The Go-Getter: Walk-on-turned-starter Stephen Anderson follows in family’s Cal footsteps

Kenneth Olugbode knew the moment he lost his man.

The Colorado linebacker has his eyes latched onto the scoreboard, as do the 39,821 people in the stands of Memorial Stadium. It’s late in the fourth quarter, and his team is clutching a fragile 42-35 lead against the Bears.

Olugbode turns his attention to the line of scrimmage as Cal quarterback Jared Goff prepares to take the second-down snap.

Goff, immediately flushed out of the pocket to the right, hurriedly scans his eyes across the field and quickly sets his sights on tight end Stephen Anderson.

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

Goff gets the ball over the middle, finding his target in stride. The moment of realization arrives a second too late for Olugbode, as he scampers after Anderson only to flail at the 19-yard line as he extends his left arm and watches the tight end run in for the 75-yard score to tie the game.

Its one year later, but Anderson and his family remember that play like it was yesterday.

For the senior — who began his career with the Bears as a walk-on and climbed his way into the starting Y receiver role for the team — last season’s game against Colorado marked his official foray into the spotlight.

For his family, that game was a long time coming.

“One of the knocks on him was always that he wasn’t the fastest guy,” says Anderson’s father, Steve. “You go 75 yards in a Division I football game and a guy is trailing you, and they don’t close the gap? Well, then you’re pretty fast.”

Steve Anderson, a Cal alumnus, understands the experience of walking on all too well, having done so with the Bears as a safety when he attended UC Berkeley from 1984-88. Though Anderson did not spend all four years with the team, football remained “in his blood” in the years after he left Memorial Stadium. Anderson began coaching his son when he was little, watching as he graduated from flag football to tackle and continuing to coach his son throughout his sophomore year at Piedmont Hills High School.

Steve Anderson would also frequently bring his family to his alma mater for football and basketball games, helping his son cultivate a love for Bears football that would always linger.

“He’s always had a love for Cal and always wanted to be a part of the team,” Steve Anderson says. “When he had the opportunity to do that, it was one of the best things that happened to him.”

Stephen Anderson’s Cal family tree spans generations, with his mother, Charlene; his sister, Brittany; his aunt; and his great-aunt all alumnae. His aunt Shawna Adkins was on the Cal track team, while Brittany, who played for the club volleyball team, still works at UC Berkeley with the Transfer Alliance Project, an advising program that helps low-income community college students who hope to transfer to the school.

“It’s always been my dream to come here. If you have Bear alumni as parents, of course they’re going to push you to come here,” Stephen Anderson says. “Every day I show up to campus, I’m just happy to be at Cal.”

“He’s always had a love for Cal and always wanted to be a part of the team. When he had the opportunity to do that, it was one of the best things that happened to him.” — Steve Anderson

For a while, it seemed as though following in his parents’ footsteps at UC Berkeley wouldn’t be a possibility, partly because San Jose, where Anderson grew up, has never had a reputation for being a football town.

“It’s a big city, but there’s not a spotlight on San Jose or in the Bay Area in general, so I didn’t really get that attention that I felt I should’ve gotten,” Anderson says. “I was still good in high school — I just wasn’t top tier.”

Aside from the minimal number of recruiters who flocked to his hometown, Anderson saw his exposure suffer as a result of splitting his time between football and basketball. He ended up spending much of his summer playing in basketball tournaments instead of attending football camps. He watched as the phone calls dwindled and the attention declined.

“I wanted all the notoriety, and I wanted all the flashing lights and all that stuff, but I didn’t get it,” Anderson says.

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

He had a fair number of suitors at first, with programs such as Arizona and Washington visiting during the earlier part of his senior season. But as time went on and Signing Day drew nearer, he became the one making the phone calls.

“I didn’t have any coach say, ‘We want you on the team. Here’s a scholarship — it’s yours if you want it.’ That never happened for me,” Anderson says. “People were telling me, ‘Signing Day is coming up. If this person doesn’t sign, they’ll throw you something.’ But I never got that call.”

Soon after, Cal appointed a new recruiting coordinator, who expressed interest in Anderson. This hiring, coupled with Anderson sending his highlight tape a second time, reopened the possibility of putting on the blue and gold one day. All he needed was a foot in the door.

Beginning his collegiate career as a walk-on was never part of the plan.

“It was discouraging, but at the same time, he was going to Cal, and we’re a Cal family,” Charlene Anderson says. “What I do want is to know that he’s going to come away with something even better than football.”

