“I didn’t plan on living past 18,” Josh Gordon says. “Not a chance.”
It is a Tuesday in October, a few weeks before Gordon would be reinstated to the NFL following three years of exile for multiple violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. The Browns wideout—who, despite the odds he once set against himself, did make it to his 26th birthday, in April—is lounging in the Gainesville, Fla., apartment of his manager, Michael Johnson. Gordon has been hiding out here for 10 months, crashing in the guest bedroom. When I arrived that morning, Gordon was sitting shirtless and shoeless on a folding chair in the living room, playing NBA 2K18 on a big-screen TV, his physique chiseled as ever. It was here—surrounded by a cream-colored shag carpet, two golden brown couches covered in throw pillows, a decorative pumpkin inscribed with the word home and an array of framed photos of Johnson and his new wife, Taylor—that the NFL’s 2013 receiving-yards leader would walk me through his past, including how he ended up banned from the league for the better part of three seasons, and explain why this time he is clean and his comeback would be real.
Gordon, it turns out, is a willing storyteller, seemingly open and transparent, but it doesn’t take long for our conversation to mirror his career itself: a maddening series of interruptions, derailments and strange decisions that raise questions about his motives. Gordon is a few seconds into the saga of his past life when a knock comes at the door. A bespectacled man with salt-and-pepper hair and a green medical tote bag enters the apartment and follows Gordon into the bathroom, where he observes as the receiver urinates into a cup. It’s a familiar routine; Gordon has undergone drug tests roughly twice a week since he arrived in the NFL in 2012. “Outstanding,” the man says on his way out. “Have a great day, will ya? Good seeing you again, Josh.”
Gordon sits back down and resumes chronicling his childhood in Houston: the gangbanging, the drug-dealing, the carjackings and armed robberies and shootouts he says he took part in. He needs little prompting and speaks fluidly, without pause—except for the frequent interruptions from Johnson who, from his perch on the couch, constantly tries to steer the conversation toward his client’s NFL career. (It’s worth pointing out here: Johnson, a college QB at historically black North Carolina Central—and later an employee of agent Drew Rosenhaus before starting his own marketing group—was central to a 2013 recruiting scandal at the University of North Carolina, and he is serving 12 months of probation as part of a plea deal in that case.) The manager isn’t as worried about Gordon’s getting himself in trouble as he is about giving away too many details of the Josh Gordon Story. Johnson wants the full narrative parceled out for profit. “We got other projects we’re doing,” he says, a vague reference to book and movie deals he and Gordon hope to secure. “I can’t give you his whole life story when you’re not even guaranteeing me the cover [of Sports Illustrated]. Because, first off, we are not getting paid for this.”
I remind him that everything Gordon has already covered is on the record—a point that visibly upsets Johnson. “I’ll take this s---,” the manager says, signaling to my digital recorder, “and break it.”
Josh Gordon is on a quixotic journey—sometimes in public, sometimes in private—attempting to get and stay sober, to reclaim a promising future. He’s trying to be transparent enough that he can see himself for what he is, an addict who washed out of football, while also shaping his image with calculation. That journey will continue on Sunday, when the Browns visit the Chargers and Gordon suits up in a regular-season NFL game for the first time since Dec. 21, 2014. His latest suspension ended on Nov. 1, with a conditional reinstatement by commissioner Roger Goodell.
When I first reached out to Johnson, last March, I wanted to understand how his client—a man who eviscerated secondaries even with a string of pedestrian quarterbacks named Weeden and Campbell and Hoyer—came to squander opportunity after opportunity, how his career ended up teetering on the brink of obsolescence. And how he would turn that all around.
The early reviews on that turnaround have been positive. Gordon spent the summer working out with Olympic sprinter Tim Montgomery (who was suspended himself by the USADA in a doping scandal, and who was convicted in recent years of check fraud and dealing heroin), and he was reportedly clocked running a 4.35 40 in his first week back with the Browns. Coach Hue Jackson has said the receiver’s return will be “like Christmas.”
But stats will be only a partial measure of Gordon’s comeback effort. He’s asking the football world not for a second chance but a ninth or 10th. He has been suspended by the NFL or by the Browns on five separate occasions since 2013, following failed tests for marijuana, codeine and alcohol. And while Johnson repeatedly told me throughout the past year how well Gordon was progressing, the receiver was still struggling to stay sober. In Gainesville he admitted that he had relapsed as recently as July, sneaking away at night to wander the streets in search of weed.
