Former walk-on RB Josh Anderson lives Notre Dame dream

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Josh Anderson was never handed anything.

Not in youth basketball leagues, where the future Notre Dame running back struggled to find the floor.

“He sat on the bench for years,” his father, Joe Anderson, recalled. “I kept telling him, ‘Josh, you are a part of that team. You may not be one of the five that’s out there playing, but you add tremendous value to that team.’ His coaches instilled that. You’re a part of a group. It’s not you individually.”

The process repeated itself at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where Anderson flipped from basketball to football after giving up hope of a growth spurt.

“He started out on the bench,” Joe Anderson said. “The coaches kept working with him. He went from sitting on the bench to, by his senior year, he was playing offense and defense. He was a defensive end and a tight end and a running back. He played every play.”

When it came to walking on at Notre Dame, then, Anderson understood what he was signing up for.

“When he got to Notre Dame,” Joe Anderson said, “it was nothing different than what he had experienced most of his life.”

Much of that life, Josh says, had been building towards this destination. His father is a Notre Dame alum, and Joe’s Irish adoration inevitably infected his son. Josh’s first Notre Dame football game, a thrilling 20-17 victory over UCLA in 2006, was “the memorable moment of my life, you know, just standing in the stands and screaming and cheering,” Josh said. “Notre Dame was my main goal in life.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Anderson opted for the rocky road to Notre Dame over calmer waters elsewhere. Following his high school career, the 5-foot-9, 205-pound athlete could have played football on scholarship at most Division II or III universities. He garnered track and field offers as well, including the opportunity to throw shot put at the Naval Academy.

Or, he could pay his own way at Notre Dame — without any promise of playing time.

“It was the school I always strived to go to, the school I stayed up late nights for in high school and stayed in when all my friends were out,” Josh Anderson said. “That’s the school I’ve been busting my butt for my entire life.”

Anderson’s place at the university — and on the team — wasn’t official until Josh and Joe had a meeting with assistant head coach Mike Denbrock, who extended a preferred walk-on spot during one of Josh’s college visits to South Bend.

“I recall coming from that meeting, walking away from the athletic center, Josh looked at me and said, ‘You know what, this is it. This is where I’m going,’” Joe Anderson said. “So we promptly went over to the book store, bought him one of the Notre Dame hats and he said, ‘OK, this is my school.’”

Like father, like son.

“I could barely walk, you know?” Joe Anderson added. “It was just one of those moments.”

Like every athletic venture that came before it, Anderson’s Notre Dame career started at the bottom of the ladder.

Or, more accurately, the back of the room.

“When you first start at Notre Dame as a freshman walk-on, I don’t think you can get any lower,” Anderson said. “In the auditorium (during meetings), you sit at the very top. It’s the furthest away. There’s a lot of things that you need to work towards.”

But for Anderson — a kid from Notre Dame High School, the son of a Notre Dame graduate — he was grateful just to have a seat in the auditorium.

“I was looking at all these players like Manti Te’o and Tommy Rees and all these guys, and I was like, ‘Wow. I was watching these guys on TV last year. These guys are my idols, and now I’m at practice every day with them,’” Anderson said. “I’m working to make them better. I’m working to make this team better. That was everything I could ever ask for, you know? Having the opportunity to help the team you’ve always loved in your heart to get better, it’s like a dream.”

Accordingly, Anderson didn’t complain about the occasional nightmare — about early mornings, about late nights, about hours of anonymous work that were rarely rewarded on fall Saturdays. Unlike most others, he was built for that role.

“You know what, I honestly think I’m made for this,” Anderson said. “I love waking up early. I love getting intense workouts in. That’s why my other choice was the Naval Academy, because I love waking up early, studying hard, working out, staying up late. This is what I love to do.

“It’s made me who I am today. Even when I was real young, fourth and fifth grade, I’d have my workouts. I’d work out really hard. I’d run. I did the same type of stuff I do today. I was getting prepared.”

And eventually, he was rewarded. By now, most Notre Dame fans have seen the viral video, where head coach Brian Kelly surprised a bewildered Anderson with a scholarship prior to the start of the 2015 season.

Our Shamrock Series Model

The Model of our Program

Now, a scholarship student-athlete

Meet Josh

— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) August 13, 2015

But maybe, considering the circumstances, “surprise” isn’t the right word.

“He told me his freshman year that that was part of his plan,” Joe Anderson said. “He said, ‘I’m going to get a scholarship. I’m going to work my butt of and I’m going to get a scholarship, dad.’”

In Notre Dame’s season-opening 38-3 victory over Texas on Sept. 5, Josh Anderson — newly-minted scholarship running back — finally found the field. Late in the drubbing, with his parents among the more than 80,000 people packed inside a sold-out Notre Dame Stadium, the son of an Irish alum received the first (and only) two carries (totaling one yard) of his resilient collegiate career.

He was never handed anything, until he was.

“It was a surreal experience. I looked up and the lights were on and there was just so many people up there,” he said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of my teachers, coaches, people in my past didn’t think I could get to that position. But I did it.”

Added his father: “When he got in, we just went wild in the audience. It was just an experience. To be in front of 80,000 people and to see him carrying the ball, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

At least, not yet. Anderson, who plans to become a doctor, hopes to return to the football team for a fifth season in 2016 while finishing up a masters program in global health. Of course, spots on Notre Dame’s roster are hard to come by, and he won’t receive official word on whether his Irish career will be granted a fifth and final chapter until the summer.

If it’s over, so be it.

There’s plenty more challenges ahead.

“I love helping people,” Josh Anderson explained. “I feel like that’s my true calling in life, giving back and helping people. Being a physician is the ultimate way to give back. Being able to save someone’s life, being able to keep someone alive, that’s so rewarding. That’s what I was made to do. That’s my future.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Josh Anderson runs during practice at Culver Academies, Friday, August 7, 2015 in Culver. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)