CHARLOTTE – Growing up in a troubled home but becoming a grown-up because of it, he found a safe place on the football field.
He will be forever appreciative of what the game has done for him, yet he's never felt appreciated.
In some ways, C.J. Anderson is a walking -- better yet a running -- contradiction. Maybe that's why he's so hard to bring down.
"Luckily I had the football talent to make it to the NFL, but a lot of people get credit for putting me in the position I'm in today," said Anderson, a 1,000-yard running back for the Broncos in 2017 who signed a one-year contract with the Panthers. "Football was a way out, and it became something I loved to do. I'm still having fun. It's still a kids' game.
"When I'm out there, I'm 10 years old again."
Anderson has been brought in by the Panthers to do some of the things Jonathan Stewart did the last 10 years. Carolina released its all-time leader rusher earlier this offseason, and Monday they filled his shoes with a back who's four years younger and has more pass-catching ability in addition to similar success as a power runner.
"I had a really good conversation – probably a good hour, hour-fifteen-minute conversation with Jonathan Stewart, who spoke nothing but highly of the organization," Anderson said. "After 10 years of work, the good terms he left on gave me more clarity about why this made sense. I'm excited to be here."
Looking back to his life before football, Anderson feels fortunate to be a productive adult regardless of his chosen field. Growing up in a notorious neighborhood north of Oakland, Anderson had to overcome more than long odds to make it to the NFL.
"Single-parent home with just my mom – no father ever in my life. My uncle heavily sold drugs, and I saw police and guns and violence inside my house and outside on my street," Anderson said. "My uncle has been clean for eight years now, but seeing him put my mom and grandma through certain situations, putting me and my brothers in situations where we could have potentially been put in foster care because of what he was doing in the house, that put life in perspective in a different way."
Anderson turned to football and turned into a high school star, but he had to go the junior college route ("bad grades, plain and simple," he said), where he became interested in academics thanks to some philosophy courses. He landed at Cal, where he found enough success that he expected to be drafted.
He was not.
"You go to the combine, you talk to a bunch of teams and you really think you're going to hear your name and celebrate with your family at an NFL Draft party, but that didn't happen," Anderson said. "Thirty-two teams – including the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos – 254 picks, 22 running backs drafted before me.
"Then I made the decision of going to Denver, and here we are today."
Signed by the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2013, Anderson chose jersey No. 22 to represent the running backs picked instead of him, and "32-254-22" became his mantra.
His 4.39 yards per carry since 2014 rank fourth in the NFL among running backs with at least 600 rushes, yet the Broncos made the business decision to part ways with him three weeks ago. He appreciates his time there and he gets it, but he also gets another chance to prove his worth.
Anderson showed the Panthers how valuable he can be with 100 total yards and a rushing touchdown in the Broncos' victory over Carolina in Super Bowl 50. Now he's added value for a Panthers team that's made the playoffs four of the last five years but hasn't quite made it to the top of the mountain.
"I've always been overlooked. I've always been doubted. Even still," Anderson said. "But the simple fact is that I have an opportunity to play here, an opportunity to win another championship and do something I love to do. I'm excited about that."
View photos of running back C.J. Anderson throughout his NFL career.