Gordon’s life is bifurcated between that which he knows how to do and that which he doesn’t. He wants to find sobriety, something he has been unable to accomplish virtually his entire life. And he wants to play football, which has always come easy. Amidst all of this, he wants to—he needs to—sell his narrative. And that’s where it all seems to get messy.
Johnson repeatedly made clear in our early correspondences that everything his client did had to be big, impactful. “Calculated.” Gordon, who signed a four-year, $5.3 million contract when he was drafted, had lost out on years of his prime—years of salary, of marketing opportunities, of positive public sentiment. Together they hoped to recoup all of this through interviews, tell-all books, movie deals. But that requires Gordon to be honest about his childhood of systemic crime and his life of drug use while somehow painting himself as palatable to the league office and potential employers. (He’ll be a restricted free agent after next season.) In a way, he is trying to engage in both truth-telling and myth-making. He is incentivized to lie in order to convince us that he is finally telling the truth.
If I was going to be a thug or a gangster,” Gordon says flatly, “I was going to be the best gangster out there.”
Gordon grew up with two older brothers in the Fondren neighborhood of southwest Houston, his family bouncing from apartment to apartment, he says, as eviction notices piled up, rarely able to turn on the lights. He describes being thrown out of two middle schools for stealing electronics from other students. He says he began smoking marijuana in seventh grade, taking Xanax in eighth—and still he managed to land a basketball scholarship to the private Westbury Christian School. He made it to 10th grade before he was thrown out of there as well.
As a sophomore at Lamar High he found himself alone and vulnerable and, he says, joined the Six Deuce Harvard Park Brim Bloods, an offshoot of the South Central L.A. gang. “It was a mentorship,” Gordon says. He’d go every morning to a tattoo parlor and pick up a small .38 special that he put in his pocket or backpack, then he’d return it at the end of the school day.
Every weekend, he says, a fight would break out and there’d be a flurry of bullets; he caught one in the left arm during his junior year. Gordon says he never “maliciously” shot anyone, but he often had to shoot “to get out, to cause some type of hesitation—a pause so you could keep moving.” He says he sold drugs, mostly weed and mostly at school, “to feed myself.” But the majority of his income came from counterfeit money. The gang would spend $100 to get $2,000 in fake currency, Gordon says, then he would go to McDonald’s and buy five $1 cheeseburgers with a large bill in order to get the legit change.
Gordon would steal cars “almost every day,” he says, because “we just needed a ride.” He would either shatter a vehicle’s window or manipulate the locking mechanism, and his partner would do the hot-wiring. He also worked on a three-man crew that broke into homes—always empty, he says, but he was often carrying a gun—to steal electronics. “Whenever [the gang] could use you, exploit you on anything that puts you in danger of going to prison,” he says, “[I’d] be the guy.”
Gordon says he smoked marijuana every day at Lamar and drank vodka from Minute Maid bottles during class. His junior year he started drinking codeine syrup mixed with soda—or “lean”—every night. Whenever someone offered, he’d pop Xanax, hydrocodone, oxycodone. Before football games he’d chug Mad Dog 20-20 straight out of the bottle just to see if he could play drunk. He was arrested for felony credit card theft five days after his 17th birthday and, no longer a minor, spent 35 days locked up. “You get shot, you go to jail,” Gordon says. “These are progressions in this lifestyle.”
Transcendence on the football field, though, gave him a way out. Gordon received scholarship offers from several top programs but ended up going to Baylor because his supervised probation on the credit card arrest precluded him from living outside of Texas. He returned to Houston from Waco once a month for drug tests and passed, he says, because no one ever flagged his diluted samples.
Two hundred miles, though, was not enough to extricate Gordon from the streets of Fondren. As a sophomore at Baylor he says he was receiving as much as six pounds of weed—vacuum-sealed and wrapped in Mylar, sprayed with kerosene and covered in coffee beans to mask the smell, shipped through U.S. mail—every week from a dealer back home. He would drive to Dallas, Austin and San Antonio to sell it, and he estimates he was bringing in upward of $10,000 in profit every month. He was arrested for possession in fall 2010 and one year later was indefinitely suspended for failing a school drug test.
Suspension and all, Gordon says he received transfer offers from the likes of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Utah. He describes driving westward for a few visits, smoking blunts and popping Adderall the whole drive. By the time he got to Utah, he was tired. He didn’t want to continue driving. So that’s where he would play.
