For the record, Anthony Hitchens is not a robot. That needs to be stated for clarity’s sake. Listen to enough of the praise from folks who admire the Chiefs linebacker’s play, and you’ll start to wonder if he came out of lab, a hybrid construction of flesh, nuts, bolts and the mental aptitude of a defensive coordinator designed and programmed to make tackles.
All football, all the time. Single-minded focus and intense preparation. That’s the Hitchens most have heard about. Make no mistake, he’s certainly driven and detail-oriented. That all shows up in his approach to the game — the copious note taking, constant film study and work ethic as well as a knack for raising the level of players around him.
There’s more to Hitchens than that, however, and those traits didn’t just develop when he put on pads. The game merely serves as the venue to display those elements of his personality. Football also provides the connective tissue for many of the people who helped foster and nurture him.
In particular, the game served as one of the initial bonds between Hitchens and an Ohio family that took him in when he was 12 and raised him as one of its own. Those people provided the structure Hitchens instinctively knew he coveted, but just hadn’t previously experienced. Now, the 6-foot tall, 235-pound brick of a human being and fifth-year pro leans on those lessons daily.
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“For me to get me through every day and every season and keep pushing to be a better player, it’s just the way I got here,” Hitchens said. “It was not a straight road. Obviously, it wasn’t a straight road for a lot of people in all type of businesses.
“But just moving to another situation, getting to high school and almost breaking my back my (sophomore) year, then going to Iowa and playing safety, switching to running back and then switching to linebacker — it’s just like whenever I get in hard times, I just think about everything I did to get here. I think I got that discipline installed in me growing up.”
Amy Anderson first remembers being aware of Anthony Hitchens during a visit to her son Zach’s school in Lorain, Ohio. She’d been in the sixth-grade classroom and noticed a young man practically jumping off the walls. She turned to a teacher with the question, “Who is that kid?”
Zach and Anthony became best friends. When they started playing football, they were even more of a tandem with Zach at quarterback and Anthony at running back as the Emmitt Smith to Zach’s Troy Aikman.
One Sunday, Zach invited Anthony to hang out and watch football. Anthony hopped on his bicycle and pedaled about a mile or two past the Andersons’ home. After he backtracked and found the house, he ended up spending the night for the first of many times.
Amy regularly drove some of the boys home after football practice, and she noticed from time to time that Anthony was missing from the group. When she asked why, the other boys told her Anthony didn’t show up for school that day.
Amy made it a point to invite Anthony to stay over at their house the next time she drove the boys home. Gradually, he began spending the night regularly during the school year. Anthony and Zach enjoyed hanging out together, and having Anthony in the house allowed Amy to be sure he’d get to school the following day.
“As parents, we just looked out for each other’s kids,” Amy said. “It wasn’t in particular Anthony I was looking out for. There were parents that looked out for my kids. It’s just a close-knit community. You got to know the kids your kids hung out with.”
Amy and her husband, Brad, both knew Hitchens’ mother, Norma. Brad had been a classmate and they both worked for a non-profit called the Neighborhood Alliance, which provided a childcare center, delivered hot meals to seniors, operated a shelter and senior center as well as worked to help homeless people find housing.
Without Hitchens’ father, who was in prison and never involved in Anthony’s life, Norma worked to support seven children in what Brad Anderson portrays as daunting and potentially discouraging circumstances in their small community about 30 miles outside of Cleveland.
Brad Anderson played high school football as a lineman but started working in a steel mill right after graduation. Other teammates ended up in trouble with the law.
“That’s what they’ve been raised and shown to do” he said. “Anthony knew. It’s kind of hard to believe that a kid 10 years old knew that he didn’t want that lifestyle.”
Part of the family
Brad and Amy Anderson discussed having four children when they were newlyweds. Amy said it was more Brad who insisted on that number more than she.
After Zach, they had just one more biological son, Chad, who’s three years younger. Around the time Zach was in junior high, Brad and Amy became the legal guardians of a boy a few months older than Zach and Anthony named James Washington.
