First, tell us about your work as a trainer for offensive linemen? What are you doing exactly?
My Academy is the Willie Anderson Linemen Academy. I am based in Atlanta but we go all over the country training high school, college, and young NFL offensive linemen. My main focus is on working with high school kids and up, developing young guys.
As a trainer and coach, what experiences and coaches from your playing days helped shape the way you approach training now?
We focus mostly on the techniques Paul Alexander and I worked on and developed when we were in Cincinnati together. He was a great technique coach – I was his first round pick and he was still a young coach with the Bengals then.
Basically, my playing experience helps make me different than some trainers, but a lot of guys do have that background. My thing is, I want to help and have an impact with young players. I want to help bring them information from my days as a player. We had guys when we were kids who helped develop us and now I want to build up young guys now too.
As a rookie, how did you experience that rivalry with the Steelers early on?
My first game was awful. That was in ’96 – I remember the coaches speaking to us about guys like Lloyd. I didn’t play much that first game. But it was a bad game – we gave up 10 sacks. The second game of the season I played left tackle and we ran the ball well and beat them. Those first games gave me a glimpse of how powerful the rivalry was. That first game was cold as hell too. You learned quickly how violent those games were. They were man-up games.
How did the coaches prepare you for those games what did they do differently?
Those division games kind of counted like two games for us. Marvin Lewis used to have a different stat for us to achieve for those games. He wanted us to rush for 120 yards – that was his benchmark. When we ran for 120 yards our record was good. Of course Pittsburgh didn’t want you to run through them, so it was like two rams butting heads. The games we won against Pittsburgh was when we ran the ball well. All of those AFC North – and AFC Central games too – we all realized that running the ball was the key thing then.
In Cincinnati we were up and down over those years but more bad than good. We just didn’t have the personnel, or the coaching I think until Marvin got there, that Pittsburgh did. Pittsburgh came in with the bully mentality – bruising defense, stop the run, an sack the quarterback. It took us a while to get the personnel – we got Ocho Cinco, Rudi Johnson, Henry – one we got the skill players to compete we had some success.
Who were some of the guys you remember going up against most and what made them tough?
Nolan Harrison, Jason Gildon, and of course Aaron Smith.
Smith grew up under Harrison, but he perfected the 5 and 4 technique in Pittsburgh. He didn’t get as much credit as he should have – he was one of the best defensive linemen in football during that period. We had battles but respected each other. Neither of us got the credit we thought the other deserved and would tell each other we were voting for the other for the Pro Bowl. Aaron could do anything but he was asked to do certain things to make the defense better. He sacrificed his stats to hold up two lineman so linebackers could make plays. I think he was one of the best Steelers ever.
You played some in Baltimore too. What was the difference you saw in how both teams looked at that rivalry?
Baltimore had an unadulterated hate for Pittsburgh that the Bengals didn’t have. Baltimore hated Pittsburgh – they brought that hate. Cincinnati didn’t hate Pittsburgh. The fans did, but the players didn’t speak about their hate for the Steelers like the Ravens players did. I wish they did hate them more and say it more.
Why was that?
I think Baltimore and the Steelers were the same way – each wanted to be the most physical. Both prided themselves on being the most physical so it was an ego thing too. We didn’t have that same hate. We weren’t built on being physical like Baltimore and Pittsburgh were so we didn’t develop that same hate.
Except for Levi Johnson and Joey Porter – Levi hated Joey – they hated each other. Two West Coast guys. That was after Joey was part of those five guys that jumped Levi. I think that all started when they faced each other every game and trash-talked each other every game. Then Joey saw him in the casino and they took it off the field.
Any other big in-game rivalries like that?
Rex Ryan had a guy that he had on the field there to take Hines Ward’s had off. Ward had those big bits on Ed Reed so Ryan had a guy purposefully there to watch out for Reed and keep Ward off of him. Ward caught Reed good a couple of times. I told Hines that when a short while ago after we were both retired. That Ryan had a guy there who’s job it was to take him out if he could. Hines just laughed.
After so many years with the Bengals, what made you decide to sign with the Ravens – a division rival?
It was a tough decision. I was looking at San Diego who were a very good team then, and Tampa Bay, Baltimore had just come off a losing season and had a young quarterback. Hue Jackson made it an easier decision. What put me at ease was when I visited Baltimore and walked tough the locker room and all of the guys screamed my name. “Big Willie!” To see how hey embraced me after fighting against them for 12 yeas for nice. Here I was in the Ravens lair, and they embraced me. Suggs, Pryce, Ray Lewis – it was great to see that respect. That swayed my opinion – there was no way I was going to go anywhere else after that. People asked why I didn’t go to San Diego where I could have won more there. But we ended up going to the AFC Championship game versus Pittsburgh that season anyway.
That was a tough game.
That was the most violent game I was ever a part of. I thought Willis McGahee was dead. Really. But it wasn’t just that – it was the violence in the trenches – the battles between the offensive and defensive linemen, the linebackers and running backs. It was just violent on every play.
I also remember another story later on. Rashard Mendenhall called Ray Rice before his first game as a starter – I remember the story. He told Ray he was going to give Ray Lewis the business that game. Well Ray Rice told Ray Lewis. Lewis was like, “For real?” Lewis’ whole M.O. that game was to take out Mendenhall because of that – and he did. He tore his shoulder apart that game.
Any guys you had extra hate for?
Not really. Me and Aaron – we didn’t hate each other. We’d talk a the bottom of piles. “I’m gonna block your ass next play – but you good?” We just had respect for each other. Not like Joey and Levi!
The real hate was between Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Like you said, it’s both of their M.O.’s to be more physical – that’s how those teams were built. Both were built on being physical. bullying type teams. So of course they were going to hate each other. The Bengals had a lot of talent, but they just weren’t built on bullying guys like that.
*This story includes a correction. Willie Anderson is currently based in Atlanta, not Alabama as it previously stated.*