The Big Cheese: How Melvin Gordon ran toward college football history
This story appears in the Dec. 8, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
On the 26-yard dash that gave Melvin Gordon the major-college single-game rushing record -- for a week, anyway -- he did exactly what he wasn’t supposed to do. With Wisconsin dominating Nebraska up front and driving again late in the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 15, the call was a power run to the left side. The Badgers have dialed up blunt-force plays like this, say, a billion times over the last quarter century. The tailback simply hammers into the A gap, between the center and guard, or the B gap, between the guard and tackle. If those holes are plugged, the next option is to bounce outside in the direction of the call. This is how the play is designed. Gordon had designs of his own.
Before the snap he decided that he would neither hit inside nor bounce left. Gordon had already broken both the school record for rushing yards in a game (339 yards) and the Big Ten record (377), and he sensed that the linebackers would flow hard to the play side. So he took the handoff and started in the expected direction, pressing the gaps to draw the Cornhuskers’ defense, then rocketed all the way to the right. “You’re never supposed to take it backside on a power,” Gordon says, sitting on a lobby couch in the football complex a week later. “Any running back will tell you that. Nine times out of 10, that don’t work.” He had tried before and, when the linebackers didn’t overcommit, took a bracing shot. Still, he was unfazed. “I just knew, man,” he says.
At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Gordon barely flinched at a cornerback’s weak attempt at an arm tackle, then raced by a diving linebacker and used his 4.4 speed to outrun two safeties. Four seconds later he had a touchdown and a mind-bending total of 408 yards rushing on 25 carries. That surpassed TCU star LaDainian Tomlinson’s mark, set in 1999, by two yards -- in less than three quarters -- and left 80,539 fans to wonder if they were witnessing the best in Wisconsin’s celebrated lineage of running backs.
Gordon is driven by a desire to make a lasting impression, so at the end of the improbable run -- his last of the day, for his fourth touchdown -- the junior from Kenosha, Wis., turned toward the field of play and took a bow. “If you drew that play on the board, you’d say, ‘No chance,’ ” Badgers coach Gary Andersen says. “But that’s just who he is. Special athletes do special things at special moments.”
Wisconsin’s road-grading ground attack has produced a 1,000-yard rusher in 20 of the past 22 seasons, including at least one in each of the last 10. In the football offices high atop Camp Randall there is a large display highlighting the program’s two Heisman Trophy-winning backs: Alan Ameche (1954) and Ron Dayne (’99). So the expectation to carry both a ball and a legacy confronts every would-be rushing star when he arrives in Madison. “You know once you go there, a lot is on your shoulders,” says Montee Ball, who gained 5,140 yards between 2009 and ’12 and was a Heisman finalist in ’11, after piling up 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns. “You know that a lot of fans are watching to see if you’re going to keep the torch going.”
Gordon, who can squat more than 600 pounds, has the capacity to carry a burden. His single-game record lasted until Nov. 22, when Oklahoma freshman Samaje Perine trampled Kansas for 427 yards on 34 carries in a 44-7 win. But that same Saturday, Gordon was busy setting another mark in a 26-24 victory at Iowa: He ran for 200 yards to surpass 2,000 on his 241st carry of the season, making him the fastest to that total in FBS history. (Penn State’s Larry Johnson needed 251 totes in 2002.) After getting stymied for just 76 yards on 26 carries in a 59-0 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, Gordon now has 2,336 yards, fourth-best all-time. He'll need 293 yards in the Badgers' Outback Bowl contest against Auburn on Jan. 1 -- far exceeding his average of 179.7 per game -- to clip Barry Sanders' record of 2,628.
After Gordon’s 408-yard afternoon, Ball sent his former protégé text messages that began with a question -- “Are you serious?” -- and continued with a statement: “I told you if you stick to it, you’re going to be an amazing player.” Gordon didn’t need the reminder. The responsibility to be remarkable has been on his mind all along. “I’ve always talked about not dropping the ball as a running back here,” Gordon says. “It’s just a pride thing, man. Every running back who has started here had a great career and helped lead the team to great success. They took the team to greater heights. I wanted to keep the bar high. That’s just how it is.”
