Football players collided on the lighted field, cheerleaders high-kicked and the crowd roared as the Langley High School Saxons ran roughshod over the South Lakes Seahawks. In the stands, Charles Anderson -- watching with his wife and youngest daughter, while their three older girls played in the Langley band -- surveyed the crowd, hoping to find someone with a radio tuned to the Yankees-Red Sox game.

Anderson -- suburban dad, Yankees devotee, football fan -- knows about American icons and traditions. After taking over 17 months ago as chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area, which had been sacked by scandal, he has learned a lot about trying to revive a once-proud tradition. At 51, he has spent a quarter-century working for United Ways nationwide and wants to finish his career by restoring the local United Way to its former status as one of the largest in the country.

But first he has to save it.

Earlier that week, Anderson placed a call from his office to the director of a local nonprofit, hoping to be put in touch with executives whose companies left the United Way when financial scandal ripped through the organization almost three years ago. Deserters have cost area charities millions of dollars in contributions, and one of Anderson's most important -- and difficult -- jobs is trying to win them back.

Hanging up, he rubbed his face in disappointment, having learned that the director was no longer there. "I was hoping for some immediate help," he said.

It was a rare gloomy moment for the soft-spoken Anderson, who prefers to be upbeat. "With this organization, with everything that happened around here, everybody is not inclined to give us a break," he said. "We just need to work harder to create our own breaks."

In such moments, he recalls the words of Leo Durocher, irascible manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants baseball teams: "You make your own luck."

Anderson grew up in Durocher's era, in 1950s and '60s New Milford, Conn., but his sun rose and set with the New York Yankees -- to the dismay of his father, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. His father worked two jobs to support the family, a work ethic that Anderson, the youngest of five children, never forgot.

At Southern Connecticut State College, he majored in social work and was a Big Brother to two abused boys. He graduated with the conviction that his calling lay in raising money for nonprofits and seeing that it was used effectively, and he joined the United Way in Meriden, Conn.

The century-old United Way system -- 1,361 autonomous United Ways -- works with corporations to set up fundraising drives among their employees. The money raised goes to charities designated by employees or into a common pot that is allocated to local charities. Last year, United Ways nationwide raised $3.6 billion.

Anderson moved up in the hierarchy, leading successively larger United Ways in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Michigan until 1996, when he became director of the struggling United Way of Delaware. Corporations began backing out of its campaign as three United Ways in the state fought each other.

Former colleagues say Anderson combined them into one smooth-running organization, replaced troublesome employees and lured corporations back with a low-key, nuts-and-bolts approach. In his eight-year tenure, overhead costs were reduced from 14 percent of donations to 10 percent, according to officials there, and fundraising almost doubled to $30 million.

"He's not your typical sort of emotional social worker," said Kurt Landgraf, a friend and former DuPont executive who volunteered for the United Way in Delaware. "He doesn't make his pitch on the basis of . . . emotional [issues]. He makes his pitch on the basis of analytical need in the community."

Anderson's success there brought him to the attention of the board in Washington. Among the things he brought from his Delaware office to his new one is a poster of great baseball players, whose stats he can reel off from memory. But the numbers he deals with every day are much grimmer.

Two-thirds of the United Way's staff is gone. Its operating reserves, once more than $8 million, have dwindled to $800,000. It faces a budget deficit of $300,000 in the current fiscal year. Its former chief executive is in prison for stealing $500,000 from the organization.

Meanwhile, there is a stack of bills on his desk. Printing: $90,000. "Breaks my heart," he said. He'd hoped more employers would conduct online campaigns so United Way wouldn't have to print so many brochures. Cleaning services: $1,856 a month. Not too bad: one-third less than when he arrived in July 2003. He'd also halted an $80,000 computer upgrade and purchased a cheaper system. He saved $40,000 by switching phone systems.

Still, it isn't enough. He must find an additional $300,000 in cuts and tenants for United Way headquarters in Southwest Washington to keep its promise to limit operating costs to 10 percent of donations. "In many respects, it would have been easier to start a new organization," he said. "It's that hard."

Seventeen months of 60- and 70-hour weeks have taken their toll on Anderson as well. He is 20 pounds heavier -- stress and long hours make him susceptible to late-night snacking -- and noticeably grayer.

The United Way's troubles began three years ago when an employee and a board member raised questions about its finances. A Washington Post series noted many financial irregularities.

Last summer, an audit commissioned by the organization accused former chief executive Oral Suer of stealing as much as $1.5 million during the 27 years he worked there. Other executives were accused of cheating the organization out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Suer is serving a 27-month prison sentence for defrauding the United Way of $500,000.

As the scandal unfolded, many corporations pulled out, and United Way had to give up its contract to run the $50 million Combined Federal Campaign, the separate fundraising campaign among federal employees. Last year, it raised only $21 million in its private-sector campaign -- compared with about $45 million in 2001 -- and received $17 million from the Combined Federal Campaign for its member agencies. The Nonprofit Roundtable estimated that area charities lost $20 million.

After promising to limit overhead charges, United Way must trim its costs to $4.7 million this year, compared with a $10 million budget two years ago.

Anderson took over from Robert Egger, founder of D.C. Central Kitchen, hired in 2001 after Suer's successor, Norman O. Taylor, was forced out at the behest of big corporate contributors unhappy with his leadership. Though Egger helped stabilize the organization, current and former employees say, Anderson found a more dire situation than he expected.

"Clearly, he knew we had to first clean this place up," said David Fiske, an Alexandria lawyer and a member of the United Way's current board of directors. "I don't think he ever imagined the legal and other [issues] would take as much of his time. . . . It's just amazing to me that he withstood it all."

But Anderson's tenure too has been controversial.

In August, the board of directors quietly voted him a $25,000 raise, on top of his $190,000 annual salary, prompting criticism from some current and former volunteers.

Board member John T. Schwieters said Anderson was underpaid compared with chief executives of other United Ways and local nonprofits of similar size. "I thought it was important to recognize the stress and strains he's been under . . . and bring him up to the level of other people," Schwieters said.

But even those who approved of the raise said the decision should have been announced. "We were going to be a transparent organization," said Harriet Guttenberg, former chairman of the Montgomery United Way advisory council, who resigned last month with all 21 other council members to protest Anderson's decision to close some county United Way offices.

"We really had no warning," said Rose Krasnow, former office manager of the Montgomery office. "No one had sat down at the table and said to us, 'We need to do this because.' They just said, 'We need to do this.' "

Anderson has since rescinded the decision to close the offices in Prince William and Loudoun counties, but he said he remains determined to combine the Montgomery and Prince George's offices when their leases expire next year.

Meanwhile, Anderson has met regularly with corporate chieftains to plead his case. Among them is Viki Betancourt, manager of community outreach at the World Bank, which has no plan to return after starting its own employee campaign.

"Because 100 percent of our donations go to the charities, it's tough to give that up," she said. But the World Bank will make a large corporate contribution to United Way this year, and Anderson has had other successes, including the return of Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

"A lot of good has happened so far, and I'm trying to focus on the positive," Anderson said, although he added that "there has been a lot of disappointment -- companies that I thought were going to come back.

"But maybe next year," he said.

United Way chief executive Charles Anderson and his wife, Karen, attend a Langley High School football game.Football games are family time for Charles Anderson, chief executive of the United Way of the National Capital Area, and daughters Caitlyn, 16, left, and Elizabeth, 14. Three of Anderson's four daughters play in the Langley High band.