The Hall of Fame’s All-Decade team for the 1960s featured five defensive players from the Packers, and in the ’70s there were zero who took the majority of the snaps during their careers in Green Bay. In the ’80s, there was a single defender honored who played for the Packers during the decade: linebacker John Anderson.
Though not as heralded as the rest of the linebackers he joined on Canton’s all-star unit – Mike Singletary, Lawrence Taylor, Ted Hendricks, Jack Lambert, Andre Tippett and Carl Banks – Anderson is the all-time leading tackler for the Packers, tied with Ray Nitschke for the most interceptions at his position in team history with 25, and played for 12 seasons. Anderson was dependable and consistently good.
“It’s nice to be recognized, but I think it speaks more to longevity,” Anderson said in a recent conversation. “There was a guy in New York named Lawrence Taylor that I competed against for honors during my career, and I was far behind him, rightfully. He was the best I’ve ever seen. There were a number of linebackers who were perennially good players during that time, so it’s something I’m proud of.”
Anderson was drafted in the first round in 1978 out of Michigan. By the time he retired in ’89, only Bart Starr, Nitschke, Forrest Gregg, Charles Goldenburg and Dave Hanner had worn a Packers’ uniform longer. Since the Packers began compiling tackle statistics in 1975, no defender has reached Anderson's total of 1,020.
“I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Statistics weren’t played up. We got the tackle totals after the game and you looked at them to make sure you were contributing, but you didn’t put too much into them,” he said. “In retrospect, it’s fun to compare. What I’m most proud of is that I never came off the field. Nickel, goal-line, all three downs; we were specialized, but I was an every-down player.”
Anderson played in a 4-3 defensive alignment at the start of his career, but the club transitioned to the 3-4 two years later, and it better suited his talents, allowing him to cover tight ends and chase down ball-carriers. In ’81, he recovered four fumbles. Anderson led the team with three interceptions in ’82 – when the club went 5-3-1 and to the playoffs in the strike-shortened season – and he tied a career-high with five the next year. Each season Anderson was at or near the top of the club’s tackle charts.
Dependability became one of his trademarks. A broken arm 13 games into his rookie season forced him to miss the last contest, but he was named all-rookie after recording five interceptions and 102 tackles. The injury sidelined him for half of ’79. An injury also ended his ’86 season after four games, snapping a streak of 77 straight starts from ’81-’86.
Otherwise, trusty No. 59 – Anderson wore 60 as a rookie – could be counted on to buckle his chinstrap every Sunday.
“I remember as a rookie, I thought if I could just get to five years in the NFL, that would be awesome,” Anderson said. “It took me about five years to learn how to play the position so I knew exactly what everyone was going to do. At that point, there weren’t a lot of surprises, or a question of how they were going to block me. I would get beat, that’s football, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t sure what the other team was going to do. That’s when you have a lot of confidence.”
In ’89, after soldiering through 33 defeats over the previous three seasons, the Packers went 10-6. Though Green Bay failed to make the playoffs, it was the team’s best record since ’72, and the club had pulled out four victories by a single point, and it was the most wins of the 12-year veteran’s career. It also felt like a fitting end to the linebacker’s playing days after 146 games, though Anderson said it came as a surprise to head coach Lindy Infante when he stepped into his office.
“I knew my best days were in the past. I wasn’t going to get any faster. I had been battling some ankle injuries and, frankly, I felt like I wasn’t holding up to the way I had played earlier,” he said. “I wanted to be the one who would make the call on when my career ended, and I had managed to dodge the major injury bullet over all those years. I wanted to be active after my career. It sort of all came together.”
After a stint as a sportscaster in Milwaukee, Anderson has taught middle school environmental education and the classics since 1998 at Brookfield Academy, a private school about two hours southwest of Green Bay.
“I really enjoy it; there’s a great energy and you deal with something new every day,” he said. “I’m fortunate to teach middle school students, which aren’t always easy years to navigate. There’s a different level of education that is more meaningful than just learning about earthquakes and volcanoes. We’re trying to instill integrity, truth and character. So every day has its challenges, but it is rewarding.”
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