Growing up two hours from campus, Gordon was tuned into the tradition and eager to embrace it. As a freshman he printed out pictures of the Heisman Trophy as well as fellow Badgers running backs Ball and James White, and hung them on his wall as motivation. (When Ball had to crash at Gordon’s on move-out day, he got a glimpse of the iconography. “It was so awkward,” Gordon says, laughing.) This year the collage has grown: The Heisman is up again, along with shots of the Big Ten and College Football Playoff trophies and of two other elite running backs, Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah and Georgia’s Todd Gurley.
“When he sees other people doing well,” says sophomore tailback Dare Ogunbowale, one of Gordon’s roommates, “it pushes him to try to be better than them.”
Andersen recalls looking down from his office window during the summer and spotting Gordon catching dozens of balls spat out by the Jugs machine, working to improve as a receiver. (After catching three passes in 2012 and ’13 combined, Gordon has 17 this season.) Ogunbowale once woke around 2:30 a.m. and walked to the kitchen to get a glass of water; he saw a light from Gordon’s room, peeked through the door and saw him doing sit-ups.
|Sept. 6||Western Illinois||17||38||0|
|Sept. 20||Bowling Green||13||253||5|
|Dec. 6||Ohio State||26||76||0|
The most dog-eared tale of Gordon’s work ethic involves senior receiver Kenzel Doe and Gordon’s preferred method of communication: Snapchat, a social media service in which photos or videos pop up for 10 seconds and then disappear. Doe and Gordon are extremely close and similarly wired, always lining up next to each other for sprints, reveling in one-upmanship. After a night out in Madison over the summer, Doe awoke to a Snapchat video from his friend and foil, who had carried an agility ladder to a small swath of grass and sweated through footwork drills at 3 a.m. “He was out there saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m working,’” Doe says. “I saw it the next morning like, No, this dude didn’t.”
Gordon is still stoked by the memory of early-morning texts sent by former Badgers running backs coach Thomas Hammock (now running backs coach for the Ravens), who used to ask why he was snoozing when others were already working out. The specter of falling behind was too much. “Someone out there was up early, getting better,” Gordon says. “I’m sure of it.”
His obsessiveness about football is leavened by his daffiness on Snapchat. In one video he practiced facial expressions for magazine covers. In another he took a drink of water, contemplated the bottle or glass, then turned to stare directly at the camera. “He probably does that twice a day,” Ogunbowale says. “He used to just laugh every time he did it.” Before a recent interview at the football complex he took footage of himself walking through the lobby with a math tutor, who pleaded with Gordon to stop.
Then there is what Gordon called “meeting randoms.” In the week of the Nebraska game he had time to kill, so he stopped fellow students on the street and shot videos in which he asked their names and how they were doing. That was it. He never said who he was. “One of the guys knew me,” Gordon says. “Some people know me, some people don’t.”
Most traces of anonymity disintegrated after his 408-yard outburst. A postgame expedition to Wando’s Bar & Grill with friends and family became a photo op, with patrons approaching Gordon for pics or not-so-subtly clicking from a distance. This is the sort of commotion that Gordon can compartmentalize. When Gordon was a true freshman and Ball had a wave of Heisman hype crash upon him, the aspiring understudy sidled over to the veteran star and asked how he dealt with the pressure. Ball’s advice? Just ignore it. “It’s worked so far,” Gordon says. At their apartment on the Sunday after the Nebraska game, Gordon told Ogunbowale how excited he was to dig into Iowa film and dissect his pass protection responsibilities.
