Anthony Hitchens will never forget the day he was drafted by the National Football League, but the excitement of realizing his lifelong dream would have meant very little if his adoptive parents weren’t there by his side. In fact, he said, without the love and support he received from the family who took him in, it might never have happened at all.
“I’m here because of my family, the Andersons,” said Hitchens, now a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs. “It’s kind of hard to put into words how much they mean to me. Just being able to rely on them is key.”
Hitchens grew up in Ohio, bouncing around to four different elementary schools before settling in the small town of Lorain. He was being raised by a single mom and was the second oldest of seven siblings. He helped take care of his younger brothers and sisters, but with relatives in and out of jail, he said, there wasn’t much stability at home.
At age 11, however, he formed a friendship that would change his life. He met Zach Anderson, another player on his middle school football team, who was a year older and already friendly with Anthony’s older brother, James.
“We were best friends,” said Hitchens. “He was the quarterback and I was the running back. We did everything together. We shared clothes. And then, best friends turned into brothers.”
Anthony and James, who also played football, started coming home from school with Zach, hanging out with him and his younger brother, Chad, and staying over for dinner. When James started spending the night, the Andersons asked Anthony if he’d like to stay, too.
“One night became two nights and the next thing you know I have clothes there,” said Hitchens, recalling the Anderson’s warm welcome. “It was open arms and it was nothing I’ll ever forget. Amy (Zach's mom) was just like, ‘Hey, you’re living here. You’re part of our family.' But she left it up to me. So right then and there I was just blessed to be in that situation.”
By moving in with the Andersons, who eventually obtained guardianship of Anthony and James, the Hitchens brothers were zoned for a better school district, which positioned them to achieve more academically and to get more visibility with college scouts.
“I wanted something more in my life, just seeing what I had seen [at home],” said Hitchens. “If I stayed with my biological parents, I would have had to go to one of the city schools. It was just the best situation for me, and it worked out so perfectly. That’s why I’m always thankful.”
The four boys initially shared one bedroom (bunk beds) in the Anderson’s two bedroom house, but it was clear to Amy and Brad, Amy's husband, that their growing family needed space. They set to work remodeling their kitchen, adding a laundry room, expanding their living room, and repurposing their former living room into a third bedroom.
Amid the family dinners, video games, and homework, there was football. Always football. During the school week, the boys went to classes and stayed at practice most days until 5 p.m. On Friday nights, they had games, which Amy and Brad eagerly attended. They cheered loudly and proudly, turned mistakes into learning opportunities, and pushed the boys to achieve in a pressure-free environment. On Saturdays, they went to their grandfather’s house to watch college football.
“And on Sundays we stayed home and ate Brad’s chili and watched the NFL games,” Hitchens said fondly. “Brad’s chili is really good.”
The four boys, who were dubbed the “Band of Brothers” by the local newspaper, which followed their athletic success, were rarely apart.
“We were close, and we had one another’s back at all times, even though we were in different grades,” said Hitchens. “I think we’re getting even closer with each other now that we’re all having kids. It’s been an amazing ride. This family has blessed me with so much.”
Most important, he said, the Andersons taught him “what a family looks like.”
Hitchens with his adoptive parents (Source: The Players' Tribune)
They embraced each other in good times and bad, taught the boys to respect values, and celebrated each moment with a generous heart.
“Christmas was definitely the best,” said Hitchens. “She’d [Amy] hide one of our gifts and we’d have to find it throughout the house. Just knowing that when you made a Christmas list, you’re going to get something on it. And she tried her hardest to get all of it. That was just a blessing to know how hard they worked to make sure we were good.”
Amy, who said she and Brad (and their extended family) consider Anthony to be their son, said sports has always been a huge part of their lives, but it was never the tie that binds.
“People associate sports so much with the four boys,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they’re four brothers and we’re a family. These are our four sons and football, basketball, baseball, had nothing to do with who our family is and what we’re about, and how much we love and respect each other.”
Indeed, some of Hitchens’ fondest childhood memories do not involve football at all. It was just about being together.
“We had lots of moments off the field, at family events like family reunions and all the holidays together,” he said. “School shopping. That’s when I was like, ‘Okay, they’re shopping to get me school clothes. This is my family. This is what families do.'”
According to Hitchens, he still draws strength from his adoptive parents today.
“Brad sent me a text last weekend before the game and said he’s proud of me, doesn’t matter if I play another snap in the NFL or not,” said Hitchens, noting they model the values that he hopes to emulate with his own growing family. “They’re everything you want in a parent. My wife is actually pregnant right now, and I’m going to try to follow all those footsteps that I was raised on.”
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