There's a difference between a hand in the dirt and a hand in the air.
Sure, there's some overlap between football and MMA on the ven diagram. Both involve strength and toughness and reaction times and so on. But it's not a solar eclipse kind of overlap, and the transition from one to the other is nowhere near as smooth as the small sample size of successful switchovers might make it seem.
So forget the freak athletes who tromp wherever they please on the sports landscape. Think instead about Eryk Anders. Anders could have stopped playing sports three years ago and still claimed a stellar career. In January 2010, Anders earned himself a nice piece of jewelry as a starting linebacker for the national champion University of Alabama football team under coach Nick Saban.
Great resume item, great pedigree, but the 6'1", 242-pound Anders wasn't what you'd call a physical prototype, and the velvet rope of professional sports—especially the data-driven NFL—doesn't peel back so readily when genetics hasn't dealt you a royal flush.
Nevertheless, Anders wanted to find a way to stay in the game. Any game, really. A heavy work ethic and a well-stoked competitive fire got him into the sports habit in the first place, and those same qualities would deliver him. After two years of serious training and an 8-3 amateur record, Anders is now looking to go pro as a mixed martial artist.
But let's back up a second, back to the football days. Anders wasn't just a carbon blob covering punts for the champs. He was a key starter from that squad, manning the “Jack” linebacker position, a hybrid spot that essentially asks one man to play two roles.
“They called me a linebacker, but I was more of a defensive end,” Anders said. “I had some [pass] coverage responsibilities, but most times I was rushing the passer or I was on the line of scrimmage. Bigger guys on the line couldn’t impede my progress to the quarterback, especially later in the game. I was quicker, I was faster and I had more endurance.”
You probably don't need to restrict your college football watching to the SEC Network to remember Anders in the championship game versus Texas. He led the defense with six solo tackles in that game, and forced a fourth-quarter fumble that helped ice Alabama's first title since 1992.
“It was crazy,” Anders said of the moment when the clock hit quadruple zeroes. “It was pure excitement.”
Purely addictive, too. Anders spent a year in arena football, drank a cup of the NFL's coffee and then heard the same call to reality that so many athletes hear when a sonic boom doesn't trail their 40-yard dash at the combine. The writing was on the wall, but going cold turkey proved too difficult.
“I went out and got a job, but I missed the competition,” Anders said. “That’s like my drug. I have to do it. Otherwise, there’s a void."
In 2011, Anders met Walt Harris, a top dog at Alabama’s Champions Freestyle MMA gym (and now a heavyweight in the UFC). Anders, a wrestler in high school, paid a visit to the gym, liked what he saw and joined up. He isn't the first person to trade in gridiron for chain link—current UFC fighters Matt Mitrione and Brendan Schaub, for example, both spent time on NFL rosters before moving to combat sports. What makes Anders unusual is his status as an achiever at the highest corner of college sports, which would have been made a satisfying final chapter for many athletes like Anders who probably always suspect a real job is inevitable (not to mention the fact that that forced fumble probably covered a lifetime's worth of dinner tabs in greater Tuscaloosa).
But his work ethic and competitive heart wouldn't let him do it. So Anders pressed those same characteristics into service to fill the athleticism gaps that the Mitriones of the world never seem to notice.
Part of that fire, Anders said, came from Saban, who tended to impart simple lessons with force substantial enough to lodge in the brain the way a bull rush movement lodges in the quadriceps.
“Focus on what you’re supposed to do,” Anders recalled as Saban's key message. “You can give up something big because you weren’t where you were supposed to be and doing what you practiced.”
Fast forward to when he started pursuing MMA. Anders wasn’t exactly starting from scratch; he had wrestled in high school. But he had a long way to go, too.
“The top guys have been doing jiu-jitsu or kickboxing for so long,” he said. “They’re so much higher up than me.”
But what does football specifically prepare a fighter to do in MMA? Some things translate to MMA from football. Some things don’t.
“Strength is the biggest asset for me this far in MMA,” Anders said. “Lifting weights all those years gives you core strength. That burst and explosion I got coming off the ball definitely served me well in MMA. I’ve never met anyone as strong as me in MMA.”
The toughest part for Anders? The stand-up game. Anders went so far as to observe that other sports besides football might serve as better primers for the MMA skill set.
“In football, you’re going forward, but in striking it’s not always forward,” he said. “The footwork in boxing is totally different. The lateral movement takes a lot to get used to. It would probably be better to come into MMA from basketball because you’re doing a lot of shuffling. That would be a better strong point that you could use.”
Now that Anders has officially announced his intention to fight professionally, what's next? He said he has heard “whispers” that two promotions deep in friendly football country—Florida’s Xtreme Fighting Championship and Texas-based Legacy Fighting Championship—are interested. Now comes the waiting game.
“I don’t need any more experience in the cage,” Anders said. “It’s come to the point where if I can do it I will. I have the skills I need.”
The Beaten Path is a series profiling the top prospects in MMA. Read the previous series interview here. Scott Harris is a writer covering MMA for Bleacher Report. For more, follow Scott on Twitter. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.