Gordon sat out the 2011 season as a transfer and, he says, tried cocaine for the first time. He began taking Adderall every day. He failed another drug test and headed back home, this time to help out his mother, Elaine, whose apartment he says burned down. Back in Houston, he says he began selling marijuana to support his family. He looked into his eligibility and learned he would have to sit out another season if he transferred again, so he entered the NFL’s supplemental draft. (After drafting him, Cleveland GM Tom Heckert described talking to former coaches and teammates, as well as Gordon, saying, “He told me everything I needed to hear from him.”)
“I figured, I’ll find out if I have what it takes to play in the NFL,” Gordon says. “Give that s--- a shot.”
Back in Gainesville, Johnson cuts off his client. This time I am asked to wait outside the apartment while he and Gordon huddle to strategize.
The sun is beginning to set when, after 10 minutes, Johnson lets me back inside. A pumpkin-spice candle flickers on a living room table, early-evening darkness overtaking the room as Gordon picks up our conversation. But now there is a stiffening in his demeanor; the willingness with which he answered earlier questions is gone. Gordon says at least four different times that he quit smoking marijuana entirely during his first two seasons in the NFL and that he was little more than “a social drinker,” only at parties on weekends.
But then three weeks later GQ would publish a Q&A in which Gordon said exactly the opposite: that he was smoking and drinking before every game of his NFL career. I reach out to Johnson to address this and several other smaller inconsistencies, and eventually Gordon calls me back. He sounds nervous and timid, and he admits to lying. He says he was being “directed to protect our interests as opposed to revealing certain information at that point in time. Protecting the content, protecting the narrative.”
A day later I get a call from Johnson, who works for two hours to mitigate the damage, explaining that Gordon may have been nervous—particularly on the NFL stuff, with his reinstatement still pending at that time—and perhaps misremembered certain details. (This is an understandable assertion for a drug addict being asked to detail his past, but it doesn’t square with the rationale Gordon provided.) Johnson is worried that Gordon will be portrayed as a liar, or that it might look like he had instructed his client to mislead me after I was ushered outside during our interview. I prod Johnson for additional perspective on the past year, but he balks. In the future, he says, someone will want to tell the story of the man who saved Josh Gordon’s career, and he doesn’t want to give away that content quite yet.
Maybe one day that will be true—but we’re not there yet. Gordon is not yet saved. He has been this far before. In July 2016 he was reinstated from the indefinite suspension he received 17 months earlier. He says he made it through that summer’s training camp and preseason sober, then learned there was a warrant out for his arrest in Cleveland tied to a paternity case involving his then one-year-old daughter, Emma, and he started drinking again. (In court, after a DNA test, Gordon admitted to being Emma’s father.) One week before his planned return he left the team, checked himself into rehab and saw his reinstatement rescinded. Even after that, he says, he was able to stay sober for six months. Then, this past May, the NFL rejected another reinstatement bid and he started “reaching back to [his] familiar devices. Marijuana. Alcohol.”
If you’re still willing to hear Gordon out, he’d tell you this: He had an “epiphany” this summer, on one of those nights when he was wandering the streets of Gainesville looking for drugs. “If I was willing to go to any length to [get a fix],” Gordon remembers asking himself, “then at what point am I going to go to any length to get something positive for me?” The next day, he says, he spoke with his therapist. He mentions that he was also grappling with the reality of being insolvent for years and facing the realization that he had a daughter to support. (Gordon fails to mention a second, as-of-yet-unresolved paternity case that was raised in April.) “Obviously these motherf------ are going to lock me up, if they want to,” Gordon says. “If you’re not paying child support, you’re going to jail. I’m not down for that s---, so let’s figure out how to keep myself sober.”
He checked himself into yet another rehab facility, in Gainesville. This time, he swears, it worked. He doesn’t want to talk about his treatment, or how many days he’s been clean. But he says he’s now “mentally at peace.”
“This,” he says, “is the first time ever that I can truthfully say that.”
Maybe Gordon will stay clean and prove that he’s the best receiver ever (which he believes he is) and make it to the Hall of Fame (which he believes he will). Maybe he’ll write his book; maybe his book will be made into a movie. Or maybe Gordon and his manager will sell his story well enough that the next chapter, his NFL coda, doesn’t even matter.
Both men desperately want you to believe that Gordon can stay sober, return to football transcendence and monetize his comeback story. That the reality of having to care for a now two-year-old daughter, of scraping by without an NFL salary for three years, has forced Gordon to get his life together and salvage his career. That this is the time he regains everything that he lost. They want you to believe, above all, that he has changed.