An NFL preseason locker room is crowded with unfamiliar faces and unknown stories.
The locker room was loud and reporters milled about, mostly talking to a few roster bubble guys. The veterans who didn't play were long gone. Their season begins next week, when the Green Bay Packers come to Soldier Field. No one is expecting much out of the Bears this year, so the fan excitement is muted, at best.
While those millionaire veterans carry Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, Anderson, an undrafted rookie linebacker, had a 2012 Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl backpack at the foot of his locker.
A 2014 Texas Christian University graduate, Anderson is just an anonymous preseason roster filler, listed as one of the third inside linebackers on the depth chart. He wasn't a college star, and his NFL future is uncertain, to be nice.
But on Thursday night, he put up numbers and had himself a game during a 24-0 win over the Cleveland Browns. He was credited with two sacks for 20 yards, including a forced fumble on the Browns’ last possession of the second quarter. He added another tackle for a loss, collecting five tackles in all, which was tied for the team lead.
He was on the field when the game ended, which is never a good sign when trying to make the final 53-man roster.
But for one night, he was an NFL player, getting fist pounds from teammates and at least one interview from a reporter.
He laughed when I asked if his parents had texted him yet.
“No, I haven’t even checked,” he said. “I don’t even know if they watched the game, to be honest with you.”
After the game, he was headed back to his Vernon Hills hotel -- he couldn’t remember the name of it -- with the rest of the rookies to wait to see what happens in the next stage of his life.
Anderson will likely be cut as the Bears shave their roster from 75 to 53 in the coming days. Maybe he’ll be brought back for the practice squad. Maybe he will bounce around the league, find a fit somewhere, become a special-teams bully and live a life of luxury for a few years. Maybe he just goes back to Texas with some Bears gear.
“Yeah I’m nervous,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason. I’m not going to be down. I’m just going to look at it as an opportunity to see what the future holds for me.”
The most common reaction to watching a fourth preseason game is: Who are these guys? For guys like Anderson, this game was a chance to get some tape for tryouts. For some, it's maybe their last shot to realize a childhood dream.
“It was an opportunity for me to showcase what I can do,” he said. “So the people can see who Jonathan Anderson is and what this team is."
Who is Jonathan Anderson?
Anderson is an undrafted free agent who went to TCU as the No. 6-ranked safety in the state of Texas in 2009 out of Carroll High School in Corpus Christi.
“I wouldn’t consider my school a powerhouse," he said. “We were decent, but it was really big, the ‘Friday Night Lights.’”
At TCU, he redshirted as a freshman and played safety for two years before switching to linebacker. But as a senior with NFL dreams, he started only three games in Gary Patterson’s innovative 4-2-5 defensive scheme during the Horned Frogs’ 12-1 season.
He had 30 tackles, 4.5 for a loss as a rotation player in 2014. He had three tackles in what might have been his last meaningful football game, a 42-3 Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl win over Ole Miss.
“After my senior year, I was down,” he said. “But I wouldn’t let it break me, because I love the game. There was too much I was playing for. I didn’t have the season I wanted to, but I feel like that was a blessing to me because it humbled me in a way.
“It made me open my eyes to see I’m not this big-time player. It brought me down to planet Earth, so to speak. I’ve been working hard ever since then.”
I asked why he loves the game, an unfair question for someone still so young.
“I just played it as a kid,” he said. “My dad used to play. My dad got me into it. Growing up in Texas -- that Texas football, too.”
Some guys lose their love for the game when they struggle to shine in college. But Anderson speaks glowingly of his experience at TCU. Playing for Patterson, he learned coverage skills as a safety and how to play sideline to sideline and shed blocks as a linebacker.
“It was amazing,” he said. “We had a great coaching staff. They made us become a student of the game. They made us not just play physically but mentally. That’s what football is, mostly mental.”
“This team really suits me, because the scheme for linebackers is a lot similar to what I was doing at TCU,” he said. “It’s just different terminology.”
Anderson got his degree in criminal justice in December. He has ideas about life after football.
“Well, what I always wanted to do was be a firefighter, and that’s actually still what I want to do,” he said. “When I took business classes, I actually considered going to law school, too. It’s still in my mind. Right now, I put being a firefighter over it. I want to help people.”
When I mentioned his two sacks, he corrected me that one was really only “half a sack.” For the purpose of this column, with everything that’s on the line for him, I told him we’d round up.
As for the forced fumble when he sacked Browns quarterback Thad Lewis with a minute left in the first half, he said, “I just saw the ball and wanted to make a play on it.” The Bears got the ball back on the Browns' 49-yard line, but Robbie Gould missed a 43-yard field goal to end the half.
If this is it for Anderson and he goes back to Corpus Christi to become a firefighter, he can always look back on a humid night in Chicago and say he played linebacker in the house of Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher. He saw the ball and made a play on it. Sometimes it's just that simple.