The summer going into the eighth-grade year for Anthony and Zach (James was going to be a freshman in high school), the boys appeared poised to be split up because Anthony’s mom needed to move to an area where she could get subsidized housing. That meant he would go to Lorain High instead of Clearview High with his friends.
Mature beyond his years, Hitchens knew that the smaller high school, surrounded by his friends and under the supervision of the Andersons, would benefit him in the long run.
At the time, Hitchens wasn’t thinking about football. Looking back, he likely would’ve gotten more attention if he’d played at Lorain, which faced more highly regarded competition. It had more than 1,700 students enrolled while Clearview had fewer than 500.
“I wanted to go to college,” Hitchens said. “My best friend at the time was going to that school. I wanted to be close to him, and it was just living situations. My mom was on Section 8, living in a worse part of town than the other. Then she had to move even farther away because they didn’t have Section 8 in the school district. It was better for me.”
Moving in with the Andersons just made so much sense to Hitchens that he still speaks matter-of-factly as he recounts how a 12-year-old made a life-altering decision.
Amy Anderson said that had she had a daughter instead of two boys, she might have been hesitant to bring two boys into their house, but she and her husband hardly discussed Hitchens moving in permanently.
“We’d seen a young kid that was looking for a way out and just wanted to make something of himself,” Brad Anderson said. “That was the honest to God’s truth. Me and my wife, that’s what we talked about.”
Hitchens and Washington are black and the Andersons are white, but Amy insists she never heard any comments about the race of her boys. Both sides of their family treated all four the same, and the school never put up any roadblocks for her advocating for Washington or Hitchens as any parent might.
Amy Anderson recalled one year getting school clothes for all the boys and Hitchens asked why she did all the same things for him and Washington that she did for her biological children. Without a thought, Amy replied, “Because you’re our kids too.”
The Andersons never legally adopted Hitchens, and he remains close with his mother and bears her name in a tattoo on his left arm. But he also refers to Amy as his mother, Brad his father and Zach, Chad and Washington as his brothers.
At first, the four boys all slept in one room on a pair of bunk beds. Eventually, the Andersons added a living room, another bedroom, and a laundry room onto what was a modest two-bedroom home.
“A lot of people around here would say it’s amazing what you guys did for those boys and this and that,” Brad Anderson said. “... I always told (those people) they found us. This is how it was meant to be. Those boys meant as much to our family as we did to them.”
Living with the Andersons came with some marked differences for Hitchens. Where he’d been largely independent and before, the Andersons ran a tight-yet-loving ship.
Amy Anderson required all the kids to do their homework when they got home before doing anything else. She’d been an active parent in school activities, and Brad Anderson grew up with several of the football coaches. Any missteps or transgressions — talk back to a teacher or a coach, skip a class, go to a party without permission — got back to the Andersons by the time the boys got home and they could expect to be grounded, lectured, punished or all of the above.
“If we couldn’t get away with it at school, there’s no way we’re getting away with it at home,” Hitchens said. “They’re a very disciplined group. I’ve been in a household where there’s just my mom, and sometimes she don’t see everything. You can get away with some stuff. When there’s two, one or the other is going to find out.”
One early incident that let Hitchens know it was different came when he left one weekend and said he was staying with mother. The next day, Amy called Norma and realized her son didn’t sleep there. He stayed with a cousin instead.
After a tearful Amy finally tracked Hitchens down and brought him home, Brad read him the riot act and boiled the message down to this: “Listen, the lifestyle of you just going and doing as you wanted to before is over.”
From that point on, Hitchens embraced the discipline the Andersons provided. In certain regards it stoked the already extraordinary attention to detail coaches now rave about.
Even as a youth, Hitchens wanted certain things done “just so,” as Brad and Amy describe it. His and Chad’s room had to be kept a certain way, his clothes folded just right, his homework double- and triple-checked. He heeded the Andersons’ message about academics: that the letter grade he received wasn’t as important as whether he’d put in all the work possible.
