EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., JAN. 16 -- On the door of the little cupboard on top of the locker of the NFL's oldest running back, someone posted a sign saying "Geritol Giant."
Behind the door, on the top shelf, there is a container of baby lotion.
That's Ottis Anderson. Old on the outside, a kid on the inside. The forever-young tailback will be the main ball carrier for the Giants again Sunday in the NFC championship game against the 49ers in San Francisco. It will be the day after Anderson's 34th birthday, though the Giants list Anderson's birthday as Nov. 19. Anderson, called "Old Yeller" by his coach, Bill Parcells, cannot be tackled on such mundane issues.
"My birthday's Saturday? That's what they say?" he said yesterday after the Giants worked out secretly at foggy Giants Stadium. "I don't remember. Every day in the week is my birthday."
Anderson's career has been born again more times than a religious sect. He bears little resemblance to the 1979 rookie who broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals and rushed for 193 yards in his debut and then went on to gain 1,605 in a rookie-of-the-year season.
He has been phased out so often he probably thinks he is the moon. It was happening again this season, when the Giants chose Rodney Hampton, a running back, No. 1 in the draft. But Hampton broke a leg early in the Giants' 31-3 playoff victory over the Chicago Bears and once again Anderson bore the burden of the ground attack.
"I don't think the burden was ever off him," said Parcells.
Even when it has been lifted, Anderson didn't take the hint and go home. By 1986, after setting all the Cardinals' rushing records, after 1,000-yard seasons in five of his first six years -- missing in only the strike-shortened 1982 season -- he was being phased out by then-coach Gene Stallings. Parcells, down to three running backs with 29 fingers -- fullback Maurice Carthon had a broken thumb -- approached Stallings and the Giants obtained Anderson for second- and seventh-round draft choices.
"You're just insurance," Parcells told Anderson, who became Joe Morris's backup that Super Bowl season.
The Giants didn't cash in right away. The next two seasons, Anderson carried a total of 67 times for 214 yards. He was so forgotten that when the No. 1 draft choice, Mark Ingram, showed up in 1987, it was as if Anderson no longer existed. He introduced himself to the rookie wide receiver.
"Hi, I'm Ottis Anderson."
Ingram wanted to know if he knew whatever happened to O.J. Anderson.
"He used to be my idol," said Ingram.
Anderson thought the kid was joshing, but, no, Ingram had this bubble-gum card with his idol wearing an Afro who looked nothing like the close-cropped veteran.
When Plan B went into effect before the 1989 season, and NFL teams could protect only 37 players, the aging tailback was naturally left free to seek new employment.
"I'm not even Plan B," said Anderson after no other team called and he returned to the Giants. "I was Plan C."
But he was still insurance. In the final preseason game, Morris broke a foot and suddenly Anderson was the Giants' tailback. He responded with his first 1,000-yard season since 1984. Afterward, the Giants didn't protect him again.
"It was even worse," said Anderson. "I went to Plan Z."
It looked that way when the Giants made Hampton their top pick. Anderson acknowledged that "Rodney was slated to be the starting tailback and as soon as he came of age, as soon as he was comfortable with the offense, he played a lot more."
But not right away. While Hampton learned the Giants' offense and NFL defenses, "The Juice" was still able to squeeze out another fine season from his old body.
While the Giants started 10-0, he rushed for 621 yards. He was on pace for another 1,000-yard season, which would have made him the first player in NFL history to achieve that milestone in three decades. But Hampton was ready to assume more work and Anderson gradually became an insurance policy again -- rushing for only 90 yards in the next five games before picking up 73 in the meaningless season finale against the New England Patriots to total 784.
Along the way, he also became only the eighth NFL player to rush for 10,000 yards.
He accepted his limited role: "As long as Rodney was making the plays and we were winning, I was happy."
But, he confessed, "It always hurts when you think you can still contribute and you have to step back."
It hurt Anderson's game too. Carthon, the 29-year-old fullback who kids Anderson that "I'll be better than you when I'm older because I don't run the ball and get beat up," said his running mate suffered when rested.
"Ottis is better when he's in there a lot," said Carthon. "He just gets better as the game goes along. When he's in there for a couple of series, then out for a couple of series, he's not as effective."
He became more and more effective when he learned to take care of his body, advice given him by an old Cardinals teammate, Wayne Morris.
"My concept of offseason conditioning was playing basketball," said Anderson, who now throws in tennis and work with Nautilus machines.
He was kidding with an old Redskins fan, Sugar Ray Leonard, when the boxer visited the Giants' locker room last week, just a couple of faded old athletes talking about "maturity" and "how to beat the odds."
The odds are the 49ers by 7 points in these parts. Anderson, who gained only 39 yards on 19 carries in the Giants' 7-3 loss to the defending champions in December, seemed shocked.
"I wish they would give you seven points and we could have it added to our score," he said.
He knows the score. He has a big game Sunday, the Giants go to the Super Bowl and he wins MVP honors, the score is that Hampton is the tailback of the future.
"If I'm not Plan B, I'll be very sad," said Anderson. "If I'm protected, I'd be insulted."
But he'll be back anyway.
"Until I've totally lost all the steps I need, I'll keep playing," he said.
Parcells said Matt Bahr now is expected to play against the 49ers. The kicker suffered a neck injury while making a tackle on a kickoff in Sunday's victory over the Bears.