Being a walk-on was the impetus Stephen Anderson needed to propel him up Cal’s depth chart.

“You still love the game you play, so you’re going to dedicate yourself,” Anderson says. “You have to wake up early and lift weights and run, and you will maybe get a snap if you’re lucky.”

The uncertainty of his position on the team, however, pushed Anderson to prepare for a life outside football. Without the promises of snaps or seeing the field, he had no choice but to look into possible career choices down the line and put them all on the table. Anderson, who is majoring in public health, is considering pursuing physical therapy in the future.

“The fact that he’s getting all kinds of playing time now is just really exciting for me, but I think I’m mostly proud of the fact that if football doesn’t work out, he’s done everything else that he can to make sure that he can transition to a career path,” Brittany Anderson says.

Though he may have started his time with Cal as a walk-on, Stephen Anderson has made a name for himself within the Bears’ renowned receiving corps. Along with more time on the field, he has earned something perhaps just as significant — a scholarship.

At the end of a grueling 2013 season, there was talk that Anderson could be in line for a scholarship for the following spring. But when Cal head coach Sonny Dykes informed him that it might not happen at the time he was expecting, a disappointed Anderson proceeded to air his grievances about the situation on Twitter, much to the chagrin of his father.

“We didn’t come here just for four wins.” — Stephen Anderson

“I said, ‘If you have a problem with anybody, you go talk to them face to face,’’ Steve Anderson says. “I said, ‘Stephen, there are three types of people in the world: There’s people who talk crap, there’s people who do crap, and then there’s people, when they’re wrong, they eat crap.’ ”

At the urging of his father, Stephen Anderson headed to Dykes’ office to apologize. The two talked, Anderson explaining that he had allowed his frustrations to get the best of him.

“I said, ‘Hey, Stephen, I’m so proud of you — the fact that you owned your mistake right away and that you made it right,’ ” Steve Anderson says.

The next day, Stephen Anderson called his father again.

“Dad. I’m on scholarship.”

Not too many people are talking about it, but we were 4-1 last year. Then we started playing the good teams, and it started toppling over,” Anderson says, leaning forward in his chair, his folded hands resting on his lap. “I think it’s a better situation than last year because we have a bunch of seniors across the board.”

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Rachael Garner/Senior Staff

“We didn’t come here just for four wins,” Anderson says. “We came to conquer all, especially the people who have been here during the hard times — during the 1-11 season, the coaching change, Ted passing.”

Anderson has become well acquainted with change, with three receivers coaches and two head coaches during his four years with Cal. But the tumult finally seems to be settling down for the Bears, at least to most people. Anderson, however, sees the gap between hesitant acknowledgment and legitimate respect in how his team is perceived in the public eye.

“They know we’re here, but I don’t think they respect us yet,” Anderson says slowly, moving his folded hands back and forth with each word.

“I want them to respect us.”

Stephen!”

After watching his son drop a crucial third-down pass that would’ve sealed Cal’s win over Texas on the road, Steve Anderson knew he had to find him.

“Stephen!”

As he looked through the throng of players, Steve Anderson continued to try to catch his son’s attention. With no response, he opted for the nickname instead.

“D’Bop!”

After feeling a teammate tap him on the shoulder, Stephen Anderson looked up to see his father — a friendly face to counter his dejected one.

“I said, ‘Keep your head up and celebrate with your teammates.’ Everything I hear from his coaches and everyone else is that he’s a leader,” Steve Anderson says. “If you’re a leader showing your head down, that will seep into the rest of the crew.”

Paired with an unrelenting chip on his shoulder, Stephen Anderson’s exceptionally high standards for himself can admittedly lead to a fixation on mistakes rather than on triumphs.

“I’m really particular about making mistakes — that kind of mindset is how I got to this position,” Anderson says. “I felt like I had let my team down.”

Anderson has always found that his support system at home has provided a necessary balance to his life. His parents attend each of his games, coming to talk to him in hotels before kickoff. He remembers his mom’s constant presence throughout high school as well, citing that even with all of his football and basketball games, he could count on two hands how many she’d missed.

“Dad. I’m on scholarship.” — Stephen Anderson

For Anderson’s mother, the novelty of watching her son on the big screen — stats flashing, fans cheering — has never faded.

“When I go and travel to away games and people know who he is, I’m just astonished. That’s my baby whose helmet was too big in Pop Warner,” Charlene Anderson says. “I’m still in awe. When he runs out of the tunnel, my mind is blown every single time.”

Michelle Lee covers football. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @michelle_e_lee