

But for C.J. Anderson, the hours and days before Super Bowl 50 — the biggest game of his life — were the most stress-free of his life.

He had been floating on air ever since the Broncos punched their ticket for the game by beating the Patriots in the conference title game.

"When we won the AFC Championship … someone asked me, like, C.J., how do you feel? You're going back to another Super Bowl, you just won the AFC Championship," Anderson says, "and I said, I'm going home for free!

"I didn't have to worry about flights, I didn't have to worry about hotels. … My mom, my grandmom, my brothers, my wife — it was simple and easy. It was just driving up. … I've been playing at home almost the majority of my life. Me being at home, being back in the Bay, that's how I looked at it. I looked at it as it's just another home game for me, for the Bay Area kid. And I felt comfortably fine."

With the game in Santa Clara, California, Anderson could not envision being closer to his family and his roots as he prepared for the Super Bowl. His hometown of Vallejo, where his family still resided, was some 60 miles north on Interstate 680. Just south of that was Oakland, where he spent two years at Laney College, and Berkeley, where he played his final two seasons of college football at Cal.

Before entering the NFL as an undrafted player, the Bay Area was the only place he called home, the place he was most comfortable. And after he became a Bronco, it would be where his NFL career exploded, as his 163-yard output on the road in Oakland in 2014 proved to be the springboard for him to become a Pro Bowl back.

Being this close to home was as good as it would get, and it set him up for perhaps the most crucial game of his career.

Three days after that AFC Championship, Anderson's running backs coach, Eric Studesville, told him he would be the lead back in Super Bowl 50 and make his first start since Week 6. The coaches had been impressed by how Anderson had run toward the end of the season and in the first two games of the postseason, and they would place their trust in him to continue that in the Super Bowl.

It would be tough sledding for Anderson and the offense. During the first half, Denver picked up four first downs; Anderson picked up half of those, including one run that gained 34 yards.

"Sometime after the first quarter, I was told, Hey, we're going to bump you up some more, C.J., so get ready to go," Anderson says. "I took on the challenge and had fun with it."

This was what Anderson had dreamed of, being relied upon to lead the offense, and doing so in his backyard, so to speak, was the icing on the cake. But Anderson's defining moment in the game, perhaps the defining moment of his career, would require an assist from the defense.

Late in the game, the Panthers had cut into Denver's lead. After a Graham Gano field goal, the Broncos failed to gain a first down on consecutive drives. With a little over four minutes to go, Cam Newton and the Panthers had a chance.

Von Miller would rob them of it with his second strip-sack of the game. As the loose ball caromed backward toward the end zone, safety T.J. Ward — another Bay Area native — picked it up and fell forward for a return to the Panthers' 4-yard line.

Upon watching it, Anderson had one thought: "Oh, we've got to score here."

Points were at premium because of Carolina's stingy defense and their offense's capacity to score quickly. To get this close and score a touchdown was not imperative, but if they wanted to close out the game, this was their shot — and Anderson's, too.

It was an inauspicious start. Anderson lost two yards on the first play and then gained those back on the second. Then Demaryius Thomas drew a defensive pass interference penalty, and the Broncos got a new set of downs at the 2-yard line.

Two yards from paydirt, the Broncos hid nothing about their intentions on the next play. They lined up in a jumbo package with reserve lineman Tyler Polumbus on the left, tight end Owen Daniels on the right, tight end Virgil Green at the fullback position and Anderson behind him.

As Manning turned to hand the ball off, right guard Louis Vasquez pulled to the left and Green tried to block the defenders that filtered into the gap. Linebacker A.J. Klein, though, slipped through with a full head of steam and could have blown up the play three yards in the backfield. With a slight cut, Anderson made Klein miss, but then he had the league's 2013 Defensive Player of the Year about to meet him head on.

"It's mano y mano, it's me and Luke Kuechly," Anderson says. "And obviously Luke Kuechly is a hell of a player … but at that moment, it's just me and him. One thing that I knew about Luke Kuechly that I saw on tape, he just tackled high. I trust my ability enough. … I kind of knew if I would have got lower and had a chance to drive in, that was going to be it because I knew he tackled high. Thank God I got that one-on-one moment and it worked out in my favor."

Anderson pushed through the initial tackle, and then reinforcements arrived for both sides. All-Pro linebacker Thomas Davis slammed into Anderson at the goal line in a last-gasp effort to halt his momentum. Vasquez and center Matt Paradis then joined the push toward the end zone. After falling to the ground, Anderson looked up and saw the pylon just behind him.

Getting to his feet, Anderson looked for his family in the stands and ran over to the corner of the end zone and put his hometown roots in the spotlight by doing the Thizz Dance, a move made famous in the Bay Area by rapper Mac Dre. The message was unmistakable.

"I'm back home," Anderson says. "I'm in the Bay. Obviously, Mac Dre was very close to my family. Him and my uncle grew up together, so they're very close to my family. … Just in that moment, right at the corner of end zone with my mom and them on the other side, they're seeing it. I'm pretty sure they're doing the same thing. We had a chance to represent the hometown on the biggest stage."

Minutes later, he and the Broncos would be crowned champions. With millions of little gold rectangles and paper Lombardi Trophies rocketing out of confetti cannons around the field, Anderson sprinted onto the field, arms out.

"The media's asking me how I'm feeling and I'm screaming for my mom," Anderson says. "We spend so much time with others and teammates, husbands and fathers, that was a moment for me that I felt like I wanted to grab my mom and my grandma. I was screaming for my mom and my grandma. Where's my mom? Where's my grandma?"

This was the moment he had worked so hard for, and his family had helped make it happen. During his Laney College days, he would wake up at around 4 a.m. four days a week and his grandmother would drop him off at the bus station for his trip to Oakland.

He needed them in this moment; it would not be complete without them.

Anderson went to the tunnel to bring them onto the field, together once again.

Being home had never been so sweet.

Paul Spinelli // AP Images
Paul Spinelli // AP Images

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