Life has not been the same for Blake Anderson the past few months.
The Arkansas State University head football coach made his sixth appearance in front of the Little Rock Touchdown Club on Monday afternoon, but it was the first since his wife, Wendy, died on Aug. 19 after a long battle with breast cancer.
"As you know, it's been a lot going on over the last year, so I'm doing my best to share with you guys my heart," Anderson said in front of a packed ballroom inside the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Little Rock. "Truthfully, the people in this room stepped up in a really big way for me and my family in the toughest time."
Anderson continued: "When I stood before you a year ago, I had no idea what we were in for. We thought we had beat cancer. There's people in this room that are dealing with it, have dealt with it, have lost loved ones. Some of you are gonna be affected by it some time in your future.
"Let me just say clearly -- cancer sucks."
Anderson said he received 92 letters from those inside the room on Monday following Wendy's death and that he read every one of them. Those letters now sit on a shelf behind the desk in his office, a reminder of the outpouring of support Anderson and his family have received across the state of Arkansas and the country.
"It came at a very unexpected, very much-needed time, and I just want to say thank you personally for those letters," Anderson said, his voice choking up.
But Anderson, known for his sense of humor and wit, then quickly shifted his tone and took a playful jab at the many Arkansas Razorback fans in the room, much like he famously did in the same setting two years ago.
He asked those who went to the University of Arkansas to raise their hands, to which dozens followed suit.
"Just to clarify something," Anderson said. "As much as the information in those cards was uplifting, the spelling and punctuation is awful."
The crowd burst into laughter, then Anderson kept it going.
"I don't know what they're teaching up in Fayetteville, but it was obvious they did not graduate from Arkansas State," Anderson said. "Hey, if you're not gonna play us, we're gonna have a little fun at your expense."
As he did in that moment on Monday, Anderson has had to do the same during this season -- overcome the emotions and pain from losing his spouse of 27 years and find a way to move forward.
Following back-to-back victories over Texas State and Louisiana-Monroe, Anderson's Red Wolves are one win away from bowl eligibility and 0.5 games back in the Sun Belt West division, sitting at 5-4 overall and 3-2 in conference play.
In what's easily been the most difficult season of his coaching life, Anderson and ASU's staff have also been heavily challenged on the field.
Anderson noted that 24 of the 75 players on ASU's roster, including 14 starters, have been hurt this season. The Red Wolves lost another player Monday, when Anderson announced in the morning on the Sun Belt teleconference that sophomore defensive tackle Thomas Toki tore his ACL during Saturday's win over Louisiana-Monroe.
Anderson admitted he once thought this ASU team was capable of winning 11 games this year. But the numerous injuries, including to junior starting quarterback Logan Bonner earlier this season, have derailed those hopes.
"I looked up the other day, we had seven true freshmen covering the [opening] kick," Anderson said. "I was holding my breath worrying -- I mean like who's gonna mess up next?"
Even in a trying season of unimaginable personal loss and limitations on the field, Anderson has still had plenty to feel good about.
He said his roster next year is setting up to be the deepest it's ever been in his ASU tenure, so long as that roster can stay healthier than it has this season.
He expressed excitement over ASU's new state-of-the-art north end zone facility that opened in August, and he urged those in attendance to make the trip to Centennial Bank Stadium in Jonesboro to catch one of the Red Wolves' last two home games this year, stating "there's not a better place to watch a college football game."
He highlighted the productivity of redshirt freshman quarterback and former Pulaski Academy star Layne Hatcher, who's started in relief of Bonner. Hatcher's parents, Greg and Lee, sat toward the front of the room.
He called senior wide receiver Omar Bayless "the biggest story for our team." Bayless, who's experienced plenty of his own personal tragedy over the last year and a half, leads the nation in receiving yards (1,168) and receiving touchdowns (13).
And he reflected on what's been the most difficult period of his life, but also his appreciation for how so many people have been able to hear about Wendy's story and their shared faith in God.
When asked by a member of the audience about Wendy's impact, Anderson said, "She changed who I was."
"I'm standing before you because of her," he added. "She was always the strongest one in our family."
Sports on 11/05/2019
Print Headline: WATCH: ASU's Blake Anderson thankful in Little Rock Touchdown Club return