“He’s always been a hard worker,” Amy Anderson said. “He doesn’t want to leave anything on the field in anything that he does.”
Excelling on the field
A varsity athlete in football, basketball and track, Anthony Hitchens left a lasting mark on Clearview football program. He’s still the only Clearview player to play in an NFL game.
He set program records for scoring and rushing yards. The play in which he became the career leading scorer was the result of a throw that made Zach Anderson the career passing leader.
“As a freshman he was quiet, yet he was one of those guys that everybody just levitated to because he got along with everyone,” Clearview’s offensive coordinator Don Collier said of Hitchens. “He made everybody feel important even as a freshman and all the way up until a senior.”
Collier ran the scout team when Anderson and Hitchens were freshmen and Washington a sophomore. Collier, who played offensive line as a teammate of Brad Anderson in high school, admits having been harder on them — with Brad’s blessing — than the other boys.
“We demanded a little bit more of them only because they expected to be great too, and they were coachable and they wanted to be coached,” Collier said. “We pushed them maybe a little bit harder.”
After giving fits to the varsity defense, Hitchens went up to varsity by midway through his freshman year. He broke a long touchdown run the second time he touched the ball, and he went on to rush for 3,864 career yards and 52 touchdowns.
Those numbers were compiled despite him spending the first five games of his sophomore season in a back brace because of a chipped vertebrae.
Initially thought to be out the entire season, Hitchens got a second opinion in order to return to the field that season. Clearview ran off five straight wins and went undefeated in conference play the following season with Hitchens at running back and linebacker.
He earned first-team all-conference, all-county and all-state honors as a junior and senior.
“He was always the hardest-working guy in the weight room, in film, on the practice field. He wouldn’t let anybody outwork him,” Collier said.
Hitchens went on to the University of Iowa, where he moved from safety to running back before ultimately putting on weight and taking over the starting weakside linebacker job as a junior. He earned All-Big Ten honors in each of his last two seasons, and he led the conference with 124 tackles in 2012.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Hitchens with the 119th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he started 48 of the 60 games he played before signing with the Chiefs this offseason as a free agent.
A leader in KC
The Chiefs raved in training camp about Hitchens’ work ethic and professionalism. General manager Brett Veach viewed Hitchens as a catalyst for their attempts to transform the defense.
So far Hitchens has made the team look prescient. Through two weeks, the Chiefs are 2-0 and Hitchens ranks second in the NFL in tackles (26) behind only Indianapolis’ Darius Leonard (28). Hitchens came up with one of the biggest tackles during the season opener against the Los Angeles Chargers when he diagnosed and snuffed out a screen pass, halting a potential rally.
“He studies football around the clock,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “He knows what we’re doing very well, and he knows a lot about the opponent. He really works at that part of the game. It carries over, and he’s a gritty competitor and I think our other players feed off him from that standpoint, the way he approaches the game.”
Hitchens and inside linebacker Reggie Ragland have taken on a leadership role in the center of the Chiefs defense. They played the role of pied pipers of the linebacker unit, getting the group to spend time together off the field and outside the meeting room for dinners and movies.
Having been a former teammate of cornerback Orlando Scandrick in Dallas, Hitchens helped recruit Scandrick when he became a free agent during training camp. Despite having still been new to the organization himself, Hitchens also helped Scandrick acclimate to the Chiefs.
Ragland said this week that Hitchens has put pressure on him to play better.
“He is really smart,” Ragland said. “He sees the game at another level. While we are out there, he’s telling everyone the play that is coming up. I like playing with him. ...
“I know the last couple of weeks I haven’t had good weeks, in my opinion. He is making me work hard and become a better player, watching film and all of that. I have to step it up and play better beside him.”
Hitchens already seems to be rubbing off on the Chiefs the way the Andersons rubbed off on him.