Josh Gordon's story less about football, more about unraveling life
No matter how talented an athlete is, there can be times when it's not about sports anymore. It's about life, and trying to live it, and praying you can succeed in the face of the obstacles set forth by the world, by fate, or by one's self. Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon is one of the five most talented people in the world who does what he does, and right now, that couldn't possibly matter less.
At 23, Gordon is watching his career slip away. As so many people in so many fields have done before him, Gordon seems not only helpless to curb his own demise, he's an active participant in its acceleration. On Saturday morning, Gordon was arrested for driving while impaired in Raleigh, N.C. He was held in the Wake County Detention Center, and at this point, such a place might be the safest place for him.
Gordon was already in the process of appealing the reported one-year suspension handed down to him by the NFL in May after a drug test came back positive for marijuana. Gordon had already been suspended for the first two games of the 2013 season because of a positive test for codeine, and the most recent occurrence put him in the league's crosshairs as a Stage 3 offender of the NFL's drug policy. News of the year-long suspension came less than 24 hours after the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel in the first round. The hope was for a new aerial attack in which Manziel would be making play after play with Gordon as his primary target.
But this isn't about sports anymore. It's about Gordon's life, and what it's going to look like in a year. Two years. Five years. How long does he have? He was suspended indefinitely by the Baylor football program before the 2011 season after a marijuana arrest, transferred to Utah, and was selected by the Browns in the 2012 supplemental draft. Gordon's story whipsawed back to football when, in just 14 games and with a rotation of less than impressive quarterbacks, he caught 87 passes for a league-leading 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013. For a brief moment, Gordon seemed to be holding onto the promise he made soon after the Browns took a shot on him.
"Despite everything I've been through, despite being a kid with a spotty background, the Cleveland Browns stuck their neck out and risked taking me and put their faith and belief in me, and I won't let them down," Gordon said in his first encounter with the Cleveland media in July 2012. "I'm grateful, and I know I can't go back to being the person I used to be."
Those who had played with Gordon, like Baylor teammate Robert Griffin III, could only hope for the best.
"He's been a kid that's been in a bunch of unfortunate situations," Griffin told former SI scribe Mike Silver and myself around that same time, "and he knows that he was the reason that those [situations] happened. So I think any team that gets him, of course they're gonna feel like they're rolling the dice on the kid. I think that in the end, he'll be successful if he wants to be successful. That's all on him. And he knows that. He knows he's used up all his chances and everybody's watching him."
The watching is not working.
"I've definitely learned from this," Gordon concluded back then. "It's been a long road, but I'm seeing light at the end of the tunnel after today. Looking back, it was something that had to happen in order for this to even take place. I promise the Browns won't regret this."
We hear about these falls from reclamation all the time. We see public figures fall from grace, and get all dirty when they try to climb back up, only to fail over and over again. We feel compassion to a point, we most likely sneer a bit at the idea that a person with this much talent would choose to waste it, and we wonder in this case who Johnny Football is going to throw to when he takes the field this year.
"We have to build a football team that can win regardless of who is missing,'' Browns general manager Ray Farmer said in May. "I think that's the charge that we have. That's my job, coach [Mike] Pettine's job is to prepare this football team to win games regardless of who's missing."
None of that helps Josh Gordon, of course, because he has to want help, or that help has to be forced upon him in a way that meets a desire to get better. Most certainly, any chance at a reduction in his suspension at his July appeal is out the window if this most recent charge sticks, and there are some who wonder if Gordon will ever play football again. Some believe that if Gordon is taken away from the support system a team provides for that long, he'll drift further and further away, and that will be that, in whatever sense.
Which seems very likely, and it's not really the Browns' problem. It's Gordon's problem. Sadly, he appears to be the only one who doesn't understand that he's already missing -- and on track to find himself lost completely.
Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, who has become an advocate for athletes like himself who struggled with substance abuse issues at one time, told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the real slippery slope is that the person under that spell must want the help before it will happen.
"Some players run away from the help as opposed to running to the help. Most of these kids, they don't want to have a heart-to-heart conversation. They've got enough people lecturing them and telling them what they should be doing.
"Unless you've talked to Josh, you don't know where he is," says Carter. "Just like no one could explain my story, no one's going to be able to explain his.''
Carter didn't figure it out until he was cut by the Eagles in 1990. We don't yet know how many brick walls Gordon will have to crash into -- figuratively, at this point -- before it hurts enough to stop.
As Carter said, not everybody is in a position to be saved.