That diligence has brought out Gordon’s innate gifts and elevated him to become a Heisman finalist. As the Nebraska romp showed, he is a three-dimensional runner, with power to run over would-be tacklers; the instincts and quick feet to juke defenders in the hole; and the long strides and acceleration to speed by anyone in the open field. “He must have some type of great masseuse or some yoga instructor, because he’s got hip flexibility that it looks like [his legs] almost go sideways sometimes,” Purdue defensive coordinator Greg Hudson says of Gordon. “He makes cuts and moves, [and] the balance and the power that he maintains during those moves is different.” In a 34-16 win over the Boilermakers on Nov. 8, Gordon piled up 205 yards but landed just two haymakers, 47- and 34-yarders. Gordon basically bled Purdue to death, and that was considered something of a victory by Hudson.
“You tell the first guy, ‘Man, you can’t break down -- he’ll embarrass you,’” Hudson says. “So he has got to go like a missile and take a shot, because that might just slow [Gordon] down enough that tacklers two and three can get him down.”
Last summer a strength coach walked into Andersen’s office to tell on Melvin Gordon. Wisconsin’s feature back and his heir apparent, sophomore Corey Clement, were trying to outmax each other on squats, exceeding 600 pounds. The injury risk forced staffers to intervene, like bartenders cutting off drunks before closing time. “That is so good for a football team, and youth,” Andersen says, “to see that those guys are going to work that hard and be that competitive.”
The weight, really, is the easy part. The wait is far more oppressive for Wisconsin running backs. Gordon arrived as a four-star recruit, the nation’s 24th-best running back according to Rivals.com, after amassing 38 touchdowns and 2,009 yards as a senior at Kenosha’s Bradford High. He then mostly idled behind Ball and White for two years, even though he considered himself ready. Now Clement must bide his time behind the back who may be the best of them all. By late September the 5-11, 217-pound Clement, who has run for 830 yards and nine touchdowns on 127 carries, was fed up with the lack of opportunities, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I just hate it with a passion.”
Gordon understood, and he has tried to be there for Clement, offering encouragement on the sideline. The hope is that Clement will one day do the same for those running in place behind him. “You try to hide it so you don’t seem like a selfish player, but it’s frustrating,” Gordon says. “There were some times when I was like, Just forget it, man. I put in so much hard work, and then I’d go out there on game day and get no carries. At least Corey gets carries. It was harder for me, I felt, because I had Montee and James ahead of me. It made me a better player. If I could push through it, I feel like he can too.”
At Wisconsin the mandate to be a near legendary back produces a certain creative tension. “You couldn’t walk in here and play the offensive line or running back position and not have that go through your mind, that this is a big responsibility, and I expect to be great at what I do,” Andersen says. Gordon has felt it, but it compelled him more than it consumed him. Outsized success has eluded Wisconsin stars in the NFL: Dayne never ran for 1,000 yards in any of his seven pro seasons; Ball has 731 yards in 21 career games with the Broncos; Michael Bennett, Anthony Davis and Brian Calhoun excelled at Madison but faded at the next level. Yet none of Gordon’s predecessors had his package of size, speed and explosiveness. “He’ll be here,” Ball says of Gordon, “and he’ll be doing great things.” On the Wednesday after the record performance against Nebraska, Gordon chatted with his father, Melvin Sr., who reminded his son of a post-practice conversation three years earlier. Melvin Jr., then only a freshman, looked up at the ring of honor, which was then on the west side of Camp Randall, and eyed the names and numbers of Badgers legends on the rim of the upper deck, then pointed to Ameche and Dayne in particular. “Before I leave here,” Melvin Gordon told his parents, “my name is going to be on that wall.”
Gordon doesn’t doubt his father’s memory; during summer workouts, he’d turn to Doe or Ogunbowale and declare the same thing. “It would mean everything to me,” Gordon says. “That would mean you’d just be remembered forever here at UW. That’s been my whole goal since I got here: to be remembered forever.” He may not win the Heisman, but if his name is on that wall, the Wisconsinites who come to Camp Randall on game days will remember Melvin Gordon and the times he did things no one had seen before.