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HBCU support helped fuel Anthony Lanier’s rise with Redskins

Two words greeted his big plays in practice: black college. Whenever Washington Redskins undrafted rookie Anthony Lanier did anything, teammate Chris Baker would shout those words. It was a compliment. It was about pride.

Like Baker, Lanier is the product of a historically black college – Alabama A&M – creating a bond. So Baker liked reminding everyone of this whenever Lanier made a play.

“It’s a lot of pride,” Baker said. “We’re always talking about being from black colleges and people are always talking about how black college players aren’t that good, but for some reason whenever we get a chance to come into the league, we always stick out and play well.”

That’s what Lanier now hopes to do. Baker has become the Redskins’ best defensive lineman; Lanier is just a rookie the Redskins hope develops. He has length (6-foot-6) and athleticism (he played two years of basketball in college).

For Lanier, though, he realized this summer that there was more to his journey.

“I get tweets and messages all day long about how proud people are of you, especially from HBCUs,” he said. “I get people reaching out from other HBCUs saying you’re shining a light on a dark area that we are in. They feel like we can do it.”

The Redskins also have another player from an HBCU in corner Greg Toler, who attended the now-defunct Saint Paul’s College, and linebacker Lynden Trail, a practice squad linebacker who went to Norfolk State. Baker played his final year in college at Hampton. There have been numerous players from HBCUs who have achieved in the NFL, including Redskins personnel executive Doug Williams.

“You don’t have that many people to look up to, but you have some. There is some guidance,” Lanier said. “You’re making them proud and people are living vicariously through you. So you have to be on your Ps and Qs so they can enjoy the appreciation of coming from an HBCU.”

Lanier reached this point for reasons other than just raw skill; a lot of players have been cut who have the same qualities. But the coach who recruited Lanier to A&M saw something different in him – and knew that once he focused on football, his life would change. Lanier didn’t play organized football until his junior year in high school and playing basketball for two years in college limited any offseason improvement.

“His strength suffered because basketball season as at a time when we did a lot of strength work,” said Anthony Johnson, an ex-Redskins tight end who was Alabama A&M’s head coach from 2002-13. He’s still good friends with Williams. “But he always worked hard on the field. I never had to worry about him.

“He has a lot of growth potential. Because he played basketball his first couple years he has yet to scratch the surface. They’ll teach him, and he’ll continue to grow. The Redskins saw that.”

Yes, they did. That’s why they kept him and instead released fifth-round pick Matt Ioannidis, later signing him to the practice squad.

“He’s very young, very raw,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said of Lanier. “We didn’t want to risk losing a big defensive lineman that has some pass rush ability.”

Many players travel tough journeys to reach this point. Redskins corner Dashaun Phillips played at Division II Tarleton State; receiver Pierre Garcon is a product of Division III Mount Union. There are a handful of others with non-traditional NFL paths, too. Certainly, they have their share of support, too. Lanier said he was surprised at how much his success has meant.

“All this time you’re just trying to be an NFL player and now people are looking up to you,” he said. “It feels great and puts a lot of wind under your sails.”

In some cases Lanier hears from people who have helped him along the way, like Johnson. The ex-Redskins tight end – who roomed with another HBCU product, Doug Williams, the night before the Super Bowl in 1988 — remains in contact with Lanier, who is tight friends with his son.

So it’s not as if everyone is rooting for Lanier simply because he’s a product of an HBCU.

“The people that touched his life in those positive ways, they feel they had something to do with this,” said Johnson, now the offensive coordinator at Arkansas Pine-Bluff. “They made some kind of contribution towards this end if you will and they’re proud of him.”

But there’s that extra source of pride, providing energy that Lanier said might have made a difference for him this summer.

“It adds jet fuel to a regular car,” Lanier said. “It’s like you have so many people in your corner, like a boxer. People that are in your corner will make you feel better. They teach you the small stuff, the encouragement and all that and God on your side, there’s no turning back from that.”

This story is featured on ESPN.com