LINCOLN — One of the first things Zaire Anderson did upon returning to Philadelphia over spring break was call his longtime barber and make a haircut appointment.
Anderson showed up a short time later and showed barber Tony Davis his pictures from the Capital One Bowl.
Davis said the Nebraska linebacker was excited about the trip, even though he was still recovering from a knee injury and didn't play against Georgia. He had to make sure Davis saw the photos of the airplane, too, because the size of the Huskers' charter was unlike anything he had seen before.
“He told me that was the best time of his life,” Davis said.
Anderson also called Rasheed Muhammad, one of his former youth football coaches, to say that he was back and hoping to get a workout in on the Frankford Chargers football field.
And before he first left home for college football, Anderson spent a lot of time around Bruce Jenkins Jr. — “Boopa,” to Zaire and everyone else in the old neighborhood of northeast Philadelphia — getting in shape for what was ahead.
“He'd call me every morning and say, 'Boop, I'm ready to go run,'” Jenkins remembers.
The stories, conversations and friendships say something about Anderson and the neighborhood.
Jenkins is 49 and a father of four with a full-time job who coaches with the Frankford Chargers in his spare time.
Muhammad is 32 and a coach at George Washington High in Philadelphia.
Davis is 43 and owns the How Ya Wannit barbershop, tucked among the houses on Margaret Street about two blocks from the Chargers' field where Anderson and many of the neighborhood kids started playing football.
In some ways, Anderson is a Husker right now because of these guys and the extended support system they form.
It's a bunch of 40- and 30-somethings with families of their own who know Anderson is trying to do right. It's a collection of grown men who know the neighborhood and its potential inner-city pitfalls and temptations. They know what it takes to succeed.
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“I've got a lot of people looking out for me,” Anderson said.
And it works because Anderson not only heeds their input but invites it — and because Anderson lets them know he appreciates the help.
“You can tell when somebody is listening to you when you give them advice, and he's listening,” Davis said. “He's looking right in your eyes and you can see, and you can also see how bad he wants it.
“Every time he comes home I'm in his ear. And I also tell him, 'When you're out there (in Nebraska), whenever you need something or need help, you give me a call.'”
Anderson, 20, has ridden their words of wisdom from that northeast Philadelphia neighborhood — where they call him “Bam” — to Riverside (Calif.) Community College to NU. After having his first season as a Husker disrupted by a knee injury, the 5-foot-11 220-pounder is rebounding this spring in hopes of not only winning a starting job but being an impact player in 2013.
Jenkins funnels the credit first to Anderson's parents, Walter Anderson and Kim Hawkins, as well as brothers Zimier and Zireef. Zaire Anderson said it was his family that “helped me get through school and helped send me away.”
The guys around the neighborhood and barbershop have just tried to lend a hand.
Some of them, too, just happened to be Nebraska fans before Anderson even came to Lincoln.
“They knew more about the program than I did,” Anderson said. “Like the Blackshirts and the tradition ... they knew all that before I knew it. They'd say, 'Look it up.'”
Davis rattles off names like Jarvis Redwine, Turner Gill, Irving Fryar and Mike Rozier, who came from nearby Camden, N.J. Muhammad grew up watching Tommie Frazier and Lawrence Phillips.
Jenkins said he just liked to watch the Huskers play.
“If you turned on a game, you knew you wanted to watch Nebraska, because you were going to see a good, hard-fought game,” Jenkins said. “When Bam said he was going to Nebraska, it was like a party out here.”
The barbershop filled up a time or two last season when the Huskers were on TV. Davis found it hard to concentrate on cutting hair, especially during one of the September games when Anderson was playing.
The fellas want Anderson to get them tickets to the Nebraska-Penn State game so they can see him play in State College. They ask him about bringing back some Husker hoodies.
But when the kidding is over, they mostly leave him alone when he returns and don't pepper him with questions about the inner workings of Nebraska football.
“He's a laid-back guy,” Davis said. “He's not braggadocious or flashy. He's been the same his whole life. He comes to the barbershop and if somebody asks him a question, he answers, but he's really pretty shy.”
There's a sense of security within those walls in what can be a rough part of the city. Keith Pompey, 42, met Anderson a few years back in the barbershop and has followed his career ever since.
Pompey is a sports writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who now lives about 40 minutes away, but still returns to the Frankford neighborhood from time to time.
“When he was in junior college for two years, only his closest friends knew (where he was),” said Pompey, pointing out that when the face of a neighborhood youth doesn't turn up for a spell, some simply assume the worst. “I hate to say it, but that's what people think.”
Anderson calls it a “rough neighborhood.” It has its share, he says matter-of-factly, of shootings and crime. It is rife with opportunities to go down the wrong path.
When he was 14, Anderson said he was at a friend's home when the kid was playing with one of his father's guns. It went off, and Anderson points to the right side of his face and chest to show where he was hit, nodding at the obvious observation that it could have been worse.
His family eventually wanted him to get away — and sometimes even tries to convince him to not risk coming back.
“At the same time, I still want to see my family,” Anderson said. “A lot of friends that I used to hang out with are not my friends anymore, because I'm just trying to better myself and the rest of my friends are on like a different page and different things in life.
“So half the time I don't even like going home because I already know I'm just going to stay in the house all day.”
When he is back in Philly and gets out, Jenkins said Anderson tends to look up the right people — the older guys — whether it's to hang out, go run or just get something to eat.
Anderson sees the men as mentors. He doesn't roll his eyes at their good-hearted efforts. He doesn't head to the street corner to see the guy with the ill-gotten wad of cash in his pocket.
Jenkins said that comes from a maturity and strong mental makeup that Anderson has about him.
“He's not into the streets,” he said. “A lot of guys come home and get into the wrong things. He's the opposite. He comes home and sees friends and says hi, and then it's back to business.
“He's stayed away from a lot of trouble by staying around us.”
And it's a two-way street.
Jenkins said Bam has proven inspirational to his group of mentoring buddies. And the feeling may just carry over to the rest of the neighborhood. Jenkins said Anderson's trip into Big Ten football provides an example for players at Frankford High and the Chargers youth program.
When the boys aim high, “We say, 'They're trying to do a Bam now,'” Jenkins said.
Davis knows he might not see Anderson again until the summer, and then only if he decides to come back for a visit. Muhammad will try to stay in contact through social media, or just shoot Anderson an occasional call or text.
The message never changes: Stay focused. Stay out of trouble. Don't let up. Keep working.
“His work ethic is what gets him over,” Muhammad said. “He had to overcome a lot of adversity, and he's done it by working at it and working at it.”
Anderson knows he has pieces of a community standing behind him. He knows the right people are pulling for him for the right reasons.
And still watching him — and watching after him — from miles and miles away.
“He's just one of a kind,” Jenkins said. “That's why he's made it as far as he has.”
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