For most college football linebackers, a work of art is a bone-jarring tackle that seemingly knocks the wind out of a quarterback. For Virginia Tech's James Anderson, though, a composition of bright oils on canvas or a delicate pen and ink sketch is just as appealing.
Anderson, a senior from Chesapeake, Va., already has earned a degree in studio art and is enrolled in graduate school at Virginia Tech. A two-year starter at outside linebacker for the No. 7 Hokies, Anderson started drawing when he was young, deriving many of his ideas from comic books.
Anderson, 22, designed the Hornet mascot for his high school, Deep Creek, and then graduated to more sophisticated art forms such as pottery, sculpture and abstract painting in college.
"I guess it's something I've always done," Anderson said. "I've been doing it since I was a little kid. I honestly don't know where it came from. "
Robert Graham, an art professor at Virginia Tech who taught the soft-spoken linebacker in two drawing classes and an African American art history course, said Anderson works as hard in the studio as he does on the field. Graham said students in his beginning drawing class are required to complete 100 to 150 compositions per semester; some are timed drawings that must be completed in 30 to 90 seconds, while others might require nine to 15 hours of work.
"He's a hard worker," Graham said. "He's talented, and he's equally dedicated to his work. Most importantly, he's honest with his work. He's honest with his criticisms of his work, and he's honest with his criticisms of others' work. That is the key for any good artist: He's got to be critical in what he's doing. Otherwise, the artist doesn't grow and he becomes stagnant and redundant."
Graham said Anderson wasn't the most talented artist when he enrolled in the school of the arts three years ago. But through practice, repetition and countless hours in the studio, Anderson became an accomplished illustrator and painter by the time he graduated last spring, Graham said.
"To improve yourself as a drawer, it means you've got to keep doing something hundreds of times to make sure it's better than the last time you did it," Graham said. "You've got to be critical of yourself and have other people critique your work. If they say it's not working, and you're in agreement, then you've got to go back and make it better. It's a matter of developing your skills and eye, and that's what he did."
Anderson has taken a similar approach on Virginia Tech's football team. After an all-state career at Deep Creek High, he was redshirted in 2001. Anderson played in every game the next two seasons, but couldn't crack the Hokies' starting lineup.
Finally, Anderson was named a starting outside linebacker last season and had 48 tackles, including 61/2 for losses, in 13 games. This season, he is Virginia Tech's second-leading tackler with 62, with seven for losses and three sacks entering Saturday's game against Virginia at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.
"I've probably overachieved in a lot of people's eyes," Anderson said. "I just came here and tried to get better. I wasn't one of those guys that was highly touted coming out of high school, but I just worked hard."
Anderson, 6 feet 3, 232 pounds, is the only football player in Virginia Tech history to earn the Excalibur Award -- the top honor in the Hokies' offseason strength and conditioning program -- five times. This past spring, he led all Hokies linebackers with a 380-pound bench press, 555-pound squat, 370-pound clean and jerk, and 391/2-inch vertical jump.
Anderson said art offers him an escape from the rigors and demands of playing such a high-pressure sport. Anderson estimates he has completed 10 to 15 paintings and more than 300 drawings. Many of his best works hang in his parents' home in southeast Virginia.
His mother, Brenda Anderson, an elementary school teacher, said her favorite works include a painting her son completed shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which shows a firefighter with his head down and tears streaming down his face. Her other favorites are an abstract painting of an Asian mask and a landscape that includes a flower box with her favorite flowers.
"He just has a gift," Brenda Anderson said. "It really became a passion for him and he has such a high work ethic."
Anderson said her son's dream is to open art studios in the U.S. and London. She said he also plays the piano and can play songs by ear after hearing them only a few times. But painting and drawing are what Anderson prefers to do most.
"The subjects vary," Anderson said. "It just depends on what I see or what mood I'm in at the time. Art is kind of funny because you can get inspiration from anywhere."
Anderson said he has never found inspiration for his art while playing football.
"I've had inspiration to go paint so I could get away from the football field," he said. "Football is an aggressive sport, and art is more laid-back. It's what I do to get away from the world."
Anderson said most of his teammates find his art interesting. Anderson's roommate, defensive end Darryl Tapp, is one of his biggest fans because Anderson draws him illustrations of his favorite cartoon characters. But Tapp is also one of Anderson's biggest critics -- not as much for the quality of his work, but for how he chooses to spend his free time.
"He'll put on some rap music and go paint, which is crazy, but that's what he loves doing," Tapp said. "We'll be at the house and I'll be doing my marketing homework, and he'll be in there finger painting. That doesn't make sense to me, but like I said, that's what he loves to do."
Before the season, Tapp was interviewed by ESPN the Magazine and told the publication that Anderson sits around their off-campus condominium "finger painting and crocheting."
"The whole world thinks James Anderson finger paints and crochets," Anderson said. "He set me up. I don't crochet, and I don't finger paint. I paint with techniques I learned in college."