Sometimes, all it takes is a steady beat to take Mike Anderson back. A marching band may take the field before the game or at halftime. Music fills the air. And Anderson's belly fills with the boom-boom-boom of the drum section, and his heart with the rat-a-tat-tat.
"I'm planning on getting a drum set," Anderson, a Broncos running back, said somewhat wistfully. "It's a lot of noise, a lot of ruckus. I don't think my family will put up with that. But the place we're moving to, I'm going to have my own set and get back to playing."
There are other reminders, too, of the life he used to lead, the part without football and fame but still filled with adrenaline and satisfaction.
On the shelf of his locker is a black trucker-style cap with a mesh back and a patch on the front. A glance takes him back to boot camp, to Camp Pendleton, to nighttime patrols in Somalia. "Once a Marine, always a Marine," the patch reads.
Once a reluctant football player, now the unlikeliest of stars, Anderson has further reminders everywhere. The lockers near his once belonged to other running backs who have come and gone. He outlasted them all. Now the lockers belong to those who hoped to take his job.
Not yet. Anderson was late getting here. He is in no hurry to leave.
"I'm dreaming," Anderson said. "Don't wake me up yet."
His story is out of the ordinary in several ways, but in no way more than this: He never envisioned a football career. He never imagined a place as impossible as here.
Football dreamers do not play drums in the high school marching band. They do not join the Marines. They do not play organized football in Pop Warner, then give the game up until they are 21. They do not go from flag football on a military base to rookie of the year in the NFL. They do not gain 1,487 yards as rookie running backs, then 1,321 over the next three seasons, then sit out a year with an injury and emerge, at 32, with the expectations of carrying a team to a championship.
Anderson and his family could not afford college. So he joined the Marines, signing up for four years. At worst, he would earn money for college. At best, he would forge a military career.
He played some flag football. Friends saw the way he ran and said he should join them on one of the full-contact teams at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego.
Two years later, Anderson had a ticket to a college education. He was at Mount San Jacinto Community College in California, a junior-college powerhouse, on his way to becoming a two-time all-American. He was signed by Utah and became a two-time all-conference player.
The Broncos, in 2000, drafted him in the sixth round.