IRVING, Texas — Anthony Hitchens reflects on the decision that put him on the path to become a Cowboys draft pick and shrugs.
He understands the significance of the choice he made that summer day nearly 10 years ago. But to portray it as some sort of cinematic moment fraught with emotional turmoil is wrong.
Anthony wasn’t unhappy. He didn’t need to escape a bad situation. But there was a gnawing sense that he had to make a change to realize his potential.
So at the age of 12, Anthony had the presence of mind to ask his mother if he could leave his home and move in with another family.
“It just hit me,’’ Anthony remembers. “It was like, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’
“I’m just thankful I had a family there, and I chose the right route.’’
Amy Anderson will tell you when Anthony sets a goal, he puts on blinders. She knows. Amy and her husband Brad have raised the young man since he was in junior high.
Norma Hitchens agrees. She is Anthony’s biological mother and was at the Anderson home eight days ago when the Cowboys used a fourth-round draft pick on the Iowa linebacker.
No one is cavalier about the decision that changed Anthony’s life. But none of the principals recalls having an in-depth conversation about the arrangement. No one discussed what it would mean for the two families.
It just made sense.
The exact date is hard to pinpoint. The best Amy can remember is that it falls between the end of church camp and the start of another school year.
It’s 2004, and her oldest son, Zach, had become good friends with Anthony the year before. The two played football together. Amy would bring them home from practice, and Anthony would often stay to have dinner with the family.
The Andersons live in a modest, two-bedroom home in Sheffield Township. Anthony is about two miles away on the south side of Lorain, a small community about 25 miles west of Cleveland. He jumps on his bike to go hang out with his friend.
Anthony overshoots Zach’s home by a mile or so. By the time he makes it back, it’s too late to go home. He stays the night.
“One night turns into two, two turns into three and the next thing you know, I was living with them,’’ Hitchens says.
Anthony was always welcome in the Anderson home. Brad went to high school with Norma. Amy and Norma both work for Neighborhood Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the area.
After a week, the Andersons knew that Norma had to be worried sick about her son. Amy takes him home.
That’s when Anthony asks his mother if he can live with the Andersons. She knows how close her son has grown to Zach, and she trusts Brad and Amy.
“I think that’s a good choice,’’ Norma responds. “Yeah, that’s all right. It’s not a problem.’’
One hour later, the phone rings at the Anderson household. Brad answers. Anthony is on the other end of the line and asks if he can come back to stay.
“Yeah, you can come back,’’ Brad says.
Brad and Amy know that Anthony wants a chance at a better life. They will do all they can to give it to him.
“That’s how it was,’’ Amy remembers. “Brad and I never even discussed it.
“We love Anthony. There was not much thought given to it.’’
Emotional? Anthony doesn’t remember it that way.
“It was just one of those things I knew was right, and everyone was on the same page,’’ Anthony said during the first day of the Cowboys’ rookie minicamp. “I did what was best for me, and my parents accepted what I wanted to do.
“Honestly, I don’t think any of us ever sat down and talked about it. We just went with the flow.
“It felt like the right thing to do, like it was supposed to happen.’’
Anthony is one of Norma’s seven children. He remains close with all of his brothers and sisters. He’s not close with his father, who was in and out of prison and in and out of the family’s lives when Anthony was growing up.
Brad and Amy Anderson have two biological sons, Zach and Chad. About the time Anthony joined the family, the Andersons also took in James Washington. Anthony, Zach and James all played football together and were known at school as “The Band of Brothers.’’
The Anderson home became claustrophobic with four boys crammed into one room.
“I told my husband we could either move, add on or I would start drinking,’’ Amy jokes. “We added on.’’
A third bedroom was built so there would be no more than two boys in each room. A dining room, living room and laundry room were added.
Comparisons to The Blind Side, the movie that dramatizes the journey of Michael Oher from poverty to the NFL, are inevitable. But the stories of Oher and Anthony Hitchens are far from identical.
One difference is economic. Anthony didn’t move in with a family of privilege.
Amy has been the supervisor of child care at a homeless shelter for much of the last 15 years. Brad was a crane operator at the Charter Steel Mill for 23 years before non-alcoholic cirrhosis ended his employment. He now lives on disability with 63 percent of his cousin’s liver.
Family and friends in the community came together to raise the $100,000 needed for the transplant to save Brad’s life.
“I think this is even a better story than The Blind Side, although I might be a little biased,’’ says Mike Collier, the athletic director and football coach at Clearview High School.
“Anthony comes from an amazing family. They stayed together. They are the epitome of a tight-knit, blue-collar family.’’
Brad, Amy, Zach and Chad were all with Anthony last Saturday when he got the call from Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. So was Norma. The relationship between the two women who raised Anthony isn’t awkward.
“I have never felt like she is trying to replace me,’’ Norma said. “Anthony knows who his mother is.’’
If anyone doubts that, all they have to do is look at the large tattoo with Norma’s name on Anthony’s left arm.
“There’s never been any trouble between Mom and Amy,’’ Anthony said. “They are friends, and I’m sure they will be in the future.’’
Here’s another difference between the stories of Oher and Hitchens: Sean and Leigh Tuohy adopted Michael Oher.
The Andersons haven’t adopted Anthony. The family did receive temporary custody of James Washington, who went on to set the all-time receiving mark at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio.
Anthony said it’s never been an issue.
“We never sat down and talked about that,’’ Anthony said. “Before we knew it, I was 18 and out of high school.
“It doesn’t matter if I was adopted or not. They treat me like I’m theirs. That’s all that really matters.’’
Only once did Anthony put his stay with the Anderson family in jeopardy.
It was Easter in ’05 when Anthony told Brad and Amy that he was going over to his cousin’s home. He didn’t come home that night. Brad and Amy called around and couldn’t find him.
Anthony came home the next day. The three went into the living room to talk.
“We said at this house we have to know where you are,’’ Brad remembers. “While we are talking, my wife is in tears.
“That was it. From that moment to this day, he has never, ever given us the first minute of trouble or been a problem.’’
Anthony said he made the decision right then to continue to stay with the Andersons. Part of the reason he moved in initially was to go to Clearview High School, a Division 4 school of about 600 students.
Brad and Norma had both gone to Clearview. The academics were strong. So was the football program. Even though his home with Norma was only two miles away, that was in the much larger district. Anthony would have gone to King Admiral High School.
It wasn’t a good fit.
“Anthony, you could just tell he wanted to be something,’’ Brad says. “He knew if he stayed in that situation what the ending was going to be.
“He didn’t want to be that guy from high school when people talk 20 years from now and say, ‘Remember when Anthony Hitchens played here? Whatever happened to him?’ That happens to so many kids around this area.
“There were kids I went to school with who were great high school football players who are in prison now. Very few went on to make anything out of their lives.’’
Anthony Hitchens knew at the age of 12 he wanted more.
“I was blessed with something a lot of kids don’t have,’’ Anthony says. “Once I set my mind to something, I almost have to do it. Graduate and go to college were two of those goals.
“I stuck with it. I didn’t give up on school or myself.’’
And there are two families that won’t give up on him.
“I would give my life for Anthony,’’ Amy says. “It doesn’t matter if he is my birth son or not. I don’t know how to put all of this into words.
“It just works.’’