When Clarence Anderson, sitting in his apartment in Warsaw, Poland, turned on ESPN and heard comedian Kevin Hart talking about him, he realized things had become decidedly surreal.
“I’m a fan (of Hart),” Anderson said. “And he’s extremely funny, so to hear him impressed with me, and doing his bit on it, that was pretty cool.”
Anderson had Hart’s attention because of a jaw-dropping, 75-yard punt return for a touchdown while playing for the Warsaw Eagles of the Polish American Football League in the beginning of June. The clip of the play went viral and kept Anderson on SportsCenter’s “Best of the Best” highlights for the better part of the month.
Anderson, a Wichita Southeast and Ottawa University product, was in Poland from February to July playing for the Eagles, who are part of a five-division, 75-team league. He was chosen the league’s return specialist of the year after returning two kickoffs and five punts for touchdowns.
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“You spend a lot of time coaching over there, because they haven’t been exposed to American football for very long,” Anderson said. “The whole society was communist up until 1989, so they had a lot of what they could like or sports they could play dictated to them by the government for so long. They’ve got a lot of physical ability, just not the same basic skills you pick up growing up in America.”
A two-time NAIA All-American and three-time All-KCAC pick, Anderson racked up 4,300 receiving yards his last three seasons at Ottawa. He capped off his career by leading the NAIA with 1,981 all-purpose yards in 2011 – 857 of which came on punt and kick returns. But the NFL never came calling, and Anderson was invited to play in a game between American college stars and European All-Stars last September in Poland.
He played cornerback in that game and finished with two interceptions and a punt return for a touchdown on his way to game MVP honors. Anderson struck up a friendship with Warsaw Eagles owner Paul Kusmierz and coach Phillip Dillon at an afterparty and stayed in contact through the fall, eventually accepting an offer to come play for the Eagles.
“I have a son, Cameron, who is 2 years old so it was going to be hard for me to leave and be away from him because it was a six-month commitment,” Anderson said. “But I also knew it was a way for me to keep playing, to get some film against a better level of competition and make a little money.”
The team put Anderson up with three other American players in Warsaw — the country’s capital and a city of 1.7 million people — including former Ottawa quarterback Shane Gimzo. The Eagles played a 10-game regular season and lost to the Wroclaw Giants in the PAFL championship game.
He even picked up some of the language — in one game, after scoring a touchdown, a player from another team began to curse at Anderson in Polish. Anderson spit out his mouthpiece and started giving it right back — in Polish.
“The guy was like, totally amazed, and after the game he said it was the craziest thing he’d ever heard,” Anderson said.
But it was the punt return against the Eagles’ rivals — the Warsaw Spartans — that made Anderson an instant star in Poland and in the U.S. The team’s fan club — the Eagles Nest — even made shirts that read “KEEP CALM AND PUNT RETURN” in honor of Anderson. In addition to ESPN, his return attracted attention on the Deadspin and Huffington Post web sites, and its also racked up almost 200,000 hits on YouTube.
“My phone over there only works when I have wifi, so when I got back to my apartment and logged onto my computer after practice I had hundreds of Facebook messages and friend requests,” Anderson said. “The coach had told me the general manager was going to try and send it to ESPN but I’d kind of forgotten about it.”
Anderson is hoping for a shot in the Canadian Football League, but is re-negotiating his contract with the Eagles in case things don’t work out with the CFL. He has until December to decide if he’s going to go back to Poland – he also has another son due any day.
Anderson’s younger brother, Donald, might join him in Warsaw. Donald, who also played for Ottawa, is a defensive back and was last season’s KCAC defensive player of the year.
“I don’t want to play arena because that’s not really my style of play, but I feel like I could be really successful in the CFL if given the opportunity,” Clarence Anerson said. “But playing in Poland was a great experience. I’m not against going back there.”