Thursday’s 44th annual Turkey Bowl could end up being the last high school football game for Wilson’s Fred Anderson, although the chiseled and hard-nosed linebacker doesn’t like to get reflective this time of year.
On Thursday, he might not have a choice, because at any point during the biggest game of the Tigers’ season, he knows he might look into the stands at Eastern High School and wonder how he got here.
He’ll wonder how he survived emotionally after both of his parents died of AIDS before his 16th birthday. He’ll wonder about what would’ve happened had he not been kicked out of Friendship Collegiate during his freshman year or forced to leave Spingarn when the school closed last summer.
He’ll wonder about what kind of person he would be if he hadn’t fathered a son last year and what his life would be like if he were living near his boy and the boy’s mother in Oklahoma City.
“I wish I could be with my son,” Anderson said at a recent Wilson practice. “I wish my parents were here so I could celebrate it with them.”
But Anderson will try to keep his focus on the field when the Tigers face H.D. Woodson in the DCIAA Stars Division title game with a spot in the DCSAA AA title game on the line.
At 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Anderson, 18, is one of the city’s best defensive players, a fierce hitter who has helped Wilson make its first city title game appearance since 1991. But it is his maturity, according to coaches and teammates, that sets him apart. It’s seasoning that can come only from a place of family tragedy, from attending three high schools in four years, from having a child when he was 17.
“I look at Fred as a coach,” Wilson junior defensive end Kareem McDonald said. “Any other kid would just drop out of school. Fred does what he has to do.”
Anderson’s will to do what is necessary comes from his late father, Fred Anderson Jr., a construction worker in the District who would let his son tag along to work sites to hold the ladder or mix concrete at an early age.
And it comes from his mother, Sheila King, who made it to just one of her son’s middle school football games because she was always working to provide for her family after her husband passed away when Fred was 8. King died seven years later, in September 2010, with her son watching from her bedside at Rock Creek Manor Nursing Center.
Both of his parents died from AIDS, Anderson said, adding that his mother also suffered from breast cancer.
Anderson was just a freshman at Friendship Collegiate at the time, a budding star for one of the city’s promising programs. He had moved in with his grandmother, and although his mother’s death came in the middle of the season, he didn’t stop playing football.
“I had so much stuff on my hands. Getting that situation off my mind, it was just so hard,” Anderson said. “I just love football too much to say ‘I’m not going to play football anymore because this situation occurred. [My mom] wouldn’t want me to quit.’ ”
In March of his freshman year, Anderson said he was kicked out of Friendship after he was involved in an altercation near the school. His options were limited. He could reenroll at the charter school in the fall or try for a new start elsewhere. Anderson transferred to Spingarn because he lived near the school and immediately found a confidant in the school’s coach, Isiah Harris, who would regularly have meetings with Anderson to gauge his emotional well-being off the field. He would invite Anderson and other players over to his house.
He would take them on road trips to visit colleges and on other expeditions away from the city, which had already taken a toll on Anderson’s life.
“He began to understand . . . if you do everything else, that football would come natural to him,” said Harris, who now coaches at Cardozo. “Once he had a child, I said, ‘Well, Fred, now it’s going to be a lot harder for you.’ ”
Nearly a year later, in July 2012, his son, Ja’Mahri, was born.
After Anderson’s breakout junior season with the Green Wave, he was forced to transfer to Wilson for his senior year after District of Columbia Public Schools announced Spingarn was closing. It was another blow for Anderson.
“Since my father died, it’s been like little stuff, then big stuff,” Anderson said. “Sometimes it just feels like the world is about to end; I can’t even deal with myself. I just have to go to a room and cry sometimes just to get all my thoughts out.”
Anderson was on the move again this fall. After years of living with his grandmother, he has settled into a new home in Northeast with his godmother, Darlene Davis, and he plans to move to Oklahoma after the school year to be closer to his son and will look for college opportunities there. His future in football, at this point, extends only to Thursday’s game. But as Anderson reflects on the tumultuous path that brought him to Thursday’s matchup with H.D. Woodson, he’s also looking ahead.
“The Turkey Bowl is not the stop stone,” Anderson said. “There’s still more to it.”