Joe Anderson’s alarm buzzes daily at 4 a.m., long before most of us hit the snooze button for the third time. He’s in the gym a half-hour later, working with his personal trainer and going through footwork drills.
By 7:30 a.m. he’s back home, ready for fatherly duties while watching over two kids (a two-month-old and three-year-old) as his wife heads off to work. When she returns at 6 p.m. he heads back to the gym and/or football field, where the dream chasing resumes.
That’s a typical day for the 26-year-old, whose name may have already started to fade through no fault of his own. The Internet is a wild click jungle that can create a flavor of the day. Anderson recently catapulted atop a viral mountain by doing something either innovative or strange (both?).
For three days, the wide receiver who went undrafted out of Texas Southern in 2012 went through his normal daily routine of rising and grinding, and then grinding again in the evening. But in between sweat sessions, his hunger for another NFL shot led him to the Houston Texans’ front door.
He stood there with a sign and his giant bottle of water to stay hydrated. He’s not homeless, as the sign informs you. Instead, he’s hungry for success and will eagerly run routes for food.
Anderson posted that image to Instagram. Then as the viral wave started to build with SB Nation, Sporting News and Vice Sports posting items on this man who has set up camp outside of NRG Stadium, the questions piled up too.
Chief among them was this: Who is Joe Anderson?
The standard Wikipedia-level bio describes a familiar NFL journey with more valleys than peaks. Anderson was signed by the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and bounced between the practice squad and active roster for two seasons while playing sparingly. He appeared in nine regular-season games and recorded four special teams tackles.
In 2013, he suffered a groin injury and was placed on injured reserve in November. He was then on the Philadelphia Eagles’ offseason roster for a few weeks in 2014 and spent time briefly in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Which is where the story ends for many NFL roster hopefuls. But instead, Anderson found himself scribbling on cardboard and holding up that sign.
It was a very 2015 approach. In a world where every person is a brand and grabbing the Internet’s attention for an hour represents a major victory, Anderson’s concept was simple. He’s hungry for one more opportunity. And if getting it means standing curbside, so be it.
The goal of getting recognized was certainly accomplished. Jarryd Hayne noticed, and as a former Rugby League megastar who now finds himself on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad, he can identify with Anderson’s hunger.
It would be easy to cast aside Anderson’s hours standing with that sign as little more than a social media stunt. He was, after all, a boom box and Peter Gabriel song short of being the NFL’s Lloyd Dobler.
But when you speak to Anderson, it becomes clear that although football is his primary motivation, there’s a higher purpose for his time spent with a piece of cardboard in his hand.
“It’s not just about football,” Anderson told Bleacher Report during a recent phone conversation. “I love football, and I want to play and get back out there. And when I do, I want to be great. But in this life, if what you’re doing doesn’t have an impact on someone’s life, then why are you doing it?”
Calling Anderson passionate is like saying roses have a pleasant smell or observing that pizza and beer go together nicely. It's immediately obvious, with his voice rising as we discussed football and his faith. The two are intertwined, because Anderson believes that by pursuing his burning itch to play in the NFL again by any means necessary, he can set an example.
He’s more than a guy with a sign. He’s a guy who will do absolutely anything.
“You’ve got a guy here who can possibly be one of the reasons a lot of things in this world change, all because he put his pride aside, and he humbled himself to the lowest point,” Anderson said. “That moves on so many hearts around the world.”
A few teams have called Anderson's agent since his Instagram post went up. Like any free agent starving for another chance, he’s now waiting and working.
In the offseason, he trains with Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. His footwork drills include navigating both pylons and the always treacherous kid’s pool filled with sand.
Anderson logs that intense training time, starting in the dark morning hours. Then he looks around the league at others holding the roster spots he craves so badly and sees a flaw in how the NFL hands out its opportunities.
“I’m not in this to get approval from somebody or win stripes,” he said. “I want to do what’s right, and I want kids to be able to follow somebody who’s going to do what’s right.
“A lot of these players are in positions to change lives, and they’re given these opportunities, and then they’re in and out of jail. They’re in and out of jail, and they’re getting second and third chances. And then there’s a guy who just wants to do things right and be an inspiration to somebody, and you can’t even give him a shot?”
That’s the root of Anderson’s frustration. He wants to be more than an NFL wide receiver, as his goals are grand and noble.
He wants to be an inspiration and plans to do that by never letting his dream die.
“Before you got into the position you’re in now, you had a dream, and nobody was going to be able to fulfill that dream but you,” Anderson said as he spoke about not only what drives him, but what should drive all of us. “You had a mindset of ‘this is what I want, and I’m not going to stop until I get it.'
“If you haven’t been through a struggle yet, it’s coming. And if it’s not on the way, maybe you’re going through something right now. How you answer to adversity says a lot.
“A lot of people throw in the towel. I could do that just by letting teams tell me I can’t do this.”
Anderson’s faith won’t let him do that, either. He’s deeply religious and cited quarterback Tim Tebow’s numerous NFL chances as a reason why his hope hasn’t wavered.
“He didn’t play in two years, and he didn’t have to go to the CFL. Teams are always talking about what have you done for me lately and saying I didn’t have any film. Well, Tebow didn’t have any either. But God had favor over that man’s life, all because he believed. He didn’t worry about what anyone thought of him. He just continued to do what’s right.
"People can talk about it all they want. The Lord opened doors for that man.”
His faith is a constant guiding influence, to the point that Anderson said God led him to stand in front of NRG Stadium. He also took his cleats to the front of a recent service.
Clawing for NFL employment can be a cold, cruel existence. As a fringe player, it takes only one hamstring tweak—or in Anderson’s case, a groin injury—to find yourself removed from that valuable piece of roster real estate. But his faith powers him.
“I’ve been doing this for the past year and a half since I’ve been out,” he said. “Not one day went by without training, and I thank God for giving me the hunger and peace to continue to do that, because not everyone can. Especially when they have doors slamming in their face left and right. But I’m going to stand up for that kid who had that door slammed. That’s who I’m in the corner for. This isn’t just for me.”
So he stood there, just steps away from another door. He stood there for several hours with a sign communicating his dedication through hashtags, a form of social media currency that can grow with more exposure.
Then he left, driving back home and later to the gym again, with the closed door fading for now.
Dream chasing can be a lonely existence, especially around the NFL perimeter, with careers ending so early and the window of opportunity so short. Getting one shot is hard enough, and earning a second requires even more passion, patience and a firm belief in yourself.
Anderson has plenty of all three, and he’ll keep waking up at 4 a.m. until he gets an NFL home.